Birds, words, & finding literature in unexpected places

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • October 9, 2013

1381434020 cayley p3 australias largest birds edit.jpg
The field guide What Bird Is That? by Neville W. Cayley depicts Australia's largest birds.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The field guide What Bird Is That? by Neville W. Cayley depicts Australia's largest birds.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In a review of William Sitwell’s book A History of Food in 100 Recipes posted on The New Yorker’s books blog this past summer, culinary historian Bee Wilson writes of the pleasures of reading recipes as works of fiction. 

“Being asked to read recipes, for their own sake, rather than with a view to cooking, gives us a clearer sense of how they stimulate our imaginations,” Wilson explains. This charming conceit got me thinking about other texts that most people don’t view as works of literature, yet which still provide some of the same joys as a novel, memoir, or collection of poetry. Specifically, I thought back to my own lifelong obsession with field guides.

At the most basic level, field guides are books that enable convenient identification of wildlife. They are also the first books I read on my own. Growing up in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, I was fascinated by the biodiversity that surrounded me. From early childhood, I sought to identify every snake, frog, and butterfly I stumbled upon, and soon amassed a sizeable collection of field guides, from insects and arachnids to reptiles and amphibians. 

I loved reading the natural history of each creature as much as I loved gazing at its illustration on the page. Whenever I would find something new—a slimy salamander under a fallen log, two velvety cecropia moths mating on the side of my neighbor’s garage—I recognized it immediately, with a wave of jubilant satisfaction.

I suspect these early scientific pursuits not only fostered in me a healthy appreciation for the natural world, but also shaped my current literary tastes and predilections as a writer. Writing in field guides must be scientifically accurate and accessible to the layman, meticulously detailed, and brief enough to make identification fast and easy. It’s a fine line for the author to walk, and the resulting prose often takes on a life of its own.

The work of Roger Tory Peterson, one of the great innovators of the field guide genre, displays this kind of liveliness. Consider this spirited description of the voice of the ruffed grouse, from his bestselling Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America: “Sound of drumming male suggests a distant motor starting up. Low muffled thumping starts slowly, accelerating into a whir: Bup…bup…bup…bup…bup bup up r-rrrrr.” It’s a carefully controlled, beautiful piece of writing; Peterson has rendered the male grouse’s voice so effectively on the page that the reader can almost hear the bird in the forest.

Field guides bridge the gap between humans and other species, allowing us to understand the diversity of life that surrounds us on a deeper level. 

Just being able to identify the raptor flying overhead as a red-tailed hawk (or even a Buteo jamaicensis; Latin names carry their own kind of literary euphony) shows a greater appreciation of the animal and its place in the world than simply referring to it as “that bird up there.” Field guides can also provide fascinating insights into human life. 

“Audubon’s Birds, Audubon’s Words,” a current exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, showcases the art and nature writing of John James Audubon (1785-1851), who traveled across North America to paint and observe wild birds. It couples his magnum opus, The Birds of America, a groundbreaking collection of life-size color prints of several hundred American bird species, with excerpts from its follow-up, The Ornithological Biography, a collection of Audubon’s writings about various species of birds. 

The lush prose truly brings his paintings to life. Audubon’s style is as colorful and varied as the bird species to which he devoted his career. Overall sarcastic, visual, and keenly observant, Audubon’s ornithological writing reveals a complex individual with a remarkable appreciation for the natural world.

To be precise, Audubon did not write field guides as we understand them today, but his work had a considerable influence on the development of the genre. David L. Wagner’s 2005 field guide, Caterpillars of Eastern North America, stands out as a notable recent work in this tradition. 

Throughout the text, Wagner shares revealing anecdotes that not only bolster his credibility as a scientist, but also characterize him as a man of wit and intrepidness. 

“Males also drink at mud puddles (and soil wetted with urine),” he writes of the Abbott’s sphinx moth, and the reader can’t help but to wonder how he arrived at this piece of knowledge.

The best field guides are not only informative, but are moving texts that speak to our most human emotions: the thrill of discovery, endless curiosity, and a humbling appreciation for the splendor of nature. 

They are not just guides to frogs, toads, snakes, or lizards, but guides to who we are, chronicling the human condition with all the nuance and precision of a great novel and reminding us that literature can be found in the most unexpected places.