The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes

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A leading naturalist and writer travels the globe in search of a prized-and vanishing-bird

Cranes are ubiquitous in the earliest legends of the world's peoples, where they often figure as harbingers of heaven and omens of longevity and good fortune. They are still held sacred in many places, and for good reason. Their large size and need for wilderness habitat makes them an "umbrella species" whose wellbeing assures that of other creatures and of the ecosystem at large. ...

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A leading naturalist and writer travels the globe in search of a prized-and vanishing-bird

Cranes are ubiquitous in the earliest legends of the world's peoples, where they often figure as harbingers of heaven and omens of longevity and good fortune. They are still held sacred in many places, and for good reason. Their large size and need for wilderness habitat makes them an "umbrella species" whose wellbeing assures that of other creatures and of the ecosystem at large. Moreover, the enormous spans of their migrations are a symbol of, and stimulus to, international efforts at conservation.

In The Birds of Heaven, Peter Matthiessen has woven together journeys in search of the fifteen species of cranes in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and Australia. As he tracks them (and their declining numbers) in the company of scientists, conservationists, and regional people encountered along the way, he captures the dilemmas of a planet in ecological crisis, and the deeper loss to humankind if these beautiful and imposing creatures are allowed to disappear. The book includes color plates by renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman.

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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
Peter Matthiessen has journeyed from Japan to Rajasthan, from South Africa to the Australian outback, to answer a question posed by one of his neighbors back on Long Island: "Who cares about cranes?" In fact, although the future of these magnificent birds is severely threatened by the impact of Homo sapiens, they have a considerable fan base: conservationists and scientists, but also ordinary people. There is hope for the crane -- glimmers of light in the otherwise dark litany of environmental devastation recounted by Matthiessen in this wise and wide-ranging book.

A well-known naturalist, novelist, and travel writer, Matthiessen has joined crane research expeditions around the world during the past decade. In retracing the birds' long migratory routes from breeding to feeding grounds, he clambers over the Siberian tundra, rides across Mongolia, and scales the heights of Bhutan. Alongside detailed observations of the cranes and their habits, Matthiessen paints the alarming portrait of a world slowly squeezing away the last of its wild spaces. Wildlife is under siege as wetlands are reclaimed, rivers dammed, and forests cleared for the expanding populations of countries like China and India.

Particularly chilling is his visit to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, which has become an unlikely refuge for cranes. "To see such creatures in these sullen borderlands, skirting barbed-wire fences and embankments, highway construction and utility poles, in a ruptured landscape torn by loud and unnatural noises, is deeply saddening." It is emblematic of our own failings as a species that we have brought so many others to the brink of extinction.

Still, if humans are the major reason for the decline of the world's cranes, we may also represent their potential salvation. Conservationists are lobbying to create nature reserves for the birds and are trying to build on traditional reverence for the crane in societies like Japan and Russia. In the United States, sandhill and whooping crane populations have begun to rebound from perilously low levels, thanks to intensive conservation and education work. Such painstaking efforts at captive breeding and reintroduction lead Matthiessen to consider "the lengths to which man is driven to salvage the last wild survivors of his own heedless course on earth." Can the rest of the world's cranes be saved? That question is inextricably linked with a larger one: whether we can save the planet from ourselves. (Jonathan Cook)

Craig Nova
Peter Matthiessen's novels are often a combination of keen action and a more subdued yet long-lingering concern with spiritual awakening. While The Birds of Heaven is nonfiction, these two qualities make it a compelling book.
Washington Post Book World
New York Times Book Review
The Birds of Heaven a collector's volume . . . is a gorgeous, plangent work: a cri de coeur for the cranes' protection and a testament to Matthiessen's enduring high caliber as writer and world traveler. After 28 books and 74 peripatetic years, Matthiessen projects an undiminished passion for the specific creature, the distinctive landscape, the cultural oddity, the startling word. In The Birds of Heaven, he conveys that feeling through a serendipitous prose as elegant as the stately birds that inspire him.
Robert Finch
In The Birds of Heaven, writing polemic and poetry at once is not an easy task, and Matthiessen is at his best when writing about the cranes themselves. His treatment of Japan's famous red-crowned cranes, for instance, contains superb, luminous description that both demonstrates his considerable literary powers and helps us understand why indigenous cultures worldwide have made cranes symbols and heralds of the more transcendent aspects of the human spirit.
Los Angeles Times
Publishers Weekly
Prolific and gifted novelist and naturalist, National Book Award-winner Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard) provides literally a worldwide tableau in his quest for various subspecies of cranes. These large flying birds celebrated in myth and folklore are found everywhere from Siberia to Australia, sub-Saharan Africa to North America. The author moves through each of these diverse climes as he not only reminds readers of the awesome beauty of the natural world but also introduces them to fascinating bits of local history and legend. The title of the book derives from the lore of taiga-dwelling shamans, who believe these great birds possess the ability to traverse the three realms of heaven, earth and the underworld. In practical terms, that's not so far off: some species of cranes can fly as high as 20,000 feet, others migrate as far as 3,100 miles. In his wanderings, Matthiessen meets fellow travelers and "craniacs." Ornithologists, guides and hunters offer intriguing anecdotes about cranes and other creatures encountered during their adventures and misadventures in various wildernesses. Additionally, Matthiessen reaches into his store of historical and political knowledge about these remote places. He good-humoredly details, for example, the reluctant cooperation between Russian and Chinese environmental authorities as they try to study and ensure the survival of the various threatened crane subspecies that dwell along their faraway, beautiful, but politically tense borderlands. Eloquent and graceful, this lovely, moving narrative will inspire and delight readers with or without ornithological background or interests. Copyright 2001 CahnersBusiness Information.
Library Journal
Celebrated naturalist-explorer-novelist Matthiessen was thrice nominated for the National Book Award, which he won for The Snow Leopard in 1980. Here, he takes a world view of cranes grand, stately birds of great dignity and grace documenting his adventures with fellow naturalists in China, Siberia, Mongolia, India, Japan, Africa, North America, Tibet, and Australia as they track the great birds. In a text accompanied by color reproductions of paintings by nature artist Robert Bateman, Matthiessen describes the venerable tradition of cranes in folklore and legend. He amply details the lives and futures of each of the 15 crane species while also investigating the history, peoples, lands, and cultures where they live. Well referenced and engagingly told, this rich book succeeds on several levels. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/01.] Henry T. Armistead, Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Cranes from all over the world are declining in numbers and are endangered species. America has only two varieties: the whooping and sandhill crane. Matthiessen makes a persuasive case for helping the birds survive human encroachment into their territories. His journalistic style is equally effective in portraying the mystical and mystifying qualities of these amazing creatures. Bateman's paintings and drawings emphasize the beauty and regal nature of cranes. The painting of the red-crowned cranes standing in the mist is a visual "call of the wild" and worth the price of the book.-Irene F. Moose, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist and naturalist Matthiessen turns from the history and decline of the Siberian Tiger (Tigers in the Snow, 1999) to the magnificent crane, beloved but threatened throughout the world. Matthiessen, an avid crane-watcher for over 40 years, here joins other passionate, sometimes eccentric conservationists in their quest to find crane habitats and tag birds so they can be studied. It's no easy task. The birds themselves, naturally reticent and dwindling in number, are difficult to locate. And even as countless poems and fables testify to the beauty and power of the 15 extant species of cranes, humans' need to grow food has drained many of the large, musical birds' wetland mating grounds. Their peril is acute: In 1992, there were only six Indian Siberian cranes left in the wild, putting migratory patterns handed down from crane to crane for 15 million years at serious risk. The American whooping crane is now being bred in captivity in an effort to regenerate its once-strong population. The international conservation movement, only a few decades old, may have come too late to save these magnificent creatures. Matthiessen gracefully interweaves his own awestruck journey with the migration of the cranes. The chapters set in Mongolia and Bhutan are the most evocative and exciting, perhaps because the people Matthiessen meets there respect the cranes as much as he does. He is sympathetic in describing local attitudes toward cranes-by turns reverential and hostile-and chronicling the pressures people are under to sustain their own lives. His deepest sympathy, however, is with the birds, though his recommendations about their future conservation are tentative. While amateurornithologists will share Matthiessen's excitement at seeing some of these species for the first time, even crane novices will be fascinated by his elegant depictions of these wondrous birds.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374199449
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 12/20/2001
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.18 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 1.34 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Matthiessen is a naturalist and explorer whose many works of nonfiction include The Tree Where Man Was Born, which was nominated for a National Book Award and The Snow Leopard, which won it. He is also the author of nine works of fiction, including Far Tortuga, and, most recently, the Everglades trilogy that culminates in Bone by Bone.

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Read an Excerpt


Black Dragon River

The immortal cranes call, their cries sound from afar, their thoughts circle upward into distant skies. Below, on the autumn rivers, stands a man, above him the bright moon. The man wanders aimless, trailing after the endless Milky Way. The wind blows past him. I, too, thinks the man, would like to be utterly free.

—Jiang Yi Ning

On a rare clear morning — the first day of summer 1992 — flying across the Bering Strait from the Yukon delta toward the Diomede Islands and the Chukotskiy Peninsula of Siberia, I imagine the gray sun-silvered strait as seen from on high by a migrating crane, more particularly, by the golden eye of the Crane from the East, as the lesser sandhill crane of North America is known to traditional peoples on its westernmost breeding territory in Siberia. The sandhill commonly travels a mile above the earth and can soar higher, to at least twenty thousand feet — not astonishing when one considers that the Eurasian and demoiselle cranes ascend to three miles above sea level traversing the Himalaya in their north and south migrations between Siberia and the Indian subcontinent.'

That cranes may journey at such altitudes, disappearing from the sight of earthbound mortals, may account for their near-sacred place in the earliest legends of the world as messengers and harbingers of highest heaven. In Cree Indian legend, Crane carries Rabbit to the moon. Aesop extols the crane's singular ability "to rise above the clouds into endless space, and survey the wonders of the heavens, as well as of the earth beneath, with its seas, lakes, and rivers, as far as the eye can reach," and Homer and Aristotle comment on great crane migrations. Every land where they appear has tales and myths about the cranes, which since ancient times have represented longevity and good fortune, harmony and fidelity. Heaven-bound ancients are commonly depicted riding on a crane, or assuming the crane's majestic form for their arrival in the clouds of immortality.

The larger cranes, over five feet tall, with broad strong wings eight feet in span, appear well capable of bearing aloft a wispy old-time sage. The cranes are the greatest of the flying birds and, to my mind, the most stirring, not less so because the horn notes of their voices, like clarion calls out of the farthest skies, summon our attention to our own swift passage on this precious earth. Perhaps more than any other living creatures, they evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth, and air upon which their species — and ours, too, though we learn it very late — must ultimately depend for survival.

In the large taxonomic order known as Gruiformes, the odd and elastic suborder Grues includes cranes and their closest relatives, the New World limpkins and trumpeters, and also the cosmopolitan jacanas, rails, gallinules, and coots; it does not include the smaller storks and herons with which they were traditionally grouped on the basis of common wading habits and similarities of rostra, bills, and feet. In 1735 Carl von Linné, or Linnaeus, in his Systema Naturae named the Eurasian or common crane Ardea grus or "crane heron," and in the nineteenth century Audubon would portray a heron as the "little blue crane." Herons were commonly called cranes in Ireland, Scotland, and South America, where no cranes occur, and also in Australia (where the true crane was known, oddly, as "the native companion" because of its close association with the Aborigines). Even in flight and at a distance, cranes look nothing like herons, since cranes fly with neck outstretched rather than curved back onto the shoulders, while storks in flight display broad tails, which all cranes lack. (Crane tails are small and very short, a deficiency obscured by long loose feathers of the inner wing — the tertials, highly modified to form erect, handsome "bustles" or long trailing plumes when the bird folds its wings upon alighting. Otherwise this bird's extremities — bill, neck, legs, and toes — are unusually long.) Furthermore, crane voices with their wild, rolling r are far more musical than the strangled squawks of storks and herons.

Cranes stand straight and erect with bodies parallel to the ground in the manner of ostriches. The hind toe or hallux, elevated like a cockspur, is vestigial in all but the two crowned cranes of the genus Balearica, whose longer hind toe may serve for balance in the perching habit, one of several that distinguish the "primitive" Balearica from modern or "typical" cranes of the genus Grus — primitive in the sense that in its anatomy and behavior, Balearica is closer to the ancestral form. Another is the fully feathered head, which crowned cranes share with the demoiselle and blue cranes of the genus Anthropoides. In all other cranes, the head is ornamented with a bare area of rough red comb or skin — bright crimson when the blood is up during the breeding season — located somewhere on the crown in most of the migratory northern cranes and in varying areas of the face and upper neck in the mostly nonmigratory southern species. (Among the latter, the sarus, brolga, and wattled cranes are additionally adorned with bald greenish brows.) Though the female tends to be smaller, the sexes of all cranes are otherwise indistinguishable when not interacting in pair bonding, courtship, and mating.

The brown coast of Alaska, falling away in the bright mists, gives way to rotted pack ice and the rough gray shallow seas of the vanished land bridge between continents, fifty miles across. Cold sea air over the North Pacific numbs the bright red skin on the sandhill's crown; the long stiff wings creak on the wind. "The flight of cranes, the way they form letters" was noted by the Roman poet Hyginus, among other early observers. Like wild geese, cranes often travel in V formation, presumably having learned — after millions of miles and long millenniums of buffeting by the great winds — the aerodynamic limits of formations in the shape of B or H.'

The Arctic distances flown at high altitudes by these dauntless creatures humble the seat-bound traveler on Air Alaska. Peering outward from my plastic aerie over the firmament of wind and light, mightily stirred by the unmarred emptiness of land and sea beneath, I could know with Goethe's Faust how "it is inborn in every man that his feeling should press upward and forward" when "over precipitous fir-clad heights the eagle floats with wings outspread, or over flatlands, over seas, the crane sweeps onward toward its home" — in German, Heimgang or "home going," the return to the lost paradise at the source of all man's yearnings.

Off the aircraft wing rises Nunivak Island, where thirty years ago I was a member of an expedition that captured ten burly musk-ox calves, the nucleus of a domestic hero to be raised in Fairbanks and turned over to the Inupiaq people in an effort to stabilize their economy. On Nunivak, according to my notes from that expedition, "cranes on long black-fingered wings bugled sadly across the wind" — among the many far-flung sandhills which have brightened fine days in the field across all of North America, from Alaska to the northern Everglades.

Soon the islands known as the Diomedes — one in the New World, one in the Old — loom in northern mists, then Cape Dezhnev and the barrens of Chukotskly, home of the Chukot or Chukchi aborigines, kinsmen of the Inupiaq and the Aleuts. Even in late June, the mountain tundra far below looks wintry, with hard, wind-worn snow in the ravines. Following old migration instincts, the Crane from the East will descend each spring to the great eastern peninsulas of Siberia, and some will wander west along the Arctic coast approximately fifteen hundred miles to the Yana River, where their breeding range meets that of the Siberian crane.

Off Asia's north Pacific coast, the airplane turns southward. In this clear weather, one can see most of Kamchatka, that vast and all but uninhabited land of volcanoes and great bears, blue lakes, mountain meadows, swift cold streams, and hard bright coast. Extending a thousand miles north and south, with scarcely a scar or a raw scrape or glint of man, it fairly resounds with emptiness and silence, like the pristine New World continent of great mountains and rivers that astounded the early voyagers along its north Pacific coast.

Off Kamchatka's tip, the Kurile Islands march south through the Pacific haze toward the Japanese archipelago, which continues in a southwest arc approximately as long as the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida. Eventually the plane descends to refuel at Magadan, on the Siberian mainland, where even in late June, the barren Dzhugdzhur Mountains to the west are patched with snow. Beyond, the spruce tundra and boreal taiga, immense beyond reckoning, extend three thou- sand miles to the Ural Mountains and European Russia, in an all but unbroken forest composed of half the conifers and one third of the hardwoods left on earth.

From Magadan the plane heads out across the Sea of Okhotsk. The Siberian coastline reappears in the sprawling delta of the Amur River, shining in braids and floodplains that stretch away under the western sun to far smudges of upland and small mountains. The Amur drainage is the great river system of eastern Siberia and northern China, draining a watershed Of 716,200 square miles on its 2,700-mile journey from eastern Mongolia to the sea. With the Ussuri (in Chinese, Wusuli), which joins it from the south, the Amur serves as the north-eastern frontier between Russia and China, all the way from Inner Mongolia to great Lake Khanka — or Xingkai Hu — on China's border with Primorski Krai, Russia's maritime province on the Sea of Japan.

Copyright © 2001 Peter Matthiessen

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Table of Contents

1 Black Dragon River 3
2 On the Daurian Steppe 39
3 Gujarat Rajasthan 93
4 At the End of Tibet 127
5 In the Nine Rivers 143
6 Hokkaido 164
7 The Accidental Paradise 187
8 Outback 211
9 Equatoria, Ngorongoro, Okavango, and Transvaal 231
10 Down the Edges of the Distant Sky 251
11 The Sadness of Marshes 260
12 Grus americana 274
The Evolution and Radiation of the Cranes 301
Notes 303
Acknowledgments 333
Index 335
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  • Posted April 16, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Highly recommended for all nature and bird lovers.

    Peter Matthiessen has long been one of my favorite authors, both for his brilliant fiction works as well as for his non-fiction. I was so saddened to read of his passing last week. His writing contains a quality that is intangible, something hard to put on a finger on but moving and spiritual in his description of natural landscape and the creatures that inhabit it. In this book Matthiessen travels the world in search of very special birds, cranes. He writes of the absolute beauty of the species in stark contrast to the environmental degradation which threatens the various species habitat and very existence. Certain passages in the book lift you to another place and you feel like you are alongside Peter as he is observing these birds in their "dance" and daily struggles for continued existence. The reader also meets a wide variety of humankind in Peter's travels, from biologists and conservationists to indigenous peoples who view the crane as a sacred bird and worthy of admiration and protection. Overall a wonderfully written book by an amazing author.

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