American Birding Podcast



Spencer Schaffner: Binocular Vision

Download Spencer Schaffner’s Binocular Vision starts from the simple and important observation that field guides—like all texts—“do cultural work.” Behind and beyond their stated purposes, field guides affirm assumptions and create expectations in their users; Binocular Vision is a critical exploration of those assumptions and expectations, and many of the conclusions the book offers will be an unsettling surprise to many of its birding readers.

In five short chapters, Schaffner argues that modern birdwatching as practiced in the United States—and as reflected and, simultaneously, formed by its central texts—is not conservationist and environmentalist at all, but rather serves to efface the huge problems facing our birds and their habitats. Schaffner finds that most field guides and most birding neutralize our awareness of environmental challenges by constructing birds as separate from their physical settings and by presenting even the most toxic of artificial landscapes as benign. Along the way, the author serves up an indictment of some of North American birding’s most prominent and cherished institutions and practices; at times badly overstated, the book’s criticisms should nevertheless make all of us into more carefully self-aware birders.

Schaffner begins with a historical overview of the foundations of American birdwatching and its explicit link to forms of conservation at the end of the nineteenth century; he demonstrates well how the popular texts of the day joined sentiment, anthropomorphism, and moral judgment to enlist readers on the side of the birds. Schaffner contrasts these early works, chief among them guides written by Florence Merriam (later Bailey) and Mabel Osgood Wright, with the more strictly “technical,” soi-disant scientific approach taken starting in the 1920s.

The review is a welcome one, but what I miss in this chapter is a discussion of the evolution of the cultural gendering of birdwatching. It is no accident that these early writers were women or that so many of their books are addressed to children; and it is no coincidence that the re-gendering of serious birding as male, a status it still occupies today, was accomplished by stripping the field guide of its “feminine” features, replacing tales of bird family life with measurements and complex terminologies.

Schaffner goes on in Chapter 2 to explore the disconnect between the idea of birdwatching as biophily and the “management” required to sustain many species. Many birders will describe their hobby as a celebration of life; in fact, though, as the author points out, many of the birder’s most beloved objects are saved only at the expense of a great deal of death. For example, gulls are culled—killed—to protect plovers and terns (Schaffner misses the bitter irony that the abundance of the large gulls today is due in large part to the cessation of human persecution in the nineteenth century). Mute Swans have gone from icons of feathered beauty to a menace requiring control. Perhaps the most eloquent example of all goes almost unmentioned here: we poison thousands of blackbirds to keep them from eating the sunflower seed we’ll feed to our backyard birds in the winter. I wish, too, that Schaffner had enlarged his discussion of crow hunting and crow control to include the eradication two decades ago of Western Jackdaws from Canada, the perfect illustration of the tension between the birder’s desire to observe and the birdwatcher’s need to protect “good” birds from the potentially bad.

The most fascinating section of Binocular Vision is the discussion in Chapter 3 of efforts in field guides and in fine art to reverse the isolation of birds from their settings. Schaffner’s prime example here is American Bird Conservancy’s All the Birds, which intentionally places many of its bird portraits against such sadly realistic backgrounds as landfills and airports. The author discovers an ambiguity in many such scenes—are the birds shown as threatened by encroaching development or as adapting to it?—but their import remains clear: birds belong to places, and too many places have been altered by human activities.

The plate from All the Birds that Schaffner selects for close examination in this chapter is perhaps even more interesting than his discussion recognizes. The painter, Jack Griggs, places his American Pipits and Horned Larks on what looks like pavement, with urban San Francisco in the background and a large plane in the air above. Oddly, and possibly in contradiction of Schaffner’s larger argument about the book, single Sprague’s and Red-throated Pipits and a Sky Lark—all in classic “technical” field guide poses—float at the top of the plate, disassociated from any habitat context and from each other. Surely this says something about the painter’s or the designer’s attitudes to rarity and difficulty, and it may well also reflect some of that ancient eastern bias that lingers still in so many field guides. Here and occasionally elsewhere in Binocular Vision, the reader is left wanting to learn more.

Given the author’s expertise in the study of new media, Chapter 4, “Technojumping into Electronic Field Guides,” should have been the book’s best. Schaffner notes the tendency in some of the new e-guides to simply reproduce book pages on a computer screen, at best with the addition of sound files. He also hints at the new types of birderly socialization incipient in some online guides. What the author does not point out is that the navigation required to use these guides in many cases reverts, ironically, to the key structures at the base of some of the earliest technical field guides; in this sense, the e-guide, for all its technological pride, in fact represents a step back a hundred years or more.

Schaffner saves his most controversial points for last. In “Birding on Toxic Land,” he implicates competitive birding and listing in the perpetuation of a conservative conservation ethic and the cover-up of some of this country’s most screaming environmental problems. Eagerly birding sewage ponds, landfills, and toxic waste sites “overwrites those sites as healthy”; Schaffner contrasts the near-complacence of such behavior with the “radical image events” staged by more focused environmentalist groups. He finds that the strategies favored by moderate conservation organizations, especially fund-raising, are in fact readily co-opted by industry and its friends to perpetuate rather than to combat environmental degradation—a serious charge, and one leveled here squarely at such influential groups as New Jersey Audubon and such successful events as the World Series of Birding. Overstatement is one of my favorite rhetorical tools, too, but I believe that Schaffner ignores a number of examples where local birding groups have in fact pressed hard for the improvement of toxic environments, sometimes (as in the case of Tucson Audubon and the Avra Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant) at a clear cost to the birding opportunities those sites had offered before their clean-up.

I encourage every birder to read and to ponder this important book. A word to the wise: though Schaffner carefully avoids much of the critical jargon available to him, his prose here (surprisingly, to those of us who have read other of his writings) is more than a bit of a slog, full of repetition and infelicity. But stick with it. You’ll find yourself alternately fascinated and infuriated, and continually inspired to think through these issues yourself.