"The Life of the Skies"

(Originally posted here.)

Sometime last year, a fellow birder and blogger recommend The Life of the Skies by Jonathan Rosen as a book worth reading. I subsequently bought the book and put it on my "to be read" shelf where it languished for many months. I finally picked it up to read, and then found I could hardly put it down. It is a fascinating book.

Birds and birding are the central theme of the book, of course, but then Rosen wanders far afield, touching on many issues, from politics to literature to religion, that you might not normally associate with birds or birding. For him, it is all connected, and he is able to bring his reader along with him as he looks at the interconnectedness between birds and all the human activities he chooses to explore.

Much of his book is taken up with a history of the American conservation movement and how it was engendered by a concern for birds. He tells again the familiar story of John James Audubon but he relates it to the social and political history of the times in which he lived.

He talks also about the great American poets and essayists of Nature - from Walt Whitman to Robert Frost to Wendell Berry and beyond. These writers have helped us to see and value Nature and they have been instrumental, even when that was not necessarily their intention, in the founding and popularizing of the conservation movement in this country.

For Rosen, as indeed for me, birdwatching is a meditative act. It puts us in touch with Nature and with ourselves and with our place in Nature. It reminds us that we are part of a greater whole. That chickadee that we see in our binoculars lens is connected to us by more than just our line of vision.

One of my favorite parts of the book was Rosen's description of his trips in search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He didn't find one, of course. But in the end it almost didn't matter. He found the possibility of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker - a place where such a bird could potentially exist and possibly still does.

In discussing the bird in literature, one of the works that Rosen quotes is Robert Frost's well-known poem, The Ovenbird. The last two lines of that poem state:

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

It is a changed and diminished world that we live in. Much of Nature has been lost and will not be returning to us. Still it is a wondrous place and when we look at birds, we understand, even though we may not acknowledge, the wondrousness of it. A diminished thing it may be, but a thing worth saving still.


  1. A more recent, somewhat similar book is "A Year On the Wing" by Brit Tim Dee -- a fantastic read!

  2. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, cyberthrush. I'll definitely look it up.


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