Review: American Birds: A Literary Companion

By Keith Michael

On the last day of March, compatriot West Village bird watcher Andrew Rubenfeld and I got together (well, socially-distanced “together”) to walk along the promenade in Hudson River Park to look for birds and talk about his beguiling fresh collection of more than two centuries of American writing about birds which illuminates their timeless mystery and inspiration for wonder: American Birds: A Literary Companion published by Library of America.

As we head south, like in Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, we “talk of many things” and the birds do not disappoint. With professorial authority, Andrew is the epitome of New York City birding blue blood, having been president of the Linnaean Society of New York, and a founding member of the Birder’s Coalition for Gateway, spearheading the restoration of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (one of my favorite birding haunts) after Hurricane Sandy. We look upriver toward Stevens Institute of Technology on the bluffs of Hoboken where he has taught courses on American nature and environmental writing since 1981. In the foreground, a Red-throated Loon dives for a fish.

Binocular-clad, Andrew and I met years ago birding in Central Park, and our dogs met walking the streets of the Village. An American Redstart in Maine was his birding “hook.” Mine was a flight of Glossy Ibis silhouetted against a Manhattan skyline sunset. In those brief encounters we were transformed to join the more than 40 million Americans who consider themselves watchers of birds—40 million people who should read this book!

With a personal foreword threaded through with visitations of ravens by award-winning author Terry Tempest Williams followed by Andrew’s overture to the wonderland of literary riches to come, the collection unfolds effortlessly through poetry and prose, writing genres and sensibilities, colonial days evolving to the day-before-yesterday. With more than 70 authors represented it is a veritable Who’s Who of American Letters. By design, a wide variety of species are celebrated and each selection venerates an indelible personal encounter with birds. The essentially chronological organization guides us through the transformation in avian writing from J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s being mesmerized by the novelty of New World hummingbirds in 1782, whisking through undertones of potential ecological devastation in the 20th century, and on to Noah Strycker’s 2017 Birding without Borders that ponders the conflicting thrills of contemporary birding itself.

With so many revelations it is difficult to highlight only a few: the succinct wedding of birds to weather in the Native American poem The Mocking-bird’s Song, the palpable tingle of discovery from Lewis and Clark’s 1805-1806 journals while documenting the new Louisiana Purchase, John James Audubon’s sobering diary entries recalling the procurement of the wonderous models for his monumental The Birds of America, the haunting paean to conservation in A White Heron by Sarah Orne Jewett, John Borroughs’ reverie on the pleasures of slowing down, the consummate naturalist John Muir’s cheerful observation of an American Dipper, Rachel Carson’s elegiac vision of Black Skimmers’ flight at dusk, the delicious aural wit of E. B. White’s A Listener’s Guide to the Birds, Marie Winn’s urban thriller Red-tails In Love reliving the discovery of Central Park’s famed Pale Male, and Up from the Egg: The Confessions of a Nuthatch Avoider by Ogden Nash with a charming rhyme mingling subject, intoxication, colloquialism, and whimsy in its final couplet:

But I sometimes visualize in my gin

The Audubon that I audubin.

Birds are a natural metaphor for transience, beauty, transcendence, and tantalizing otherness. Nearing the end of the volume there is a flourish of poems by Richard Wilbur, Louise Erdich, Debra Nystrom, Mark Jarman, Ted Kooser, Pamela Uschuk, Robert Cording, Urula K. Le Guin, and Timothy Steele. I confess that I became fearful to turn the next page, apprehensive that each would bring me closer to the end of this transporting volume.

Likewise, when we turn around to head back north, each step brings us closer to the end of our conversation and birding for the evening—we saw Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, White-throated and Song Sparrow, and a Northern Mockingbird singing a suitably encyclopedic concert. I look forward to our next walk, crave the next bird, and eagerly await further reading treasures. One can wish for an American Birds: Volume Two!

American Birds A Literary Companion, Andrew Rubenfeld and Terry Tempest Williams, editors, is available through the Library of America:

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