Up in the Air: A Response to Edward Tenner on the Subject of Bird-Watching

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Jan. 24 2011 3:54 PM

Up in the Air: A Response to Edward Tenner on the Subject of Bird-Watching

My assignment as Slate 's "Assessment" columnist is to profile, every other week, the most interesting person or idea in the cultural limelight. Most recently, I wrote about the renascent birder . I argued that, given bird-watching's path to popularity over the course of the 20 th century, its re-emergence in public life over the past few weeks can be seen as an indicator of national power anxiety: Modern birding, it turns out, rose in precise counterpoint with industrial, and then nuclear, proliferation. I was interested this afternoon to find a lengthy response to my piece by the historian and Atlantic blogger Edward Tenner (whose work I much admire and whose editorial responsibilities, apparently, once included selecting field guides for publication). He says he disagrees with me. Most of that disagreement seems to rest with the importance of Roger Tory Peterson, whom I identify as a crucial figure in the rise of birding to mainstream popularity.

Tenner suggests I ignore the first conservation efforts—which began around the turn of the century, largely under the auspices of the Audubon Society—and the importance of new optical technologies. Here is what I wrote in my piece:

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The first birders—as opposed to hunters or scientists—appeared in the late 19 th  century, partly as a result of a boom in the natural sciences (which helped flesh out the field of ornithology) and partly as a reaction against the new effects of manufacturing. In America, early on, Harriet Hemenway founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society to fight the industrial slaughter of local birds for hat feathers. 

Tenner goes on to point out that Florence Merriam Bailey (who, like Hemenway, was spurred to action largely by industrial bird harvesting) produced the first recognizable field guide in 1889. I certainly would not dispute this, and my piece did not say otherwise. Instead, I argued that modern birding came into being with Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds , a book whose field methodology differed from precedents and captured the interest of amateur birders to a new degree.

Tenner rightly points out that this methodology was not, in fact, totally sui generis: It owed a good deal to the work of Peterson's mentor, Ludlow Griscom. (I assume that Tenner's reference to "Lowell" Griscom is some sort of typo.) This is welcome elaboration, but I hope Tenner will indulge me if I continue to argue it was Peterson, not Griscom, who chiefly influenced the culture of bird-watching in the years that followed: Not only was Peterson's guide far more widely used than, for instance, Griscom's Birds of the New York City Region (Peterson's work sold literally millions of copies); it originated a form of visual presentation that made Griscom's sometimes arcane methodology broadly accessible. In the history of bird-watching in mainstream public life—which was my subject in this short essay—it is Peterson who played the far more central role.

Tenner remarks that in his experience as a field-guide aquiring editor, he "never detected any anxiety about nuclear destruction even during the Cold War tensions of the Reagan era." Yet he ignores, among other things, my discussion of Silent Spring , a landmark book that, with its likening of ecological crisis to nuclear cataclysm, gave voice to that precise anxiety. Neither does he address the sudden rise of birding in the '60s and '70s as a mainstream recreational pursuit. Not only did the number of amateur birders greatly increase during this era; the first popular birding magazines and tourism programs date to that period as well.

These are matters of historical emphasis, of course. What struck me most—what impelled me to respond, in fact—was Tenner's ghastly, near-slanderous claim that "Heller doesn't seem to know his vampires." This is both insulting and untrue. When I remarked that many birders rise at "vampiric hours," I was not writing under the impression that bloodsuckers share the morning with the trash man and a few highly ambitious joggers. I was alluding to the preference that many birders have for rising long before the sun to catch their subjects in first flight. I'm sure Tenner will agree that at that hour, in the dark, there's still reason to keep one's neck covered.

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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