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.

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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.

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