To say Jonathan Rosen’s “The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature” is a book about birding is like saying the Queen Mary was a boat. Well yes it was, or is, but it is also so much more.
At its core is the author’s newfound love of birding, which the New Yorker pursues in Central Park. His is a spiritual connection to birds and nature or as he cites famed biologist E.O. Wilson, a “biophilia,” i.e. the love of life.
Through the book’s series of connected essays, Rosen also manages to trace the history of our relationship to birds through the writings and lives of literary and historic figures: Audubon, Thoreau, Darwin, Wallace, Dickinson, Whitman, Faulkner, Theodore Roosevelt, to name a few.
But to balance these spiritually uplifting sentiments, Rosen weaves in a cloud of melancholy. The book begins and ends with the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird that he points out “does and does not exist.” Is it extinct or not? And if it is extinct, what does that say about us?
“The Life of the Skies” is a hopeful, celestial title, but his darker subhead “Birding at the End of Nature” is the real crux of the work. As anyone who loves birds already knows, species are in jeopardy all over the world. The author uses a line from poet Robert Frost to bring this point home: “What to make of a diminished thing.”
Indeed. What do we make of a diminished planet? The natural world of Audubon, Darwin and Wallace is gone. How should we feel, loving a thing that is slowly vanishing?