Who You Callin' Amateur?
A review by Rick Wright
Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, by Jack Hitt
280 pages, $26—Hardcover
In January 1917, Harold Gifford called in the pages of The Condor for the founding of a League for the Extermination of Amateur Ornithologists. The editors responded: Dr. Gifford
does not seem to realize that with the extermination of the amateur ornithologist, scientific ornithology is doomed to die out inside of one generation!
The notion that we birdwatchers contribute to science is a venerable one, running, in Mary Clench's felicitous phrase, "from the Pilgrims to the present." Historically, at least, there's a fair bit of truth to it: You may know the story of Eliot Howard, the manager of a steel plant in Britain and a fan of the Common Reed Bunting who, in 1920, introduced the concept of territoriality to English-speaking academic ornithology. And here in America, the great ornithological societies might never have survived their incunabula if not for dues-paying members drawn from the ranks of us dilettantes.
Jack Hitt's Bunch of Amateurs is an anecdotal exploration of the role of the amateur in American intellectual life, drawing for its vast range of examples on archeology, diplomacy, microbiology, robotics, anthropology, astronomy—and yes, ornithology. The test case in that last field, the one that matters to us, is the most celebrated of the century so far, the claimed rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker almost a decade ago. Hitt—a contributing editor at The NYT Magazine, Harpers, and Lingua Franca—had just been let in on the secret by a slightly indiscreet friend inside The Nature Conservancy when, on that April day in 2005, the story
leaked and blazed across the front pages of 459 newspapers.... The eminent director of the Cornell Labratory of Ornithology, in an ironical choice of metaphor, said "This is dead solid confirmed."
That untimely revelation denied Hitt his journalistic scoop. He overcame his disappointment, though, and quickly saw what too few have noticed even now: that "the ivory-bill came to represent issues much bigger than a single bird." The story was about much more than the factual matter of whether the big woodpecker survived or not; it became mythological,
a tale of professionals erecting a citadel of expert opinion around a new truth, with a sequel about a messy band of amateurs assaulting that fortress and tearing it brick by brick to the ground.
That's an admirably neat summary cast in enviably catchy language. But as we read on in the narrative of the Campephilus affair, it becomes clearer and clearer that the aperçu is too pithy by half. The mismatch between the tidiness of Hitt's categories and the messy individual realities of his subjects is a recurring problem in the book, but nowhere as obvious as it is here. What Hitt's simple heuristic paints as a battle pitting credentialed experts against ragtag hobbyists was far more complex, a series of sometimes discrete, sometimes overlapping struggles, with academics and amateurs, birders and bloggers, gurus and kooks coming down on both sides (all sides?) of the debate.
Any distinction between "professionals" and "amateurs," in other words, makes it impossible to tell this story right.
Hitt also, here and occasionally in the book's other chapters, falls prey to a temptation he himself warns against at the beginning of his book: the identification of the amateur with the freak. Cornell's search team brought many well-known and eminently serious birders—amateurs—to the Big Woods, but they don't get much space on the page here. Instead, Hitt regales us with tales of a "perky" volunteer and a "ghost-chaser." Both anecdotes are uproariously funny (the one speaks mysteriously of her Ivorybill experience as if it were a state secret, the other "sees the bird quite a lot when she's alone"), but both are a little mean-spirited, as if Hitt were on a search not for the American character but for characters.
Hitt is absolutely right on, though, when he relaxes his focus on "amateurism" to consider the Ivorybill story from the point of view of narrative convention.
Every time, these expeditions seemed to be remakes of the exact same buddy flick. The courtly individual from the Yankee Ivy League college gets taken into the woods by the joshing redneck who knows the ground.... This repetitive quality to the stories—the experts, the fuzzy image, the pleas for belief and the collapse of the evidence, the Yankee intellectual and the Southern woodsman, the ultimate quest for land protection—meant that the search for the ivory-bill...was American mythology.
That is a powerful observation, one less about the status of a more or less extinct woodpecker than about the way in which the human mind creates truth. Hopes, dreams, and observations—for birders, for ornithologists, for amateurs and for professionals—make sense to us only when they fit into a comforting framework, only when they can be made to retell a story we've heard and told before. Maybe, as Hitt almost suggests, the problem with this latest (certainly not the last) Ivorybill affair was that the professionals started to tell an amateur story.
The categories don't work in this story—but they haven't worked in the North American bird world for decades now. In Harold Gifford's long-ago day, professional ornithologists and amateur ornithologists were engaged in much the same activities: shooting, skinning, and classifying. Nearly a century later, ornithology has become so specialized, so technical a discipline that it is nonsensical to speak, as Hitt does, of "amateurs" in that field. There are professional ornithologists, there are amateur birders, there are (even) professional birders; but, I would point out, there are no amateur ornithologists, unaffiliated, uncredentialed, uncertified dilettantes who while away the winter weekends in the garage, tinkering with their homemade electrophoresis kits.
But that doesn't mean that the editors of The Condor were entirely wrong, or that our long-lived pious belief in the contributions of the birder to science is always false. Properly trained bird banders with well-designed and well-defined projects, census-takers for the Breeding Bird Surveys, even careful Christmas counters and conscientious eBirders are all among the amateurs piling up the data for generations of professionals to come. It's not as sexy a story, but those and other enterprises like them just might tell us more about the American character than even the tale of the Ivorybill.
Wright, R. 2013. Who You Callin' Amateur? [a review of Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, by Jack Hitt]. Birding 45(2):67.