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Excerpt: 'The Life of the Skies'

The Life of the Skies


Everyone is a birdwatcher, but there are two kinds of birdwatchers: those who know what they are and those who haven't yet realized it. In the United States, a lot of people have realized it — 47.8 million Americans, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service — and yet my passion is constantly greeted with surprise. You? Perhaps it is because I live in a city and lead an urban life. But why should people wonder that I watch birds? It's like being surprised that someone has sex or goes to the bathroom. The surprise reveals ignorance not so much about birds — their beauty, their abundance, their wild allure — as about human nature. We need, as the great biologist Edward O. Wilson has argued, to affiliate with nature in order to be happy. He calls this phenomenon "biophilia."

The urge to watch birds is all but instinctive, dating, no doubt, from a time when knowing the natural world — what could be eaten and what could eat us, what would heal us and what would bring death — was essential. It is fed by our urge to know, as strong as our urge to eat. Could you imagine a lion stalking prey not out of hunger but out of curiosity? We name things, we classify them. In the Bible Adam gives names to the natural world, imposing a human order on a chaos of life, a kind of second creation.

Birdwatching is as human an activity as there can be. We have one foot in the animal kingdom — where, biologically, we belong — but one foot in a kingdom of our own devising. As Walt Whitman said of himself, we are "both in and out of the game / and watching and wondering at it."

As it turns out, living in a city and watching birds is hardly a contradiction. Modern birdwatching is virtually an urban invention. Institutions of higher learning where bird skins were available, not to mention collection curators who brought their indoor learning outdoors, were virtual prerequisites as birdwatching came of age.

To be bored with London is to be bored with life, said Dr. Johnson. I live in New York City, a metropolis greater than Johnson's London, and I feel the same way about my city — but I feel this way partly because it was in New York City that I discovered birds. More and more I realize that to be bored with birds is to be bored with life. I say birds rather than some generic "nature," because birds are what remain to us. Yes, deer and coyotes show up in the suburbs, you can see grizzlies in Yellowstone Park, and certainly there are bugs galore. But in Central Park, two blocks from my apartment, hundreds of species of birds pass through by the thousands every spring and fall, following ancient migratory routes as old as the Ice Age.

If herds of buffalo or caribou moved seasonally through the park, I'd no doubt go out to see them. But the only remaining wild animals in abundance that carry on in spite of human development are birds. The rain forest is far away, but these birds, who often winter there, bring it with them. Here is the nature my biophiliac soul needs to affiliate with. In our mother's womb we float in water, a remnant of our aquatic origins that we somehow took with us when we left the oceans that spawned us eons ago. But where are the woods, the fertile forests that also constituted the womb of our species? Birds bring us fragments, not in their beaks, but on their backs. Tiny fragments, to be sure, and not enough to reconstitute a world — but something.

Emerson said that if the stars appeared in the night sky only once every thousand years, we would "preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God." But the stars come out every night, and as it is, many of us scarcely look up; if we do, we find a sky so crowded with artificial light that we hardly notice what else is up there.

The stars suddenly came out for me twelve years ago. I was at lunch in Manhattan in late March when I overheard a man say, with great excitement, "The warblers will be coming through Central Park soon." Somehow, for reasons I still can't explain, I knew right then and there that even though I wasn't sure what warblers were, I was going to go and find them.

With uncharacteristic follow-through I signed up for an introduction to birdwatching at the local branch of the Audubon Society in the West Twenties in Manhattan (who even knew such a place existed in New York City?). There were two classes and two field trips. In the classes we were shown slides of birds and then asked, after the image vanished, to draw what we had been shown. I was appalled to discover how bad I was at remembering — that a wood duck has a helmet of feathers almost like a Greek warrior; that a cedar waxwing has a band of yellow at the base of its tail, and a tiny splotch of red on its wing, like sealing wax, from which it gets its name. Even the obvious cardinal — a bird I'd seen my whole life — surprised me; I had never noticed it has not merely a red body but a red bill, and that its face is masked in black.

"Try to be one of the people," said Henry James, "on whom nothing is lost." As a writer I considered myself observant, but how much was lost on me! Birds may be everywhere, but they also — lucky for them — inhabit an alternate universe, invisible to most of us until we learn to look in a new way. And even after I had been shown them, aspects kept eluding me.

It wasn't my eyes, of course, but some larger quality of vision, a capacity for noticing that was like an unused muscle. As a boy I'd loved Sherlock Holmes stories, and my favorite moment was always when Holmes dazzles Watson by telling him that the murderer must have been a tall man with a limp and unclipped fingernails who smoked a cigar (brand always specified). Of course, Sherlock Holmes also explains to his disbelieving friend that he makes a point of not knowing many things — for example, that the earth revolves around the sun. According to Holmes, the attic of the mind can't be too cluttered with extraneous information and ideas if you are going to fill it with important things like details.

Sitting in the classroom I already felt the furniture in my head getting rearranged, a great emptying out and a great filling up — of names and pictures. Is there anything more pleasant than looking? Birdwatching is sanctioned voyeurism. Heading for the subway afterward, I wasn't entirely surprised to see one of the men in the class dart into a topless bar across the street.

Knowledge itself, like looking, has an erotic component. Freud claimed that all curiosity is at root sexual, since the ultimate answer to the ultimate question — where do we come from? — leads us back to our mother's genitals, the sex act that produced us and the womb that harbored us before birth. Birding is bound up with the question of origins, leading us back not between our mother's legs but to equally awkward places of beginning, bound up as they are with primordial anxieties about creation and evolution, divinity and mere materialist accident.

Birds are the closest living relatives of the dinosaurs — a shocking fact. Who would have believed that those little feathered beauties have so much in common with the hulking skeletons in the American Museum of Natural History that so enthralled me when I was a child? Perhaps birding is the adult fulfillment of a childhood fascination. Except that birds aren't extinct (though many species teeter on the brink). They're as close to a velociraptor as I'll come. The more you look at birds, the more you feel remnants of their cold-blooded reptile past; the pitiless round eye and mechanical beak somehow tell you that if you were the size of an ant they'd peck you up in a second. And who are our nearest relatives? Chimpanzees, with whom we share more than 95 percent of our genetic material. Why else do we feel so drawn to the woods?

None of these thoughts was in my head as I began birding. On the two birding field trips that came with my introduction to birding class — one to Central Park, the other to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens — it was simply the pleasure of looking that hooked me, even as I discovered that the birds that had seemed so exotic in class were frequently referred to in the guidebook as "common."

At Jamaica Bay — accessible from my apartment by subway — I saw ibises and egrets and snow geese flying against the Manhattan skyline as airplanes from nearby John F. Kennedy Airport took off and landed. I loved that I could see birds against the silhouette of the World Trade Center, incorrectly perceiving this as a poetic juxtaposition of the permanent towers and the evanescent birds. Discovering that you yourself, and the civilization from which you peer out, are as fragile as the birds you are watching is also part of the story — though this was something else I did not realize at the time.

Gradually the strange contradictory elements of birding seeped into me and deepened its rich appeal. Birdwatching, like all great human activities, is full of paradox. You need to be out in nature to do it, but you are dependent on technology — binoculars — and also on the guidebook in your back pocket, which tells you what you're seeing. The challenge of birding has to do with keeping the bird and the book in balance. The book you bring with you draws the birds you see into the library world — a system of names dating from the eighteenth century, when scientists ordered the plant and animal world and labeled them so that anyone in any country would know he was referring to the same bird. But at the same time that you are casting your scientific net over the wild world, the birds are luring you deeper into the woods or the meadow or the swamp. The library world and the wild, nonverbal world meet in the middle when you are birdwatching. We need both sides of this experience to feel whole, being half wild ourselves. Birdwatching is all about the balance.

I should be outside right now. It's a crisp, brilliant day in mid-September and fall migration is in full swing. Central Park, one of the great places in North America to watch birds, is two blocks from my house. Yet here I am, hunched over my computer.

My father, who was a professor of German literature, was very fond of Kafka's parable about Poseidon, the king of the sea, who has never actually seen the ocean because he is so busy with the paperwork required for administering it. He eagerly awaits the end of the world so he can go out and have a look. What was true for Poseidon and the sea is true for us and the air, or the earth. In his own life, Kafka — whose name, he was amused to note, was the Czech word for "jackdaw," a crowlike bird of ill omen — dreamed of being a "red Indian" galloping across the American plain. Instead, he spent his brief tubercular life working in an insurance office in Prague or chained to his writing desk. This is a writer's dilemma — you're drawn to experience but need to be stationary to make sense of it. But writing, like birdwatching, has universal human application. Most people live in cities or suburbs but pine, at some deep level, for the wild world that produced us long ago and that our ancestors, with animal fury, worked so hard to subdue. This is why birding, though it can seem like a token activity, an eccentric pastime, is so central to modern life.

There's a phrase I learned from birding — "binocular vision" — that sounds like it should describe the act of birdwatching itself, but that actually means the ability to see the same thing through both eyes at the same time. Because each image will be slightly different, it gives the looker the capacity for depth perception. If you don't have binocular vision, things need to be in motion for you to notice them, and catch them. The Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park (though not necessarily in life) lacked binocular vision, and so if you stayed very still — like the children in Jurassic Park — you could avoid detection. The velociraptors had binocular vision, so if you didn't hide, you'd get eaten.

Most birds have some binocular vision — we may have evolved ours leaping from tree to tree and catching food up in the branches, and birds needed their eyes even more — but birds, especially vulnerable ones, have other needs, like seeing what's swooping down or sneaking up on them, and so they sacrifice a large area of overlapping vision for astonishing peripheral vision. The eyes of woodcocks are spaced so far apart, they see behind them better than in front and can look up with their bills stuck in the mud. A pigeon can see 300 degrees, but needs to bob its head to get a sense of depth. Predators tend to have better binocular vision than prey; owls have eyes on the same plane, like us, which makes them master hunters.

We, needless to say, have binocular vision even without binoculars, but I often think of the phrase in a metaphorical way, to mean the sort of double vision that birding requires. One of the best descriptions of this double vision was provided by the writer Harold Brodkey in his memoir about dying of AIDS:

At one time I was interested in bird-watching, and I noticed that when I saw a bird for the first time I couldn't really see it, because I had no formal arrangement, no sense of pattern, for it. I couldn't remember it clearly, either. But once I identified the bird, the drawings in bird books and my own sense of order arranged the image and made it clearer to me, and I never forgot it. From then on I could see the bird in two ways — as the fresh, unpatterned vision and the patterned one. Well, seeing death nearby is very like the first way of seeing.

I love this passage because it captures the weird conundrum of birding — that until we know what a bird is, it's hard to recognize it properly when we see it for the first time, but until we've seen it for the first time, it's hard to know what it is. For Brodkey, death, that ultimate undiscovered country, could never be seen properly because he'd never been there before. And yet, in his book, he does see it, and lets us see it, too. We are looking for life when we bird, but that very formulation implies the presence of death.

Excerpted from Life of the Skies by Jonathan Rosen. Copyright © 2008 by Johnathan Rosen. Published in February 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Jonathan Rosen