Sunday, November 2, 2008

Reviewed:Life of the Skies

I came to Life of the Skies through Paul Krugman. Krugman is an economist, and the book is about everything but economics; this may be why it appealed to him and why he recommended it on his blog.

Life is about birdwatching, but it's no standard roundup of the birds of North America. Too personal to be a guidebook, too grounded in nature to be merely a work of philosophy, Life is a true melange of ideas and genres, at the same time a highlights tour of Western philosophical thought and a birder's guide to American poetic history.

Despite his claims that birding requires no movement, that in fact birders can spend years examining the ever-changing landscape of their own neighborhood skies, author Jonathan Rosen covers a vast physical arena in his search for birds. He goes swamp-mucking in Louisiana's disappearing bayous and chasing myths in Israel's contested territories.

But his real distance feat is to cover as many subjects as he does. Rosen sticks to the big questions: how did man evolve? what do we owe our fellow animals? and the perennial favorite: what is man's place in the universe?

Rosen saves himself from triteness by being almost surprisingly honest (for a memorist, anyway). He admits that he has no idea what the answers to these questions are, but that other thinkers before him have taken a shot at it. He wonders whether birds are the missing link between God and evolution, and why poets like Robert Frost and Walt Whitman felt such a strong compulsion to write about the "life of the skies". What does nature mean, exactly, and why does it mean so much to us? Rosen's prose invites reflection, but doesn't dictate its direction.

Reading his book, I remembered that back when my parents were buying their current house, they chose it because of its large backyard. They wanted to be closer to nature. Years later, I read about how suburban sprawl has destroyed America's wilderness by boxing it off into residential plots. This relationship - so much the story of America's development - underlies Rosen's questioning. He suggests, delicately, that we have used and appropriated "nature" for our own ends. But he also appreciates that this usage is inevitable, that nature is an idea, and therefore a human construction.

At heart, Life is a great naturalist work, one that illuminates the paradox of observation. People have been looking at nature for centuries, but all we've seen is ourselves looking at nature.

Read it if you like: Thoreau
Skip it if you prefer: really, there's no reason to skip it

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