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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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