The Life of the Skies

YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN the one that got away. That’s a birding as well as a fishing refrain, a common hope among the binoculars-and-field-guide set, where to see is to capture. For me, the one that got away was the resplendent quetzal; I missed him on a trip to Costa Rica, dramatic tail streamers and all. Yet his name still summons a memory of open space in a cloud forest where I waited, and watched.

For Jonathan Rosen, the one that got away is the ivory-billed woodpecker. Long feared extinct, the bird made headlines in 2005 when researchers spotted a lone male in an Arkansas swamp. Rosen paddles slowly through that and other swamps, hoping to spot an ivory-billed, but must settle for the chance to photograph specimens collected in 1899. Still, the possibility of seeing the bird infuses his journey. Rosen’s is an informed hope, touched with regret; the list of extinct animals and plants grows daily longer, a dark counterpoint to the life lists many birders keep. And if the ivory-billed has indeed escaped extinction — which seems like a long shot — it’s an even longer shot that it will be able to maintain a breeding population. We can take nothing for granted. Passenger pigeons were once more common than crows.

Rosen skillfully frames each side of a question, and this nuanced vision is one of his book’s strong suits. Describing John James Audubon’s paintings, work modeled after birds he shot in order to pose, Rosen muses, “The urge to kill and the urge to preserve seem equally great in us, and are often inextricably linked.” Bothersome complexity: hunters can be the staunchest conservationists, and, as Rosen knows, “there is fine birding to be done on golf courses or at garbage dumps or sewerage-treatment plants. That may be a sign of the degradation of nature, but also of our interconnectedness with it.” Everything’s mixed, and maybe that’s all right — the Nazis, as Rosen points out, were sticklers for purity.

The question for Rosen, for all of us, is how to navigate a path between extremes. “It is hard, perhaps impossible, to get the balance right,” Rosen writes, but he continues to strive. The book’s middle path traces the common ground between library and swamp. Frost and Darwin, Whitman and Hardy: Rosen never wanders alone, hauling along technology (Leica binoculars) and culture (Avraham Sutzkever) no matter the terrain. In the end, Rosen’s writing pulled me from study to backyard, where bright birds caught my eye. Red-bellied woodpecker, nuthatch, Carolina wren, bluebird: how far had they traveled to reach me? The Life of the Skies gave me sense enough to wonder.

Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, most recently The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse. Her essays have appeared in Orion, The Southern Review, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere. The winner of a Pushcart Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, she serves as the Bennette E. Geer Professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She is at work on a new book of nonfiction about music and destruction.