Nikon Monarch 7

aba events

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?

The following two tabs change content below.
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!

American Birding Podcast
Birders know well that the healthiest, most dynamic choruses contain many different voices. The birding community encompasses a wide variety of interests, talents, and convictions. All are welcome.
If you like birding, we want to hear from you.
Read More »

Recent Comments




ABA's FREE Birder's Guide

If you live nearby, or are travelling in the area, come visit the ABA Headquarters in Delaware City.

Beginning this spring we will be having bird walks, heron watches and evening cruises, right from our front porch! Click here to view the full calender, and register for events >>

via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Open Mic: Young Birder Camp at Hog Island: Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens September 11, 2017 3:07
    At the mic: Dessi Sieburth, an avid birder, photographer, and conservationist, is a 10th grader at Saint Francis High School in La Canada, California. He is a member of the Pasadena Audubon Young Birder’s Club and Western Field Ornithologists. Dessi enjoys birding in his home county of Los Angeles. Last summer, Dessi attended Camp Colorado, […]
  • Introducing the Whimbrel Birders Club! September 7, 2017 2:33
    Whimbrel Birders Club was established at the first annual Illinois Young Birders Symposium in August 2016. We are a birding club truly meant for everyone, no matter your age, disability, or ethnicity. […]
  • Open Mice: Kestrels–An Iowa Legacy May 16, 2017 6:29
    A few years ago, a short drive down my gravel road would yield at least one, if not two, American Kestrels perched on a power line or hovering mid-air above the grassy ditch. Today, I have begun to count myself lucky to drive past a mere one kestrel per week rather than the daily sightings. […]

Follow ABA on Twitter