Archive for Houghton Mifflin

Dec
28

Pyle: Mariposa Road

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It wasn’t long before we moved to southeast Arizona for good—at last. Alison and I were coming down Miller Canyon after a quick pre-breakfast walk, and we ran into a group of binocular-wearing colleagues headed up. The usual greeting: “Seen anything?” The group’s apparent leader responded with the disyllabic question: “Sulfurs?”

Alison hesitated, puzzled, then pointed to the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher squeaking its loud matins from the tree right above our heads. “Sulfurs?” was the bemused response.

They weren’t talking about birds.

Birders and lepers have a lot in common. Indeed, most of the latter started out as the former before discovering the pleasures of late rising and warm climates; as a result, the culture of butterflying, in North America at least, has closely mimicked the development of birding, with the signal exception of the big year: though well established in birding circles, the attempt to record as many species in a single annual cycle had never been attempted by a lepidopterist.

Until, that is, Robert Michael Pyle’s scaly-winged run in 2008.

Pyle—not to be confused with Hawaii’s ornithologist—is a highly respected butterflyer, an eloquent and influential conservationist, and a fine writer, and I was prepared to love Mariposa Highway, the account of his 2008 North American butterfly big year. Unexpectedly, however, the book (all 400+ pages of it!) never really catches fire, its gentle prose and unhurried rhythm descending—I hate to say it—into the monotonous after the first 100 pages or so.

Why?

Like most critics, I usually find it easier to identify the causes of failure than

the sources of success; that’s what reviewers are for, right? It was harder this time, though, given Pyle’s long record of wonderful publications. Soon enough I found myself concentrating more on the book’s failure to excite than on the events it recounts. What happened?

It wasn’t just the occasional editorial lapse, as when the well-known state park in southeast Arizona is called “Pacheco” rather than “Picacho Peak” or when Tom Beatty of hummingbird fame is called “Bentley.” Instead, I think Mariposa’s failure to excite lies in its single-mindedness, in the static nature of its subject, and in a certain narrative solipsism. Let me explain:

Peterson and Fisher’s Wild America, which Pyle takes as his express model here, was the account of a birders’ big year—and much, much more. There was little the two friends did not stop to think about, feathered or not, natural or cultural: they spent April 19 in Concord and Lexington, they made a pilgrimage to the abandoned cabin of a Sonora Desert hermit, they ended the book with an appendix on the history of the fur seal trade. Mariposa, in contrast, gives the impression of being about butterfly twitching and very little else. I haven’t counted, but my sense is that far more words and far more pages are filled with the lister’s veni, vidi, vici in Pyle’s work than in its great predecessor; this means that a reader who is not quite as enthusiastic a lepidopterist as the author may succumb before finishing the book.

There’s something about butterflies themselves, too, that makes it much harder to keep the non-specialist reader’s attention. Put simply, they don’t really give a listing writer much to say: they may be beautiful, they may be rare, but beyond hilltopping, sucking manure, and copulating, they just don’t do much. This challenge is visible in its extreme in Pyle’s accounts of finding (and listing) butterfly eggs for his big year; I admire the author’s observational skills, but it would take a finer writer even than Pyle to generate much narrative tension out of such a find.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Pyle’s big year was conducted largely on his own. Not even when he is butterflying with others does the hopeful reader find much in the way of interpersonal interest. Pyle is as dutiful as he is obviously sincere in thanking those who helped him, but I can’t say that at the end I had any sense at all of having got to know the secondary “characters” in his story. Not even Pyle’s wife, whose illness is a moving theme running through the book, ever really takes narrative shape here. Contrast this with the complicated relationship so charmingly drawn by the authors of Wild America, or with the priceless character sketches that punctuate the account of another solo big year, Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway. In Mariposa, we learn nearly as little about the author as we do about his friends; Pyle resembles Kenny Rogers, he went to Yale, that seems to be enough.

Butterfly devotees will read this book differently and probably with greater pleasure. The rest of us may come away disappointed that Mariposa doesn’t do a better job of spinning a more interesting story around the author’s year on the road.

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Jul
09

The New “Little Petersons”

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“Veteran birders will know how to use this book.”

True now, true when a variation on the sentence first introduced the standard-setting second edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s Eastern field guide. But unlike the situation in 1947, the new 2010 editions of the Eastern and the Western guides won’t be judged by the standards of “veterans who have watched birds for years.” That segment of the market–a market and a segment both virtually invented by the Peterson enterprise more than three quarters of a century ago–will stick to Sibley, Nat Geo, and above all Pyle; but the new “little Petersons,” along with the single-volume North American guide published two summers ago, could play an important role in the formation of new birders and casual birders.

What that means for the reviewer is that these books are to be judged not by their exhaustive completeness and unfailing accuracy but rather by their clarity and appeal. In important ways, that is a more demanding standard; and the stakes are certainly higher, since these editions are likely to be the point of entry for many of those who take them to hand.

As is no less than expected of a Peterson guide, these books pass the appeal test with flying colors (the pun unintended but greatly appreciated). Slightly larger than a “normal” Peterson or the little Sibleys, the books will fit handily into a big pocket or a small pack for those inclined to carry them afield (and many of those who use these guides will carry them afield). Range maps, detailed and up-to-the-minute accurate, thanks largely to Paul Lehman, face the plates and then are reproduced in even greater detail in an appendix.

The images on the plates are very large and bright, most–but puzzlingly not all–of the colors more or less true. It must be repeated that many of Peterson’s birds just don’t look like birds, somehow, but as matrices for the famous field-mark arrows they’re just fine. I do wish that the Aubudon’s Warbler female in the Eastern guide looked less like a yellow-throated Myrtle, and that the parulids and emberizids had always been granted their tails. All of the plates should have white backgrounds, too, instead of the occasional sickly green.

Where these books disappoint is in their clarity. It is absolutely essential that books for beginners, or books likely to wind up in the hands of beginners, be comprehensible and informative; the early Peterson guides remain almost unexcelled in this, with barely a misplaced word to confuse even the neoest of birding phytes. Peterson at his estimable best as a writer was capable of a linear single-mindedness that leads the reader effortlessly, successfully to wherever he wanted her to go: the 1947 guide remains one of the brightest teaching texts around, even as its sophistication–considerable in its day–has inevitably faded.

Some of that Petersonian clarity still shines through the text in these new editions, but just as in the single-volume guide published in 2008, it is not consistently a character of the new books’ design and content. Both the Eastern and the Western volumes adopt the latest taxonomic innovations; but where Roger Tory Peterson would certainly have had something to say about the re-assignment of Piranga, and would certainly have moved the plate of those “tanagers” to a position closer to their rather similar cardinalid cousins, the new books, both of them, leave the red tanagers separated by many pages from the cardinals, the only indication that something has changed a useless reference to the plate where, after long interruption, the family picks up again.

Taxonomy and classification, important in helping beginners (and more advanced birders, too) organize their thoughts, are in general a weak point in these volumes. The discussion of geographic variation in the books’ front matter, taken from the one-volume guide, remains confusing and confused; surely those responsible for the updated text understand the relationship between a species and its subspecies, between subspecies and subspecies groups, but it’s really an inexcusable mess as presented here. Subspecies and morphs are also confused in the accounts for Krider’s Hawk: while the new Western guide (following what appears to be current thought) identifies that pale Plains beauty as a white morph of borealis Red-tailed Hawk, the eastern guide identifies it as  b o t h a morph and a separate subspecies.

English names are treated just as cavalierly: the captions to the plates for the scolopacids vary from “wader” to “sandpiper” to “snipe-like shorebird,” just as they did–misleadingly, confusingly, pointlessly–in the single-volume edition of 2008. Again, the new redactors had to know how to do this right; is doing it consistently wrong a mark of heedlessness or simply a lack of respect for the needs of thoughtful new birders, who are going to be left shaking their heads–perhaps even shelving their binoculars? These problems were pointed out in the reviews of the larger book, and to see them taken over into the smaller, regional volumes is a grave disappointment.

Just as serious, if perhaps less immediately noticeable, is an annoying tic in the texts. Again and again, the books inform the new birder of the existence of a problem–without offering any advice on how to solve it. Greater White-fronted Goose, we learn, might be confused with a domestic Graylag; but under neither species is there the least hint how to avoid that confusion. Snow and Ross’s Geese hybridize, but under neither species is there any indication how to recognize a possible hybrid. Female goldeneye are said to be identifiable by their wing pattern; but under neither species is there a clue about what precisely to look for. Empidonax differ, according to the introduction to the genus, in bill shape, tail length, and wing formula; but (especially in the Eastern guide) we are given virtually no guidance when trying to analyze a given bird on those criteria. Better to have kept silent than to promise, then to deny, a tidbit of knowledge.

A particularly egregious example is the Eastern guide’s treatment of the black corvids. At the bottom of the plate, drawings of the spread wings of Fish and American Crows are outfitted with arrows pointing to the slotted primaries of each. And the facing text? It tells us nothing to help the beginner understand what the differences are supposed to be. And worst of all, that facing page is half blank–space that could profitably and pleasingly have been used for a brief, simple discussion of the usefulness of wing formula, molt timing, and flight style in identifying the crows of the eastern US. Instead, we’re left with white paper and inscrutable images.

The latest incarnations of the Peterson guides are intended to be “not simply a commemoration but a useful, up-to-date resource.” They should be, and they could have been. But for all their attractiveness and convenience, these books are not the best choice for new or casual birders. Maybe the next editions will be.

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