Birding touches something deeply spiritual in me. I have been inspired by the writings of two men: One is a 19th century naturalist, the second a British birder who wrote a birding classic and currently there’s a contemporary field biologist and prolific author whose work may join these two.
An Adult Hero
In my 40s I read a book, A Delicate Arrangement by Arnold Brackman, which radically changed my world view. Its focus was a 19th century British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who sent a short manuscript on evolution to Charles Darwin that ultimately led to him being recognized as a co-discoverer of the theory of evolution a century later.
Wallace was lower-middle class and had to work and did so for a short time as a surveyor. At age 25, he went to Brazil with Henry Bates also a naturalist and explorer with three purposes: to work on the question of “the origin of species,” to explore the natural history of the banks of the Amazon and to collect specimens, partially to pay for the exploration. After four years, on the trip back to England, his ship caught fire and all of the specimens were lost. Only some sketches and a few notes were saved. Later, Wallace went to the Malaysian Archipelago, where he stayed for six years studying natural history and again collecting specimens. By such collecting, in the jargon of the trade at the time, he was referred to as a “fly-catcher.”
Over his years in the Malaysian Archipelago, Wallace had identified the pieces of the enormously complex problem but hadn’t fit them together. In March of 1858 while suffering from a severe episode of malaria, the theory of evolution by natural selection was crystallized and born. During that alternating freezing and fevered bout, Brackman states that Wallace was “higher” than he ever been and “trembled” as he waited for the malaria to subside to make notes. “He was afraid that the theory would dissolve in his mind, like a dream.“ That night after the malaria had subsided and on two successive others, he wrote it out. Later he sent the slim manuscript to Darwin by the Dutch mail. Brackman, fascinatingly, traced the mail shipping routes of the time to reasonably pinpoint the date on which Wallace’s manuscript was delivered. Wallace’s manuscript spurred Darwin, who had been working on the idea for 20 years, but not yet published. Darwin’s Origin of Species, forever changed our ideas about from where human beings came. Brackman, however, clearly states Wallace was first to the finish line and wonders whether Darwin ever would have written it if he’d not been prodded by Wallace’s manuscript. For all that he overcame and accomplished, Alfred Russel Wallace is my hero.
Only 20 Years
In the early 1990s in a Cape Cod book store, I bought a used copy of Peregrine by J.A. Baker. However, it didn’t grab me. Then a relatively new birder, I wasn’t ready to read the achingly beautiful clear prose or see into the soul of the author or his subject, the peregrine falcon. However, something about the writing made me shelve the book for other failed tries until about four years ago. Before my wife and I went to Florida, I again tried the book, by now held together with scotch and duck tape, which grabbed me by the throat and never let go. On the plane trip to Florida, I repeatedly had to pause, put it down and make notes. What had changed was that I was an experienced birder and bird writer and was ready to see and feel what the author had written. His writing registered with my experience and touched my soul. It only took 20 years.
Baker followed the peregrine for 10 years and was “possessed” by it. At the book’s beginning, he states that everything he described occurred while he was watching it and adds “… but I do not believe that honest observation is enough. The emotions and behavior of the watcher are also facts and they must be truthfully recorded.”
The following illustrates his witnessing of the remains of a pigeon kill and his poetic imagination.
“Late in the afternoon I find the kill, lying on its back in swampy green ground…The footprints of the hawk are trampled deep in the mud; the pigeon’s feet are clean. It has been hollowed out to the bone, like an ivory boat.”
After creeping to within 5-yards of a perching peregrine he states:
“He looked around as I stopped, and we both went rigid with the shock of surprise…His sunken, owl-like head looked dazed and stupid as it turned and bobbed and jerked about. He was dazzled by this sudden confrontation…The dark moustachial lobes were livid and bristling on the pale Siberian face peering from thick furs. The large bill opened and closed in a silent hiss of alarm, puffing out breath into the cold air. Hesitant, incredulous, outraged, he just squatted on his post and gasped.” Then the peregrine flew “as though avoiding gunshot.”
I recently skimmed a new copy of Peregrine. As many times as one reads this book, its observations and emotional truths can be discovered anew.
George Schaller, perhaps the pre-eminent field biologist of his time, is a soothing story teller. His Stones of Silence, which I found in the used section of The Book Revue in Huntington, is about walking the Himalayas in search of the snow leopard and wild sheep and goats. I’ve been taken by his “field craft,” his honesty, a description of a snow leopard and moved by his thoughts while huddled on the ground during a wind storm. When I finish it, I’ll know whether to place the book next to the above two, which so touched me. However, I so much enjoy being a passenger on his “bus” that I almost don’t want the journey to end.