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Remembering Matthiessen


Peter Matthiessen, the esteemed writer and naturalist, has passed away. I imagine many ABA members are familiar with his work and mourn his passing. For me, his writing is an inspiration, from At Play in the Fields of the Lord, an excellent novel about missionaries in the Amazon, to The Snow Leopard, a travelogue about a journey in the Himalayas, to Wildlife in America, a book of pure natural history with an emphasis on extinctions in the North American continent.

obit-peter-matthiessenAn aspect of his writing that helped make me such a big fan of his work is his avian-literacy. Although a great deal of Matthiessen’s work is about human drama, he always wrote with a keen sense of the birdlife of whatever setting he chose for his novels and travelogues. There are lammergeiers in The Snow Leopard and cotingas in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, for instance, despite them not being essential to the story or driving any significant plot points.

Well, I suppose they might be essential in the same way that birds are essential to many of us. Superficially, it might seem like not paying attention to birds as we go about our lives would be easy, but their beauty and intrigue make them impossible to ignore. The pull is too strong. Even when Matthiessen’s primary subject-matter is far away from birds, his attention to birds and other aspects of the natural world capture that sentiment.

On the other hand, some of his books are focused exclusively on birds. From his vast oeuvre, a particular favorite of mine which I think many ABA members would enjoy is The Wind Birds, a book-length essay on the lyricism and wonder of American shorebirds. Across much of the ABA Area at this very moment, the wind birds are arriving on bogs, beaches, and other appropriate habitats, and birders are eagerly anticipating and searching for them. If you haven’t read The Wind Birds, I highly recommend it as an underappreciated classic of American nature writing. You will learn about the fascinating biology, the history, and perhaps most of all, the poetry of this beloved group of birds.

Do you have a favorite Peter Matthiessen book? Or one you’re planning to read in the future? What do you think his legacy will be to the nature writing canon, and perhaps even to the world of bird writing?

There are many ways ABA members can honor the memory of Peter Matthiessen. We can read a book of his, perhaps his forthcoming novel In Paradise, or we can reread an old favorite. We can spread awareness of distressing environmental (and social) injustices. We can even spend a few minutes focusing on being fully present in the here and now, a practice Matthiessen considered highly important and which was often a theme in his writing. Perhaps not by coincidence, birding is a great way to do just that.

Myself, I think I would like to do all of those things, but I have another idea, just for fun. The next time I dip on a highly coveted target bird, I plan to think to myself: I have not seen the western spindalis. Isn’t that wonderful?

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Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre is a nature writer and a candidate for the Ph.D. in English Literature at West Virginia University with a special passion for the memoirs and essays of early Neotropical ornithologists. He likes his birding milestones to be palindromes, and is currently at 1001 birds.
  • Rick Wright

    A wonderful piece, Frank; thank you.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      Thanks, Rick! I wanted to do justice to such a great writer.

  • Ted Floyd

    ABA old-timers will wish to consult Birding, December 2002, pp. 564-565. Nice summary there, by Allan Burns, of Matthiessen’s relevance to birders and birding.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      Not just old-timers. I’d love to check out that piece sometime.

      • Ted Floyd

        Here’s a tease, Frank. From that article:

        “The depth of Matthiessen’s subjective response to natural phenomena, his profound commitment to preservation, and the literary power of his language make his works, both philosophically and aesthetically, extensions of the visions of Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold. All these facets of his work are present in a single, awe-inspiring sentence from *Wildlife in America*, depicting the doomed flight of a rare Black-capped Petrel:


        Can you guess which sentence Burns is referring to?

        • Frank Izaguirre

          “One imagines with a sense of foreboding this strange, solitary bird passing astern, its dark, sharp wing rising and vanishing like a fin as it banks stiffly among the crests until, scarcely discernible, it fades into eternities of sea.”

          • Ted Floyd

            You got it!

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