Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Nature and Environmental Book Review:
The Birds of Heaven

Book Review by David Yarian, Ph.D.

The Birds of HeavenThe Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes
Peter Matthiessen

In The Birds of Heaven, Matthiessen delivers another of his multi-layered visions of the natural world, with travel to exotic and remote places few Westerners have seen; scientifically informed knowledge about exotic animals that are rare and endangered; drolly entertaining stories about the personalities met along the way; adventures in crosscultural understanding; suffused with Matthiessen’s pervasive interest in Buddhism and the spiritual traditions of the places he visits.

For this book Matthiessen traveled to Siberia, Mongolia, Korea, China, Japan, India, Bhutan, Australia, South Africa, England, Wisconsin, Nebraska, the Gulf coast, and Florida. Interspersed with accounts of the regions he visited are stories from his previous travels, noting the contrast in conditions and in the populations of cranes he found there. When Matthiessen puts Travels in a subtitle, he means it. He is certainly one of the most-traveled of modern nature writers.

As in Snow Leopard, Sand Rivers, and other of his books, Matthiessen is often accompanied by trained naturalists, usually top experts on the animal or area he is studying. His literary artistry pervades the book, however, revealing his deep roots in creative writing. Armed with an undergraduate degree in English from Yale he took himself off to Paris in 1953, and with four friends cofounded The Paris Review, a prestigious and influential literary journal. He is one of only a handful of American writers to have received National Book Awards in both fiction and nonfiction.

For Birds of Heaven, Matthiessen’s expert consultant is Dr. George W. Archibald, head of the International Crane Foundation and widely recognized as the world’s leading authority on cranes. But Matthiessen is no amateur: his Shorebirds of North America and Wildlife in America published early in his career established his credentials as a serious naturalist and conservationist.

Matthiessen is a lifelong birdwatcher, and he brings this enthusiasm to Birds of Heaven. One of the most touching moments in the book is a description of Matthiessen, Dr. Archibald and several other world authorities on cranes hooting with excitement at finding not one but four endangered species of crane foraging in the same field in remote Mongolia. It was his desire to see for himself all fifteen species of cranes in the world in their natural habitats that formed the quest he narrates in the book.

Birds of Heaven pulses with Matthiessen’s love for wild animals – cranes in particular – and his sadness and outrage at the damage done by humans to the habitats upon which animals depend. Once at a dinner party in the Hamptons he was asked by an acquaintance where he had been all summer and why. When he replied that he had been in Eastern Siberia and Outer Mongolia studying cranes, she replied, “Cranes?! Who cares about cranes?”

Matthiessen reflects upon this response: “Whatever its provenance, that question echoes: Who cares about cranes? – and tigers and songbirds and sparkling steams and hoary ancient forests and traditional earth peoples clinging to old quiet ways of their language and culture – or cares enough to defend and protect what remains of the old world of unbroken and unpolluted nature on our ever more disrupted mother earth.” This lament echoes throughout the book, as he sees damaged and lost habitat, diminished animal populations, and species at the brink of extinction. Eleven of fifteen crane species are seriously threatened or endangered by human activities.

The beauty of the crane family (Gruidae) shines throughout this paean to a noble species. Honored by stories and sacred myths in indigenous cultures worldwide, cranes are timeless symbols, emissaries from heaven, harbingers of hope, longevity and good fortune. The largest of all flying birds on Earth, their long life, loyal pair-bonding and complex mating rituals involving elaborate dancing, behavioral displays and strong “unison calls” endear them to birdlovers everywhere.

As a conservationist, Matthiessen also sees the importance of cranes as an indicator species who can help scientists evaluate the big picture of the relative health of an ecosystem. “These elegant birds, in their stature, grace, and beauty, their wild fierce temperament, are striking metaphors for the vanishing wilderness of our once bountiful earth; in addition, they function as “umbrella species” whose protection in the wild also protects a broad range of fauna and flora as well as the clean water, earth, and air of their extensive territories – in short, sustains the astonishing variety of forms in nature (with their habitats and ecosystems) known as biodiversity.”

His observations of endangered crane species go hand in hand with the meticulous observations of an experienced traveler steeped in Buddhism and the indigenous belief systems and political realities of Central Asia. In Mongolia, following a celebratory meal of black goat roasted over a dung fire Matthiessen observes a small ceremony involving the cooking rocks. “…the rocks are assembled in a little cairn. Straightening, we make a slight bow to the cairn, palms together in gratitude to the goat for its sacrifice. The ceremony is Buddhist in its reverence for awareness of this moment, moment after moment, and also its gratitude for what is given to support our life; yet the Mongols seem shy about discussing this, after so many decades when Buddhism was outlawed.”

Later, describing a visitor to their camp in Bayan Dun he is alert to the smallest cultural details: “An early visitor is a boy of great beauty who rides up on an ugly measle-spotted horse attended by two dogs; a Buddhist design – the endless knot – is tooled into the leather of his saddle.”

The reader vicariously shares Matthiessen’s thrill in the timeless communion with nature that is scarcely conveyed by the term “birdwatching.” He is in India, in the marshlands of Bharatpur, eager for his first glimpse of the endangered Siberian cranes: “Beyond the bright-headed Tibetan geese, not eighty yards away in the open marsh, stand two white cranes with startling red faces and red bills, fresh as roses in the light of the new sun. Like most cranes, G. leucogeranus prefers open areas with unobstructed views, and since it is wary, I am scared I might flare the first snow wreaths I have ever seen, or cause them to move farther from the bank. I sink to my knees behind a bush, watching in relief as they resume feeding: they probe wet gleaming bills through the bronze duckweed or immerse red faces to the eyes to grasp sedge tubers and tug them from the mud. Between probes, they glare with livid eyes – the iris is a strange pale yellow – yet they do not take alarm at my close presence but on the contrary seem curious and confiding.”

During this encounter we learn that Siberian cranes defend their feeding territories on winter grounds; will eat aquatic life as well as plants; that they are noisily communicating all day long – they possess the longest unison call (up to three minutes’ duration) of all cranes; that the synchronized calls are performed in unison by both members of a mating pair, and serve to maintain contact with the rest of the flock; that it’s hard work for the large birds to tug the tubers from the bed of the marsh; and we learn about the threat display they use to warn off sarus cranes from their feeding pool. The book is filled with such meticulous detail on the many birds Matthiessen observes on his travels.

Exhilarated by observing the Siberians, Matthiessen moves on to another area of the marsh to watch the sarus cranes feeding. He enthuses: “The great calm birds permit me to come so close that I can study the black ‘down’ on their long bare throats and the small gray auricular tuft that protects the ear in the otherwise naked red wattled caruncle behind the golden eye: the tuft is all that remains of the ancestral feathered head in this bald-faced bird.”

This is an exciting, informing, and ultimately moving book – Peter Matthiessen at the height of his powers as a naturalist, traveler and literary stylist. By the end of the book he allows himself to be somewhat hopeful for the future of his beloved cranes, as he has observed efforts worldwide to protect their habitats and ensure their survival. The Birds of Heaven is masterful writing about nature – a delectable treat for the armchair traveler and nature enthusiast.

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