Any author who attests that “birdwatching is the real national pastime,” American or otherwise, deserves attention. Jonathan Rosen, in actually making a compelling case for his electrifying assertion, demands respect. Too many books in the birding genre focus naturally on the innumerable hows of technique, craft, and field ornithology. Rosen’s mighty The Life of the Skies takes on the more formidable question of why.
The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature astonishes instantly with a scope that draws together disparate threads from the arts and sciences to weave a sophisticated understanding of birdwatching’s allure. Fantastic from the very first page, Rosen begins this book by trying to articulate the ineffable. Tackling the nature of biophilia in a prologue that presages the wonders to come, he concludes with a disclaimer that The Life of the Skies “offers no grand synthesis,” then proceeds to do exactly that.
The chapters that follow, each one independent but employed in concert to a lofty cause, offer an erudite, contemplative analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of modern birdwatching. Drawing a line from birding icons like Audubon and Peterson to men of science like Darwin and Wallace to esteemed poets (Thoreau, Whitman, Frost, and Dickinson) and politicians (Teddy Roosevelt, naturally) alike, Rosen unearths the archetypal architecture on which modern birding rests, the bedrock foundation of an avocation that appears to be growing at last in both understanding and interest. Cerebral and sophisticated, The Life of the Skies asks a fair share of thought-provoking questions but follows up time and time again with fresh insights and answers.
While this book immediately vaulted to the top of my personal favorites on the subject, it is hardly flawless. The first half moves with much greater momentum and inspiration than the second, somewhat plodding portion. Rosen’s professional experience provides him both context and confidence to examine matters of faith through birding’s lens, but he still seems more sure-footed on the subjects of history, literature, and science. Or maybe it’s that I am. Either way, The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature must be considered an essential read whether you’ve already recognized your interest in birdwatching or have yet to discover it. I recommend it highly, further suggesting that it be read when one is in a mindset most receptive to introspection on the nature of avian observation, preferably on a plane en route to some exotic birding adventure!