The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature

Jonathan Rosen has written a book that claims to be about birdwatching, but it is much more than that. It is a plea for conservation, a prayer, an expiration sticker slapped on the earth (“Best When Used By?”). It also happens to be a very fine chronicle about how one man found his way back to Mother Earth through communion with the beings that, in D. H. Lawrence’s phrase “reveal the thoughts of the skies.”

In The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature, Rosen — a journalist living in New York City — describes how he once overheard a man say, “The warblers will be coming through Central Park soon.” Rosen didn’t know what warblers were, exactly, but he knew he needed to go find them. With “uncharacteristic follow-through,” he signed up for classes and field trips at his local Audubon Society. In the 12 years since, he has been alert to the presence of birds wherever he goes.

The Life of the Skies reminds us that, like the white noise of interstate traffic, most of us have tuned out the everyday birds in our lives. All of us are bird seers (the sparrows hopping after crumbs, the turkey vultures spiraling overhead, the robins stabbing our backyards for worms), but relatively few of us are bird watchers. Birds have become background scenery and we overlook the commonplace wing-flutter and cocked eye of the finch.

Rosen begins his book with this paragraph:

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.

Lately, birdwatching — or, “birding” to its practitioners — has been enjoying a small resurgence of popularity. Books about the hobby, science, and list keeping of birds have been making regular appearances in our bookstores: titles like The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik; To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession by Dan Koeppel; and Peter Cashwell’s The Verb “To Bird” (which, refreshingly, feels no need for a colon and a subtitle).

Rosen’s book is a cogent blend of memoir, history, literary criticism, science, and theology. It moves like a pinball between all those subjects, skillfully making connections and never straining under the weight of heavy ideas (he performed a similar literary cat’s-cradle with his previous book, The Talmud and the Internet). The book takes its title from a poem by D. H. Lawrence: “Birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly, they reveal the thoughts of the skies.”

No other wild animal is as seamlessly integrated into our lives as the bird, the creature that stitches us back to nature on a daily basis — or, as Rosen puts it, “Birds shuttle between what is urban in us and what is wild. They knit these things together in our soul.” It’s easy to forgive Rosen’s occasional lapse into heady philosophy, because he presents his arguments as logically as he does passionately. If you scoff at the idea that a grackle can lead us back to Eden, then you need to immediately turn to the chapters recounting Rosen’s trips to Palestine, where twice each year half a billion birds migrate overhead, riding thermal currents from Kenya to Turkey. The trip serves a dual purpose: a migration back to Rosen’s Jewish roots and a quest to catch a glimpse of the hoopoe, an odd bird with “a punky crest tipped in black, a pinkish-cinnamon face and shoulders, long decurved bill blackened as if it had been dipped in ink.” This leads him to think about a 12th-century Persian poem, “The Conference of Birds,” which then leads to a rumination on Emerson, then circles back to King Solomon and a magic ring that allowed him to talk to the animals, and so on, as the author zigzags across time and continents.

In these pages, we’re taken on a field trip through ornithological history, along the way meeting up with famous triple-name birders like Roger Tory Peterson, Alfred Russell Wallace, Henry Baker Tristram, and, of course, John James Audubon (“the father of birdwatching”). We also spend time with Theodore Roosevelt, E. O. Wilson, Walt Whitman, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and Robert Frost, whose poem “The Ovenbird” Rosen calls “the birdwatcher’s anthem, a poem steeped in diminished expectations and defiant hopes.” That poem’s closing lines prove to be the touchstone for The Life of the Skies:

The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

What are we to make of our diminishing world (shrinking exponentially in the 100 years since Frost wrote the poem)? As the subtitle indicates — “Birding at the End of Nature” — there’s a sticky black aura of finality hanging over the book. Glaciers are in retreat, forests are being felled by the minute, the clock is steadily ticking toward this world’s death knell. Or, at least, the world as we’ve fashioned it in our own image. Hope is a thing with wings, however, and bird watching is one small way we can push back the tide. Through the lenses of our binoculars, by the very act of looking for birds, we are validating the vanishing scraps of our natural world.

In one beautifully depressing passage, Rosen writes:

Birds say life life life, but something right alongside them is always whispering death death death. More than the blue sky, death is the backdrop against which the birdwatcher sees the bird. We go to look at them while they are still here to be seen and while we ourselves are still here to see them.

I haven’t yet mentioned the ivory-billed woodpecker, but the bird plays a central role in The Life of the Skies and comes to symbolize the “diminished thing” we’ve made of this world. Listed by some field guides as “extinct” since the last confirmed sighting in 1944, the ivory-bill is — or was — the largest of North America’s woodpeckers, at 20 inches. Males sported a “brilliant, blood-red crest” and a three-inch ivory-white beak. The bird’s habitat, old-growth forest, was “diminished” by logging, and the woodpecker started to disappear when we weren’t looking. To lose the ivory-bill is to lose not only a thing of beauty but one more sinewy thread binding us to the past.

Theodore Roosevelt claims to have been the last person to see passenger pigeons in the wild. That was 100 years ago. While we know the last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, we are not so sure of the ivory-bill’s fate. Recent reports of sightings have raised hopes and quickened ornithological pulses?but no positive evidence exists. Rosen goes in search of this “ghost bird,” and his treks through the Louisiana swamps take on symbolic significance in the book. “The ivory-bill is, like birding itself, a perfect emblem of our own paradoxical relationship to the American wilderness, of what is lost and what can be recovered, and of our own divided impulses,” he writes.

When viewed from a distance, the sight of grown men spending hours standing in swamps and staring at trees might strike some as odd and perhaps pitiful, but Rosen’s book makes it clear that the same impulse is inside each of us. We all want to hold on to our inner Eden as long as we can; traipsing around with binoculars and checklists is just one expression of that desire.

Right down to its final sentences (“This is the magic hour. There is still time, before the light fades and there is no longer anything left to see”), The Life of the Skies is a passionate appeal, a voice literally crying in the wilderness. Birds, Rosen suggests, might just be our salvation?if only we’d stop and look up every now and then.