Pyle: Mariposa Road

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.


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.


Not That Thayer: Crossley and an American Artist

There’s definite movement among the gulls of Vancouver this week. A California Gull was at Kitsilano Pool early this morning, and another adult was on the sewage ponds at Iona with three score Mew Gulls and 19 Thayer’s Gulls as the tide rose mid-day.

That taxon is named for John Eliot Thayer, who bankrolled the 1913 Alaska expedition that collected the first specimens. Maybe we’ll hear a little more more about him next year, the 150th anniversary of his birth–but I’ve been thinking about a different Thayer these past days.

You will have noticed all the attention being devoted to Richard Crossley’s impressive new ID Guide: for a month now, not a day has gone by without a glowing notice at one blog or another, and my own review seemed almost tardy when I “finally”–two days after receiving the book–posted it at the ABA blog.

Birders’ reactions so far (those reactions, that is to say, that have done more than just repeat the breathless jacket text) have concentrated on the guide’s plates, an entirely appropriate focus given the innovative nature of the illustrations in this book that so proudly “doesn’t like text.” And there have been some perceptive characterizations. Spencer, one of the most critically alert birders I know, has pointed out how the vitiation of perspective in the plates highlights the “constructedness” of identification texts, while several ‘bloggers’ have noticed that viewing these plates recalls the contemplation of Victorian dioramas. And not a few reviewers have — rather absurdly — compared Crossley’s photo montages to the work of Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

If all you know of Fuertes are the paintings in Pearson’s venerable Birds of America, then I suppose I can squint just hard enough to see it: there is a certain bustle to those images, particularly among the birds of prey, that anticipates in a very distant way the cheek-to-jowl figures in Crossley’s plates. There is a faint stylistic echo, too, in the prominence with which the larger figures seize the foreground. But the source of each work’s pictorial density is very different: economic in the case of Birds of America, pedagogic in Crossley’s.

What many of the photographs in Crossley’s ID Guide do remind me of, and sometimes forcefully, is the work and the ideas of Abbott Thayer (no close relation, so far as I know, to John Eliot).

Look at Crossley’s owls, his grouse, his nightjars, his thrushes, and on and on, and you’ll find illustrations–literally–of the Thayerian principles of camouflage and obliteration almost as striking as the artist’s own.

By the time of his death in 1921, Thayer’s theory that all coloration was ultimately and exclusively disruptive was largely dismissed as overstated and inflexible, and his influence on natural history illustration remained negligible at best for nine decades.

Maybe that’s changed now.


The New “Little Petersons”

“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.


Alessandro Croseri: The Pigeoneers

Towards the end of his reminiscences, the 103-year-old narrator of Al Croseri’s new documentary grows wistful as he reflects on the need to cull the homing pigeon flocks that were for decades at the center of his life. You can’t keep the losers, he says, or the winners will suffer.

Croseri’s film, a lengthy and detailed monologue by the last surviving “pigeoneer,” faces a similar problem–but one that can’t be solved. For, simply put, there are no losers among the anecdotes and images compiled by the director of the splendid The Flight. As a result, Pigeoneers, for all the fascinating material it assembles, will strike many viewers as a little on the long side, better perhaps for dipping into than for consuming at a single sitting.

The film begins with a dramatic, and dramatically scored, montage of vintage photos and film clips depicting the activities of the Army Pigeon Corps. “Culling” some of these elements might have made the entry of Colonel Clifford A. Poutre more effective, but they do provide a visual context for the stories that fill the rest of Poutre’s monologue.

Not all of those stories are specifically about his work with pigeons. We learn, for example, that the later colonel slept on the floor as a toddler because he knew even then that he wanted to be a soldier, and that his career as an army bugler was cut short when he found himself moved one evening to offer an unwanted encore. For the most part tightly narrated, sometimes charming, some of these anecdotes can also wander, and much or all, for instance, of the rather pointless story of the weedy ballfield could easily have been cut.

Poutre’s entry into military pigeoneering turns out to have been a whimsical, even an arbitrary choice. The affection with which he relates his subsequent experiences, from New Jersey to Hawaii, is constantly obvious, though, and birders and other viewers without, perhaps, a consuming interest in domestic pigeons as such will nonetheless learn something here and there. Pigeons released at sea, for example, will fly up to 100 miles back to their Pacific island homes, even at night, but reveal a notable reluctance to cross mountains. Pigeons returning to their lofts through the dark skies of the Hawaiian islands could attain speeds of up to 60 miles an hour, while the bright lights of metropolitan New York slowed their progress considerably–an observation of manifest relevance to the behavior of wild migratory birds.

Among the carefully chosen images are some very disturbing ones showing the relationship between pigeons, their handlers, and native raptors. I leave it to the reader to guess which of those parties is represented in the vintage photos by proudly displayed corpses.

His long career as an Army pigeoneer brought Colonel Poutre into contact with a number of well-known figures in the 1940s and 1950s. For example, he knew Ding Darling–but unfortunately, the account of that acquaintance trails off into the anecdote of a bizarre publicity stunt, with no further mention of the great conservationist.

Most fascinating of all is Poutre’s friendship with Nikola Tesla, an impassioned pigeon handler in the last years of his life. For reasons inscrutable, though, rather than simply allowing Poutre to tell the story of this strange relationship, the director introduces this segment of his film with nearly fifteen minutes (!) of Fiorello Laguardia’s radio tribute to the great inventor; by the time the colonel’s own reminiscences commence, the viewer may wonder whether she has somehow stepped into a different film. A careful cull here would have worked wonders for the film’s coherence.

In general, one gets the impression, perhaps unfairly, that Croseri found himself, understandably enough, incapable of reducing the mass of fine material he had assembled for his film. But the viewer who sticks with the documentary will all the same be richly rewarded–and will inevitably come to share the director’s obvious affection for his centenarian narrator, whose death not long after the completion of filming marked the end of a fascinating phase in the relationship between birds and those who love them.


The Peterson Centennial II: Two Lives

I didn’t know Roger Peterson, and the closest I can recall having come to meeting The Great Man was a damp morning in Princeton, when there were so many reporters and television cameras in the Institute Woods that we turned around in a righteous huff and went elsewhere.

Or rather: Of course I know Roger Tory Peterson. I’ve known him since my first birdbook (the 1961 Western, a longitudinal misunderstanding on my part ), and I’ve got to know him better and better over the years, obsessively obsessing over the field guides, the prose books, the interviews, the prefaces and forewords, the never-ending flow of words from a man I never met. Over the decades I’ve deduced–or perhaps I’ve constructed–a lifesize picture of Peterson and his life; I’m good at such things, by temperament and by training, and I’m sure that broad swaths of that portrait are as accurate as they are plausible. And I’m sure that even broader swaths are neither.

I remember the eagerness with which I seized on the Devlin and Naismith “biography,” and I remember the disgust with which I put it down: even at 13 I smelled that mouldering whiff of hagiography (remember the scurrilous story of the bloodied dustjacket?). Not the television interviews, not the coffee-table albums of paintings and photos, not the increasingly repetitious essays and forewords gave me what I really wanted–a check on the fantasy vita I’d created, a little historical truth against which to measure years of surmise and suspicion.

As the Peterson centennial approached, two new experiments in biography appeared: the one a “lite” collection of anecdotes, the other a well-researched and solidly written piece of historiography. To my surprise, I’ve enjoyed both, and each has forced me to adjust certain components of my image of Peterson, generally in favor of the man; but both together have rather confirmed a long-held suspicion: that Peterson reached his estimable peak early, and that apart from the wonder that was the 1947 Field Guide, there was a great deal of frustration in Peterson’s efforts.

I don’t remember now just why I was so ready to dislike Elizabeth Rosenthal’s Birdwatcher, but only when Susan Drennan told me that she had been involved in the refereeing of the manuscript did I find myself moved to pick the book up. And I’m glad I did; it’s a delightful read, a gracefully written compilation of stories and anecdotes largely unburdened by argument. Rosenthal relies heavily on long quotes from interviews conducted with Peterson’s family, friends, and acolytes; for the most part, these are neatly integrated into her larger text, with only the occasional editorial officiousness (my favorite: “stable chemicals” is emended to “stable [of] chemicals”!).

I don’t mean at all to suggest that the book is aimless or unstructured. It begins with Peterson’s birth and ends with his death; in between we learn about his fortes and his flaws, his childish relationships with women and his profound friendship with his polar opposite, James Fisher. We encounter a hopelessly abstracted and slightly creepy Peterson–voiding his bladder in public, “rating” strange women on train platforms–and a gloomy, moody Peterson whose fear of age and death took him to the plastic surgeon more than once. More fascinating, perhaps, are the portraits Rosenthal sketches of many of Peterson’s associates, friends, and partners, their names familiar to birders from decades of printed acknowledgments but their lives and personalities until now pretty much lost. The three wives in particular gain dimension in Rosenthal’s accounts; Barbara Peterson turns out–as any careful reader of Wild America must have guessed–to be strong and engaging and intelligent (not to mention long-suffering), to my mind at least as rewarding a subject for biography as her famous husband. Virginia Peterson, on the other hand, comes off as the Lady Macbeth she’d long been rumored to be; at times her depiction descends almost to caricature, and I find myself  wondering whether the picture painted here is entirely fair–especially given the occasional positive comment about her from the lips and pens of Peterson’s later acolytes. The first wife, Mildred Peterson, remains a relative mystery. Rosenthal is able to provide some details about her family and background–distinguished and privileged, respectively–but this great-great…niece of George Washington disappears from the biography as surely as she seems to have disappeared from her ex-husband’s life, surfacing only briefly on her accidental death many years later.

To the extent that Birdwatcher presents an argument, it is found in the central 100 pages of the book, where Rosenthal treats Peterson’s conservation activities in, especially, the 1960s, identifying him as among the prima mobilia of a burgeoning world-wide environmental movement. Peterson’s own early work, conducted for the US Army in the 1940s, on the effects of pesticides was incidental and inconclusive, but he was an early and influential supporter of Rachel Carlson in her search for a publisher for Silent Spring; the Petersons also provided support and assistance to researchers seeking the causes of the decline of the Osprey in coastal Connecticut. Peterson’s visit with Guy Mountfort to the wild Doñana raised worldwide awareness of the threats to one of Europe’s most important landscapes, ultimately resulting in its preservation.

These are great accomplishments, but Rosenthal’s accounts of Peterson’s role in them are somewhat undermined by comments she reproduces from others involved: the recurring remarks that Peterson was always willing to lend his name to a worthy cause begin to sound rather like back-handed compliments. I have no reason at all to doubt Rosenthal in this matter, but especially given those comments, I would like to have seen in the supporting documentation for this section more citations to primary archival materials than to popular articles from Peterson’s own pen. My suspicion remains that Peterson’s active and direct contributions to conservation may be a little overstated here, even as his influence–the influence of his field guides–even now on many of the leaders of the environmental movement can hardly be exaggerated.

The field guides, both those Peterson created and those he edited, weighed heavily on him in the last decades of his life. Rosenthal’s final chapters recount an unending conflict between what he considered the responsibility to update the guides and the desire to indulge himself in photography and travel. For the reader, those stories are made the more melancholy by our knowledge–shared, and forcefully expressed, by some of Peterson’s friends as early as 1980–that however strenuous his efforts, the bird guides had been rendered largely obsolete, and that from many birders’ perspectives, Peterson was honoring an imaginary obligation in devoting so much of his time to them. Saddest of all is the notion, given voice repeatedly in the last three decades of Peterson’s life, that the field guide work was keeping him from pursuing his studio painting, a complaint Rosenthal reports without comment or irony.

The tension the older Peterson experienced between his art, his field guides, and his indulgences is at the center of Doug Carlson’s fine Roger Tory Peterson: A Biography. Folk wisdom to the contrary, you can tell a book by its cover, and where Rosenthal’s shows the young Peterson at the top of his game, confidently and slightly ridiculously assuming the pose of Goethe in the Campagna, Carlson’s dust jacket depicts Peterson not long before his death, eyes empty, smile vague, dwarfed by the longest of long lenses. No field guides, no paint brushes, no birds in sight–just an old man pondering his legacy.

I’ll review Doug Carlson’s book soon in a final entry commemorating the Peterson centennial.