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.