Birding, it is time to reflect, is a strange genre of nature appreciation. It is a thoroughly modern activity, evolved from the secular world-view of modernity which questioned but did not replace the special-creation view of Medievalism.
John James Audubon signaled the new awareness a hundred and fifty years ago. But it was Roger Tory Peterson who jump-started birding when he perfected the “field mark” technique for quickly identifying birds at a distance, through prism binoculars, in the mid-Thirties. As Ludlow Griscom had shown, this eliminated the need to “collect” a
specimen in order to identify it.
Even so, until the advent of commercial aircraft after World War II, most of us remained regionalists. We walked, used trains or street cars, and increasingly, automobiles, to access the countryside. When Bill Drury and other friends graduated from Harvard in the mid-Forties, they invited me to join an automobile junket to California, just to see birds. I missed that adventure. Roger Peterson first visited Kenya as guest of John Bull of Canada because a tea company subsidized the venture to obtain bird illustrations for its advertisements.
But birding did not become dominant until the Seventies, as the birders’ invasion of the tropics illustrates. For my wealthier New York City friends, Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, was the target. In early 2004, a group of blind people in Texas “made” The New York Times by organizing field trips based on competing in listing birds only by hearing them. What changes will birding survive in this postmodern era?
On reading Wendy Steiner’s The Colors of Rhetoric, it occurred to me that socially, birding is to ornithology what cubism was to painting. Both are the consequence of a studied process of abstraction.
A century ago the cubist, newly alerted to the physics of vision, represented the visual act of scanning by concentrating on the steps in that process. The abstract expressionists who followed focused on the process itself—spattering, dribbling, and scarifying—all to remind us that the artist is intent on achieving a separate creation. Copying nature is passé. Hence the stress on the physical properties of the media they use—the brush stroke, impasto, color field—since these are more “thing-like,” an example of the objectivity which modernity admires.
For the new birder, know it or not, the illustration in a field guide, though only a virtual bird, becomes its own empirical reality. Like the scientist and the abstract artist before him, Peterson’s minimalist art ousted metaphor from his illustrations: no shadows, no
reflected light, no confusing vegetative backdrops or occlusions.
If trained mostly in this idiom, the birder accepts the picture in the book as an expression of the real world. Tragically, and again unknowingly because unreflected upon, this new
thing-world tends to replace the real world—the complex, confusing, living world—in his or her mind. It seems simpler, better-organized, easier to remember, sufficient.
When a real bird is seen it suffices to confirm that it matches the picture in the book. Check! Let’s move on. Ludlow Griscom, Peterson’s guru, used to say, “Things are getting dull.” This was driven home to me recently when I expressed admiration for Jon Fjeldsa’s lively illustrations in Birds of The High Andes. A capable young tour-leader we were with immediately responded, “But these illustrations are of little use to birders. They don’t focus on field marks systematically.”
The field mark becomes a substitute for the virtual bird’s identificatory “gesture.” Birders recognize this when they refer to a real bird’s gesture as its ‘jizz.” Good artists long ago learned that some general characteristic suffices to identify most of us most of the time.
Though he copyrighted the field mark approach, Peterson simply applied it to bird
identification. He did not invent it. Ernest Thompson Seton had paved the way.
As one comes to expect, birders invented a metalanguage to deal with the esoteric clues that represent this truncated view of birds in their landscapes. Sandpipers become “peep”
or “stints.” Red-tailed Hawks are “tails.” Turkey Vultures are “TVs.” Birders also often affect a sort of “antipassatismo,” a down-with-the-past attitude. They have trouble referring to anyone in the field who was prior to Roger Peterson or, now, David Sibley.
Even Griscom, who helped launch the movement, is already a mythological figure, as Peterson will soon be also.
Not that birders are any more idiosyncratic than those around them, though they are distinguishable enough. One may wonder whether birding is a civilizational malaise generated by the specialism of the modern era. Ornithology itself, the specialty of professional bird people, is going through a crisis concerning the origin of birds. This is mostly generated by a new system of classification, cladistics, wherein you let a software program sort out only what is currently measurable. Things may become saturated with ideology and pose as the only game in town.
One can hardly characterize the nature of modern birding except in the context of what is happening to us in the larger culture. Such analyses have hardly begun. There are clues, however, in Guy Debord’s 1988 complaint about “the society of the spectacle.” But it is symptomatic that this work became available in English translation only in 1998.
Debord was reflecting on the implications of the post-World War II make-over of the world through commercialization, which is turning nature and every-day life into commodities. Our unease at this transition may even be one cause of our return to nature through birding. Debord called this commercialization process a new form of colonization, a social end-product of our four-hundred year old system of wealth accumulation, capitalism.
President Eisenhower first called our attention to the military-industrial complex, fearing that it was dominating our lives. This is now acknowledged to be a military-industrial-entertainment complex, and it dominates our waking hours. The only antidote is to give up television and newspapers. The economic system’s capacity for overproduction now requires it to manufacture a growing desire for goods. It must make us into habitual consumers that will satisfy the insatiable beast that is the production system. Our very subjectivity is milked by corporate psychologists to produce a flow of saleable addictions so as to fuel the essential consumerism.
This is not the place to enter into the political problematics created by the commercial domination of our lives. But it may help to become aware that the market’s needs required dragging in government to help manage, enforce, and police the commercial system. The spectacle of 9/11 was an ultimate version of the manipulation of symbols, this time to our disadvantage. The neoconservatives proceeded to confuse individualistic rebellion among those who felt abused, and called it war.
The addition of the entertainment industry to Eisenhower’s complex became necessary to explain the development of the “perpetual emotion machine” which television, videos, and newspapers now provide. This is why the monopoly of the media became a systemic necessity. The image-makers can suffer no significant alternatives. Now they can lie at will, and change the subject if we complain. How different from Rome’s provision of bread and circus to pacify the crowd is this?
It may be premature to try to apply this sociology to birding, but we need reminding that there are new problems out there. Anything that intrudes between us as interacting agents and the real world diminishes us. This is the danger of commercializing everything.
The field guide is of course a useful tool. But if we allow its virtual birds to truncate our relations to real birds in the real world, we are both short-changed. Let us begin by observing birds closely enough to become critics of the illustrators of our field guides.
We might then think of birds as the “extended phenotype” of the habitats they need if they are to survive. This will help us see that the destructiveness of the greediest among us is really part of our own extended phenotype. Only we, together, can insist that the carnage of profit-making, which turns nature into commodities, be fenced off.
By inventing “the list” we changed birdwatching, which was once amateur field ornithology, to a competitive sport. For many the list tended to become more important
than the bird. We commercialized birding and its chase for the list when we began going abroad under the flag of ecotourism. We were teased into this, first by the airlines who saw the market potential of this hobby; then by touring agencies, old and new; and by our own conservation organizations whose upper-middle-class members were preconditioned and eager to join in seemingly more meaningful travel. It sometimes gnaws at me that I unwittingly facilitated this transition.
Better and better binoculars and telescopes, capable young leaders willing to devote three or four years of their lives to this poorly-paid vocation; playback tapes of bird songs, even laser pointers to help locate shy birds in dense foliage. All these helped, but it all becomes suspiciously like “pay per view” entertainment.
This is why, in the end, I think that Roger Peterson, the Audubonites, and other advocates of ecotourism were wrong when they thought that modern birding contributes significantly to bird conservation. Historians who have studied tourism call it a way of destroying the beautiful places. It changes the local economy. But biodiversity is a provisional commitment.
Despite a significant increase in public awareness, much of it stimulated by birding, the world’s birds continue to decline precipitously because habitat destruction is actually accelerating as the greedy vie for the last rich resource parcels. Our focus on birds, real and virtual, has blinded us to the irresponsible politico-economic realities of the resource utilization process we call capitalism.