The Life of the Skies

  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

View­ers of the recent series Plan­et Earth have an edge on Jonathan Rosen. They have seen many of the exot­ic birds he writes about in The Life of the Skies and did not have to spend years and for­tunes to get a glimpse of birds-of-par­adise. Rosen has an advan­tage on the rest of us, though, in that his bird-watch­ing is steeped in the his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture of avian stud­ies in Amer­i­ca, Europe, and beyond, and their rela­tion­ship to ecol­o­gy and evo­lu­tion. When he observes the bright plumage of a bird in Cen­tral Park or cen­tral Arkansas, he can relate it to a sto­ry about Audubon or a pas­sage from Dar­win or a poem by Whitman.

The Life of the Skies is part nat­ur­al his­to­ry, part per­son­al his­to­ry. When Rosen’s father began to suf­fer from mem­o­ry loss brought on by Parkinson’s, his son sought solace in the nat­ur­al world. Late in the book, Rosen relates a sto­ry from the life of Robert Frost. The poet had been jilt­ed by the woman who lat­er became his wife. Frost trav­eled to the Great Dis­mal Swamp (no fic­tion writer aside from Dick­ens would have the imag­i­na­tive audac­i­ty to con­jure such a name) in Vir­ginia, where he intend­ed to take his life by drown­ing. But some­where in the mid­dle of the swamp the poet found the courage to con­tin­ue his life. The Life of the Skies con­fronts the crises our plan­et faces from eco­log­i­cal destruc­tion as well as the per­son­al crises that Rosen and his heroes in lit­er­a­ture and avian stud­ies have had to suf­fer and survive.

Rosen makes unlike­ly, ele­gant con­nec­tions between grand fig­ures in Amer­i­can and Euro­pean his­to­ry like Dar­win, Thore­au, and Theodore Roo­sevelt and the effect that bird-watch­ing had on their life and work. His eru­di­tion is impres­sive, if occa­sion­al­ly inac­cu­rate: he quotes Hegel as say­ing the owl of Athena flies at mid­night” rather than Min­er­va. And his sug­ges­tion that Walden is some­how less than a com­plete­ly truth­ful book because Thore­au neglects to tell us he had din­ner with his fam­i­ly dur­ing his time in the woods, or because he fails to say whether he mas­tur­bat­ed in soli­tude, is not only coarse, but dis­grace­ful. Know­ing the per­son­al habits of Shake­speare or Mozart do not make Lear or Figaro greater or less­er works; they mere­ly sat­is­fy the human need for gos­sip. That was the one fail­ing point in a book that is oth­er­wise extra­or­di­nary for its orig­i­nal­i­ty of judg­ment and the range of its knowledge.

Jason Myers is a writer whose work has appeared in AGNI, BOOK­FO­RUM, and Tin House.

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