The Birds of Heaven

Travels With Cranes by Peter Matthiessen

by Wesley Burnett


Understanding Cranes Means Understanding Everything

Peter Matthiessen states his rationale for this lovely book in its introduction: ‘One way to grasp the main perspectives of environment and biodiversity is to understand the origins and precious nature of a single living form. . . . If one has truly understood a crane . . . one has understood everything.’ If this criterion is the one by which the book is to be judged, it is a dismal failure, and I doubt that Matthiessen would disagree. Truly understanding cranes, or frogs or spiders, requires a headlong dive into the scientific literature, possibly weeks spent with the creatures in the laboratory or zoo, and freezing or sweltering with them in field. Finally there is the exercise of spending time, and lots of it, just watching in silent amazement. Even then, honest observers often emerge from their intense study as befuddled as when they started. Matthiessen’s Birds of Heaven doesn’t even give an orderly or systematic summary of the biology or ecology of cranes.

What it gives us is something quite different: a glimpse of those long months of freezing and sweltering, studying and contemplating, in the field by an observer who has done it with sensitive dedication. As the subtitle, Travels with Cranes, suggests, this is a travel book. Chapter by chapter, Matthiessen takes us to the known homes of the world’s 15 species of cranes, from the Daurian Steppe of Mongolia to Aransas National Refuge in Texas. Along the way, we meet not only the cranes but the other critters that inhabit the cranes’ world as well as the people, from highly trained scientists to illiterate enthusiasts, who have undertaken the long journey to understand cranes.

cover art

The Birds of Heaven

Peter Matthiessen

Travels With Cranes

(North Point Press)

Matthiessen’s guided tour makes several things disturbingly clear. For starters, while Birds of Heaven doesn’t pretend to be a science book, it reviews or introduces a lot of good science. One gets a reassuring view of how scientists solve problems through innovation, technology, and hard work. Less reassuring, good science often depends on simple good luck. More disturbingly, while our pop culture would seem to assert that modern man has come to know, or can come to know, everything worth knowing, Matthiessen’s 300 pages about cranes demonstrate that we know very little. Cranes’ mating patterns are only now coming into focus, much of their migrations remains unfathomable, great hypotheses and established theories crumble in the face of a single, fortuitous observation, and observed behavior remains inexplicable.

This much is clear, however. Cranes, particularly those in Asia and Africa, live among contentious people and cranes suffer from their violence. Too, cranes everywhere face a world of continued economic turmoil of one sort or another and this does them no good. Impoverished people kill cranes by intent or accident, and globalization’s feverish development, from reclamation to dams and power lines, destroys habitat with relish. Matthiessen guides us through these troubled landscapes with passion and grace. If cranes are to have any future, our problems, political and economic, have to be solved and fast. Frogs will fly first.

Most disturbing is Matthiessen’s discussion of the Chinese attitude. Though the Chinese in their art and literature seem to revere nature, they are grandly indifferent to it in practice, particularly after their cultural revolution. Nature, if it exists at all, has to learn to live with us, not the other way around. Since there are many Chinese, a substantial proportion of the human population holds this post-modern view, and it increasingly expresses itself well beyond China.

Among The Economist’s books of the year is one, The Skeptical Environmentalist, which argues that environmental problems, if they really exist, are curable through market forces and development. This just isn’t true, and if cranes could speak, they’d say so. With an indifference toward nature on the rise, Asimov’s forecast of a planet turned into nothing but a satellite of steel and concrete seems more the actual goal of our industrial society than science fiction. Reading Matthiessen makes one wonder how much longer nature will put up with this.

Cranes are an umbrella or indicator species. If cranes are doing ok, most other things in their ecosystem, things not even known to us, must be doing well too. But cranes are also a relic species, something left over from long ago. They are undoubtedly well on their way to extinction with or without human interference. If their extinction is inevitable, why then should we care? Biologists tell us that extinction is the fate of all species, our own included. To let nature dictate the place and hour of a species’s oblivion is one thing. That humans would willfully or accidentally make the decision is something else altogether, an insult that hastens the hour of our own demise.

Still not everything is dismal. In 1979, Eurasian cranes, of their own volition, successfully nested in the Norfolk Broads for the first time since 1653. The area has since become England’s newest national park. Meanwhile, North America’s whooping cranes are also doing reasonably well, given their precarious situation.

Robert Bateman illustrates Birds of Heaven with black and white drawings and color plates of his beautiful paintings. They are thrilling, almost breathtaking, and a few are utterly erotic. They stand on their own as an artistic achievement. The endpaper maps are useful, though the one of Asia is inconveniently folded right in the middle of the action. The book would benefit by the inclusions of outline maps in the text. The thirty pages of notes are detailed and hard going, but they are informative and with a little digging will get the interested reader into the scientific literature.

And a last word of warning: Matthiessen has been described as a nature writer in the ‘lyrical tradition’. Some readers may think this is a euphemism for ‘cumbersome’. Either way, Matthiessen is a writer who insists that the reader pay attention. He is always worth the effort.

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