The Life of the Skies

The Life of the Skies

Book - 2008
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Baker & Taylor
Looks at America's fascination with birding and the roles of birds in a culture caught between its desire to both conquer and conserve, studying the meaning of a hobby born out of a simultaneous industrialization and longing for the natural world.

McMillan Palgrave
Aerial delights: A history of America as seen through the eyes of a bird-watcher
 
John James Audubon arrived in America in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was president, and lived long enough to see his friend Samuel Morse send a telegraphic message from his house in New York City in the 1840s. As a boy, Teddy Roosevelt learned taxidermy from a man who had sailed up the Missouri River with Audubon, and yet as president presided over America’s entry into the twentieth century, in which our ability to destroy ourselves and the natural world was no longer metaphorical. Roosevelt, an avid birder, was born a hunter and died a conservationist.

Today, forty-six million Americans are bird-watchers. The Life of the Skies is a genre-bending journey into the meaning of a pursuit born out of the tangled history of industrialization and nature longing. Jonathan Rosen set out on a quest not merely to see birds but to fathom their centrality—historical and literary, spiritual and scientific—to a culture torn between the desire both to conquer and to conserve.

Rosen argues that bird-watching is nothing less than the real national pastime—indeed it is more than that, because the field of play is the earth itself. We are the players and the spectators, and the outcome—since bird and watcher are intimately connected—is literally a matter of life and death.
Jonathan Rosen is the author of The Talmud and the Internet and the novels Eve's Apple and Joy Comes in the Morning. His essays have appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker. He is the editorial director of Nextbook and lives in New York City.
A mixture of memoir, nature writing, history, and philosophy, Jonathan Rosen's The Life of the Skies is a look at the complex relationship humans have with their flying counterparts and a history of America viewed on the wing.
 
Rosen argues that birdwatching is nothing less than the real national pastime. Moreover, it's inextricably linked to our history. John James Audubon arrived in America in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was president, and lived long enough to see his friend Samual Morse send a telegraphic message in the 1840s. President Theodore Roosevelt was an avid birder. As a boy, Roosevelt learned taxidermy from a man who had sailed up the Missouri River with Audubon, and yet as president he oversaw America's entry into the twentieth century, a new era in which our ability to destroy ourselves and the natural world were no longer merely metaphorical. Born in the heyday of great sport hunters, Roosevelt died a committed conservationalist.
 
Rosen himself began birdwatching a decade ago, and it changed the way he saw the country and the world. With his characteristic humor and lightly held erudition, he investigates where the manifold interconnections—historical and literary, spiritual and scientific—between human and avian lie. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nearly 48 million Americans watch birds. Rosen's unique story of watcher and watched illuminates why we are bound to birds, not only by our fears and fantasies but by a complex common destiny.
The Life of the Skies is part birding history, part birding travelogue, centered on Rosen’s regular migration route from his apartment to Central Park . . . with the occasional exotic birding trip. (The descriptions of birding in the Holy Land are particularly beautiful.) . . .  It is a thoughtful and engaging journey, one that discusses the history of birding alongside changes in the conception of nature from the 19th century until the present.”—Robert Sullivan, The New York Times Book Review

The Life of the Skies is part birding history, part birding travelogue, centered on Rosen’s regular migration route from his apartment to Central Park . . . with the occasional exotic birding trip. (The descriptions of birding in the Holy Land are particularly beautiful.) . . .  It is a thoughtful and engaging journey, one that discusses the history of birding alongside changes in the conception of nature from the 19th century until the present. There are cameos by Frank Chapman, the banker-turned-birder who created the Christmas Bird Count in 1900; Kenn Kaufman, the Jack Kerouac of birding, who in the ’70s hitchhiked the back roads of America for sightings; and Thoreau, who gets taken down as an antisocial hermit and praised as the inventor of backyard bird-watching. Theodore Roosevelt is Rosen’s hero, partly because he was a books-to-woods president, . . . partly because Rosen sees him as ‘a rare but archetypal creature: an outdoor intellectual.’”—Robert Sullivan, The New York Times Book Review

"Rosen's engagingly crafted report on modern bird watching will not convert anybody who isn't a bird lover, which is fine. Because The Life of the Skies is not pushing a pastime; it is fording the passage of time with binoculars for a torch. In this meditation, winged creatures are but heralds of an equally celestial family: the poets who write about them. This is a book that brings Spinoza, Kafka, Keats and a dozen other men of letters into the first 15 pages to share company with geese, jackdaws and egrets. Birds that feature most prominently do so as feathered totems: Darwin's finch, Whitman's mockingbird, Audubon's parrot . . . Perhaps the most marvelous specimen in his collection is Alfred Russel Wallace, an explorer and scientist who advanced the notion of natural selection before Darwin. This man, though not a poet, 'haunts birdwatching, and should rightfully haunt this book,' writes Rosen, before painting a scene in which Wallace has just arrived in London from the Malay peninsula with two birds of paradise in hand. No bird, and certainly not the exotic beauties so foreign to the halls of Britain's scientific societies, is as plaintive a being as a forgotten man who, in balancing science with spiritualism, became more comfortable with another species than his own. That Rosen recognizes Wallace as the endangered species in this tableau recognizes that Rosen is a poet as well as a birder."—Elizabeth Kiem, San Francisco Chronicle
 
"A book of exuberant range, of insight and far sight, of trapezes swung for and caught, and now and then a trapeze too far. There are a great many birds in it, avidly watched, but to think of it as about bird-watching is to think of prayer as about steeples. Rosen's is a restless mind with a lyrical and exploring bent. An essayist, novelist and former culture editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, he works on the principle that if you reach a long way and often, your grasp score will be pretty good. His reaches and grasps make connections of all kinds, most especially between the rival poles of science and religion. These were seriously and playfully displayed in The Talmud and the Internet, where Rosen argued that a particular kind of thinking—in webs—is common to both Jewish theology and digital computing. In his new book, still touching at length on science and faith, he strives to connect—or find a middle ground between—the human need to master nature and to be mastered by it. We are torn between the desire to be free to build, cut down, expand and develop 'and the desire to live among free things that can survive only if we are less free.'"—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times

"Mr. Rosen—an accomplished novelist and presently the editorial director at Nextbook—has in this present work given the bird-watching community a portrait of itself that discloses many of its deeper psychological aspects that have been too often missed by previous authors. What does it say about us that we watch birds? Rosen delves deep into that question. Centering much of the investigation and discussion around E.O. Wilson's theory of biophilia—the idea that humans evolved as creatures deeply enmeshed with the intricacies of nature—and that we still have this affinity with nature ingrained in our genotype, Rosen extrapolates from his own experience. Living in the center of one of the world's largest metropolitan areas, New York City, he discovered bird watching for himself in Central Park. However, his bird-watching activities have since drawn him far afield, from the swamps of Arkansas in search of the ivory-billed woodpecker to the wadis of Israel in search of the birds of the Old World. This in itself is the central idea of The Life of the Skies: that the remnants of what once was a lively and vibrant natural world draw us, through the technology we have created and by the power it gives us, back into nature. From this we experience our deeply ingrained but too often forgotten connection to it. People have watched birds for centuries, even millennia, but it’s only through modern developments in optics, radiotelemetry, and transportation that we are able to learn anything more about them than the most rudimentary aspects of their lives. Yet these same developments have been possible through the exploitation and, too often, the destruction of species and habitats. For examples, in order to save the world from Hitler's fascism and preserve freedom the freedom of people to engage in such activities as the study of nature, the last known tract of land on which the ivory-billed woodpecker was logged to produce materials to support the war effort. Such is the irony of our modern relationship to the natural world and the appeal of such reconnecting activities as bird watching. Throughout The Life of Skies, Rosen draws liberally on the lives and discoveries of some of the great naturalists of history, from Audubon and Darwin to Alfred Russell Wallace and Gilbert White. He also includes much from the lives and works of many of the great poets and philosophers who made nature a central part of their works, especially Dickinson, Thoreau, and Frost. The result is a kaleidoscopic journey through the often ironic and contradictory relationship of humans to the natural world, represented most prominently by birds. Truly, this is a book that will be often quotes and long remembered in the literature of natural history." —John E. Riutta, Bird Watcher's Digest 

"Entertaining and compelling, full of natural wonders and wonderful storytelling. In this unshowy, profound, engaging book, Rosen uses attention to birds—the only wild creatures most of us ever see, as he points out—as an occasion to meditate on art and wilderness, science and impulse, human nature and the nature of our precarious world."—Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States
 
"I can scarcely tell a scarlet tanager from Scarlett O’Hara, but The Life of the Skies had me transfixed from the first page. Rosen writes with astounding insight, wit, and compassion. The story he tells here is the best kind of odyssey, an outward journey that ends up highlighting the beauty and daring that live inside of us."—Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics
 
"Like millions of people, I take a curious pleasure in staring at birds, but never knew why. Thanks to The Life of the Skies, I now realize that I am not just indulging a compulsion to classify. In this illuminating and charming book, Rosen shows us the poetry, the philosophy, and the history—natural and human—of the strange modern pastime of bird-watching. You’ll never see a waxwing in the same way again."—Steven Pinker, author of The Stuff of Thought
 
"Birding is so much more than just outdoor recreation. Its sources are woven into history and legend, and its pleasures are ultimately spiritual. Jonathan Rosen has captured all this to deliver a rare and beautiful piece of literature."—Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University
 
"Life of the Skies is more than just a bird book. It is a thoughtful and often unexpected exploration of birding through the lens of history, literature and loss—the process, as author Jonathan Rosen says, of loving a diminished but still seductive world."—Scott Weidensaul, author of Living on the Wind and Of a Feather


Holtzbrinck
Aerial delights: A history of America as seen through the eyes of a bird-watcher
 
John James Audubon arrived in America in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was president, and lived long enough to see his friend Samuel Morse send a telegraphic message from his house in New York City in the 1840s. As a boy, Teddy Roosevelt learned taxidermy from a man who had sailed up the Missouri River with Audubon, and yet as president presided over America’s entry into the twentieth century, in which our ability to destroy ourselves and the natural world was no longer metaphorical. Roosevelt, an avid birder, was born a hunter and died a conservationist.

Today, forty-six million Americans are bird-watchers. The Life of the Skies is a genre-bending journey into the meaning of a pursuit born out of the tangled history of industrialization and nature longing. Jonathan Rosen set out on a quest not merely to see birds but to fathom their centrality—historical and literary, spiritual and scientific—to a culture torn between the desire both to conquer and to conserve.

Rosen argues that bird-watching is nothing less than the real national pastime—indeed it is more than that, because the field of play is the earth itself. We are the players and the spectators, and the outcome—since bird and watcher are intimately connected—is literally a matter of life and death.


Baker
& Taylor

The author of Eve's Apple and an avid bird-watcher looks at America's fascination with birding and the diverse roles of birds--historical, literary, scientific, and spiritual--in a culture caught in the middle of its desire to both conquer and conserve, as he studies the meaning of a hobby born out of a simultaneous industrialization and longing for the natural world.

Publisher: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780374186302
0374186308
Branch Call Number: 598.07234 R7226L 2008
Characteristics: 324 p. ; ill. ; 22 cm

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kneice
Jan 01, 2014

A great introduction for a literate American birdwatcher.

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