The Life of the Skies Birding at the End of Nature

Jonathan Rosen




Trade Paperback

336 Pages


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A mixture of memoir, nature writing, history, and philosophy, Jonathan Rosen's The Life of the Skies is a look at the complex relationship humans have with their flying counterparts and a history of America viewed on the wing. Rosen argues that birdwatching is nothing less than the real national pastime. Moreover, it's inextricably linked to our history. John James Audubon arrived in America in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was president, and lived long enough to see his friend Samual Morse send a telegraphic message in the 1840s. President Theodore Roosevelt was an avid birder. As a boy, Roosevelt learned taxidermy from a man who had sailed up the Missouri River with Audubon, and yet as president he oversaw America's entry into the twentieth century, a new era in which our ability to destroy ourselves and the natural world were no longer merely metaphorical. Born in the heyday of great sport hunters, Roosevelt died a committed conservationalist. Rosen himself began birdwatching a decade ago, and it changed the way he saw the country and the world. With his characteristic humor and lightly held erudition, he investigates where the manifold interconnections—historical and literary, spiritual and scientific—between human and avian lie. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nearly 48 million Americans watch birds. Rosen's unique story of watcher and watched illuminates why we are bound to birds, not only by our fears and fantasies but by a complex common destiny.


Praise for The Life of the Skies

"Jonathan Rosen's voice is the most original . . . The Life of the Skies in indeed unusual in its focus on the watcher as well as the watched. For him, observing nature (and birds are what is left of nature to city-dwellers) corresponds to profound human impulses to restore a sense of kinship with wild creatures, to inspire awe of life and fear of humans' destructive impulses, and to rekindle a religious appreciation of creation. These ruminations are saved from oversolemnity by Rosen's precise erudition, his sense of humor, and a doubt that we can ever 'make the impulses behind birdwatching "explicit." It is an activity that lives in the doing.'"—Robert O. Paxon, The New York Review of Books

"Rosen's prose has a lucid originality, moving easily from the serious to the hilarious . . . The Life of the Skies does not explain bird-watching but holds it up to the light, like a rough gem, to let us catch reflections from its myriad facets one by one."—Kenn Kaufman, The Washington Post

"[Rosen] has a sharp eye for detail and a fund of erudition, and his ruminations on birds—and bired lore, natural history, and the literature of birds—are seductive and wise."—The Wall Street Journal

"The Life of the Skies is part birding history, part birding travelogue, centered on Rosen’s regular migration route from his apartment to Central Park . . . with the occasional exotic birding trip. (The descriptions of birding in the Holy Land are particularly beautiful.) . . .  It is a thoughtful and engaging journey, one that discusses the history of birding alongside changes in the conception of nature from the 19th century until the present. There are cameos by Frank Chapman, the banker-turned-birder who created the Christmas Bird Count in 1900; Kenn Kaufman, the Jack Kerouac of birding, who in the ’70s hitchhiked the back roads of America for sightings; and Thoreau, who gets taken down as an antisocial hermit and praised as the inventor of backyard bird-watching. Theodore Roosevelt is Rosen’s hero, partly because he was a books-to-woods president, . . . partly because Rosen sees him as ‘a rare but archetypal creature: an outdoor intellectual.’”—Robert Sullivan, The New York Times Book Review

"Rosen's engagingly crafted report on modern bird watching will not convert anybody who isn't a bird lover, which is fine. Because The Life of the Skies is not pushing a pastime; it is fording the passage of time with binoculars for a torch. In this meditation, winged creatures are but heralds of an equally celestial family: the poets who write about them. This is a book that brings Spinoza, Kafka, Keats and a dozen other men of letters into the first 15 pages to share company with geese, jackdaws and egrets. Birds that feature most prominently do so as feathered totems: Darwin's finch, Whitman's mockingbird, Audubon's parrot . . . Perhaps the most marvelous specimen in his collection is Alfred Russel Wallace, an explorer and scientist who advanced the notion of natural selection before Darwin. This man, though not a poet, 'haunts birdwatching, and should rightfully haunt this book,' writes Rosen, before painting a scene in which Wallace has just arrived in London from the Malay peninsula with two birds of paradise in hand. No bird, and certainly not the exotic beauties so foreign to the halls of Britain's scientific societies, is as plaintive a being as a forgotten man who, in balancing science with spiritualism, became more comfortable with another species than his own. That Rosen recognizes Wallace as the endangered species in this tableau recognizes that Rosen is a poet as well as a birder."—Elizabeth Kiem, San Francisco Chronicle

"A book of exuberant range, of insight and far sight, of trapezes swung for and caught, and now and then a trapeze too far. There are a great many birds in it, avidly watched, but to think of it as about bird-watching is to think of prayer as about steeples. Rosen's is a restless mind with a lyrical and exploring bent. An essayist, novelist and former culture editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, he works on the principle that if you reach a long way and often, your grasp score will be pretty good. His reaches and grasps make connections of all kinds, most especially between the rival poles of science and religion. These were seriously and playfully displayed in The Talmud and the Internet, where Rosen argued that a particular kind of thinking—in webs—is common to both Jewish theology and digital computing. In his new book, still touching at length on science and faith, he strives to connect—or find a middle ground between—the human need to master nature and to be mastered by it. We are torn between the desire to be free to build, cut down, expand and develop 'and the desire to live among free things that can survive only if we are less free.'"—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times

"You don't have to be a birdwatcher to be enchanted by Jonathan Rosen's fascinating, often moving book . . . [it] will make you peer into the skies with a mixture of longing, sadness, and hope."—USA Today

"Rosen makes accessible a world that might seem esoteric . . . it is Rosen's childlike fascination with the avian world and his willingness to follow his heart that make his enthusiasm so incredibly infectious."—The Miami Herald

"Mr. Rosen—an accomplished novelist and presently the editorial director at Nextbook—has in this present work given the bird-watching community a portrait of itself that discloses many of its deeper psychological aspects that have been too often missed by previous authors. What does it say about us that we watch birds? Rosen delves deep into that question. Centering much of the investigation and discussion around E.O. Wilson's theory of biophilia—the idea that humans evolved as creatures deeply enmeshed with the intricacies of nature—and that we still have this affinity with nature ingrained in our genotype, Rosen extrapolates from his own experience. Living in the center of one of the world's largest metropolitan areas, New York City, he discovered bird watching for himself in Central Park. However, his bird-watching activities have since drawn him far afield, from the swamps of Arkansas in search of the ivory-billed woodpecker to the wadis of Israel in search of the birds of the Old World. This in itself is the central idea of The Life of the Skies: that the remnants of what once was a lively and vibrant natural world draw us, through the technology we have created and by the power it gives us, back into nature. From this we experience our deeply ingrained but too often forgotten connection to it. People have watched birds for centuries, even millennia, but it’s only through modern developments in optics, radiotelemetry, and transportation that we are able to learn anything more about them than the most rudimentary aspects of their lives. Yet these same developments have been possible through the exploitation and, too often, the destruction of species and habitats. For examples, in order to save the world from Hitler's fascism and preserve freedom the freedom of people to engage in such activities as the study of nature, the last known tract of land on which the ivory-billed woodpecker was logged to produce materials to support the war effort. Such is the irony of our modern relationship to the natural world and the appeal of such reconnecting activities as bird watching. Throughout The Life of Skies, Rosen draws liberally on the lives and discoveries of some of the great naturalists of history, from Audubon and Darwin to Alfred Russell Wallace and Gilbert White. He also includes much from the lives and works of many of the great poets and philosophers who made nature a central part of their works, especially Dickinson, Thoreau, and Frost. The result is a kaleidoscopic journey through the often ironic and contradictory relationship of humans to the natural world, represented most prominently by birds. Truly, this is a book that will be often quotes and long remembered in the literature of natural history." —John E. Riutta, Bird Watcher's Digest 

"Entertaining and compelling, full of natural wonders and wonderful storytelling. 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, former Poet Laureate of the United States

"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

"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 see a waxwing in the same way again."—Steven Pinker, author of The Stuff of Thought

"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

"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

"New Yorker contributor and novelist Rosen writes engagingly of his philosophy of how bird-watching in its broadest sense influences and fits into the fabric of Western and Judeo-Christian heritage. He draws examples generously and convincingly from the works of such major figures as Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vladimir Nabokov, Alfred Tennyson, and John James Audubon, as well as Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, E.O. Wilson, Alfred Russel Wallace, and many others. Beautifully structured, Rosen's book ties these disparate authors and thinkers together in surprising ways. In addition, he cites ancient Persian poetry and contemplates the importance of birds and nature in the Holy Land. But much of his experience transpires at New York's Central Park and, with searches for the mythic ivory-billed woodpecker, in the Southeast. The psychology of our ties to nature and differences between the sexes are also touched upon. A sort of book-length essay, this is a most thoughtful, literate, and entertaining work. The interplay between religion and science, especially evolution, comes in for much scrutiny. Highly recommended."—Henry T. Armistead, Library Journal

"In this eloquent book, Rosen—a novelist and editorial director of Nextbook, which promotes Jewish culture and literature—meditates on the fact that technology enables us to preserve wildlife and at the same time contributes to its demise. He laments that no sooner had he discovered bird-watching than he realized that nature has become a diminished thing, as Robert Frost put it in his poem 'The Oven Bird.' Everywhere he looks—from a Louisiana swamp to the Israeli desert—he finds a paradox: we are attempting to preserve nature at the same time that we are destroying it. Cars, trains and planes, Rosen writes, have enabled us to find the birds of America for ourselves, even as these inventions have contributed to the fragmentation that endangers them. Birds sing back to us an aspect of ourselves, Rosen says, harking back to Audubon, and he confesses that this is why he came to bird-watching, making it even more poignant that so many birds are close to disappearing forever. Rosen's wide-ranging intellect (he is also the author of The Talmud and the Internet) flits gracefully from nature to history to poetry, and gentle meditations can be spiked with barbs ('Collecting' is the ornithological euphemism for killing). This beautifully written book is an elegy to the human condition at a time when wilderness is becoming a thing of the past."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



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Jonathan Rosen is the author of The Talmud and the Internet and the novels Eve’s Apple and Joy Comes in the Morning. He is the editorial director of Nextbook and lives in New York City.

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  • Jonathan Rosen

  • 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 and lives in New York City.
  • Jonathan Rosen Abigail Pope