The Life of the Skies
By Jonathan Rosen
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374186302, 336pp.)
Publication Date: February 19, 2008
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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.
“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 “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, and Honorary Curator in Entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology “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 “Entertaining and compelling, full of natural wonders and wonderful story-telling. 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
“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 a see a waxwing in the same way again.” —Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor, Harvard University, and author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Stuff of Thought