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A Word Is Worth 10,000 Pixels

One of the under-appreciated aspects of Roger Tory Peterson’s genius was the old master’s way with words. I’m not talking about Peterson’s storytelling, e.g., in Wild America and Birds Over America—for which he was justly famous. Rather, I’m talking about the words in Peterson’s field guides.

Peterson’s Reddish Egret “lurches about, acts drunk.” The Purple Finch looks like a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” And even though I’ve never knowingly heard a Smith’s Longspur, and long forgotten what the winding of a cheap watch sounds like, I’ll always remember Peterson’s description of the flight call of the Smith’s Longspur: “like the winding of a cheap watch.”

Peterson has long been admired—and is still emulated—for his efficient, no-nonsense illustrations. His words are efficient, too, and, in some sense, no-nonsense, but don’t take that the wrong way. They’re literary, haiku-like in their power and brevity. I confess, I can’t anymore bring to mind Peterson’s illustrations of the egret or finch, but the words are stamped in my mind forever. I’ve learned to see the world as much through Peterson’s writing as through his illustrations.

 

There’re an awful lot of field guides out there, each one striving, each in its own way, to lay claim to some kernel of distinctiveness of even uniqueness. The other day, I acquired one that is highly distinctive and, if not precisely unique, then at least sure to be the new standard, the new exemplar, for splendid writing. I refer to Rick Wright’s American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of New Jersey (Scott & Nix, 2014).

I suspect Wright had Peterson explicitly in mind when he penned the ABA New Jersey guide. Even if he didn’t, Peterson’s influence is unmistakably there—channeled through other birder–educators and the author’s own subconscious. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but let’s put that in perspective: Wright has, in my opinion, actually surpassed Peterson. Don’t take my word for it. Here are Wright’s own words:

  • The Caspian Tern is “pterodactyl-like,” the Double-crested Cormorant “archaic-looking.” Sanderlings are “small, round, and perpetually in motion,” and American Coots are “social but fractious.” The Blue Jay is “a bright, brash Mr. Hyde at wintertime bird feeders,” but “a quiet and retiring Dr. Jekyll in the breeding season.” I’m going to use those exact words on the beginning birders’ outing I’m leading next week. What was that about imitation, sincerity, and flattery?
  • Habitat, especially micro-habitat, is hugely important, and hugely under-utilized, in bird ID. So many field guides just blow right past habitat: a few words in the intro, and that’s about it. Not so in the ABA New Jersey Guide. The Prairie Warbler inhabits “old fields, especially those with tangled red cedar,” whereas the Orange-crowned Warbler is “fond of goldenrod and ragweed” and “most often found feeding close to the ground on cold autumn days.”
  • For any field guide author, there is the immense challenge of describing bird vocalizations in words. Wright rises to the challenge, and then some. The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s calls are “high, wheezy lisps,” its song “vague,” “rambling,” and “scratchy.” The Yellow-billed Cuckoo (which happens to be “lanky and reptilian”—love it!) sings a song that Wright describes as a “maniacal, decelerating chuckle.” The Prothonotary Warbler is “a golden bird with a golden voice,” and the Veery’s song is “oddly beautiful.” I can’t think of better descriptions of those birds’ songs, and, again, you can depend on me to repeat those words, next time I encounter those birds in the field.
  • I called Roger Tory Peterson’s prose haiku-like, but Rick Wright’s account of the “hyperactive” Golden-crowned Kinglet practically is a haiku. The bird is so small, according to Wright, that it’s “barely-there” (yes, as a hyphenated, attributive adjective). And Wright hits the nail on the head with his description of the barely-there kinglet’s call: It is simply—simply, powerfully, and indelibly—“rushed.” If you know the call of the Golden-crown, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, you’ll learn it from Wright’s guide, and you’ll never unlearn it.

 

BINbuttonThe great haiku are paintings. In just seventeen syllables (in classical Japanese) or fewer (in most English-language haiku), the poet creates a complex image—images, actually, in spacetime. Indeed, the famous haiku of Bashō (1644–1694) and Nick Virgilio (1928–1989) have been reinterpreted as paintings.

Rick Wright’s American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New Jersey contains wonderful, Technicolor, mega-pixel images. They’re beautiful and powerful. So is the text, one perfectly chosen, evocative word at a time.

 

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

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  • Frank Izaguirre

    I agree that RTP was an underrated wordsmith (Jack and I had this conversation once), but for me that meant Wild America, as you mentioned, and his collection of Birdwatcher’s Digest essays. I hadn’t thought about the prose in his guidebooks. Great analysis, and my interest in Rick’s book is also piqued.

    On a somewhat tangential note, have you heard of the book Walden by Haiku? It’s what it sounds like: a translation of Walden into haikus. It’s a really interesting and creative project by Ian Marshall. I would quote one here, but I don’t have the book with me. I remember one about his bean plants being pretty good. If you’re interested, I’ll lend it to you next time I see you.

    • Ted Floyd

      Frank, I think you do know, at least at a subconscious level… 🙂

      The things is, Peterson’s way with words has become so normative, so ingrained in our thinking, that we’ve forgotten how radical it was, and, I would say, still is. In Peterson’s field guide, the male American Goldfinch in summer is “The only small yellow bird with black wings.” That’s it. That’s all. And that’s a drastic departure from standard operating procedure–with its rectrices and remiges, culmen depths and tarsus lengths, and so forth.

      Peterson’s genius was all about simplification. Peterson could reduce the amazing complexity of the male American Goldfinch in summer to fewer than 10 words. He also had the radical idea, reaching full fruition in his 1980 Field Guide, of scrapping the AOU’s linear sequence for a supposedly simpler and more logical ordering of the plates. Steve Howell and others have recently injected new life into this approach.

      The more I see of new field guides, the more I appreciate that it’s 1934 all over again.

  • Sharon Johnston

    Yes, the power of words. Great post. Thanks so much Ted.

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