Thursday, August 28, 2008

Review: All Things Reconsidered

In honor of the centennial of Roger Tory Peterson's birth, I am reposting this review of a collection of his writings, which I first posted here in January 2007.

Roger Tory Peterson is one of the premier figures in birding from the last century. In the early twentieth century, his field guides to birds aided the development of a class of amateur naturalists who practice their hobby with binoculars rather than shotguns. There must be few American birders today who are not familiar with Peterson's field guides and who have not been influenced by them. His Field Guide to Eastern Birds was the first that I used, and I still refer to it on occasion.

In addition to being an influential field guide illustrator, Peterson was a photographer and prolific writer. Even though he died ten years ago, he now has one more book to his name: All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures. The book reprints essays from a regular column of the same name that Peterson wrote for Bird Watcher's Digest from 1984 until his death in 1996. The collection was prepared by Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest and blogger at Bill of the Birds.

The subtitle, "My Birding Adventures," applies best to a subset of essays. Peterson was an avid traveler, around the Americas and especially to Africa. These accounts display Peterson's skill as a story-teller as he recounts close encounters with wildlife, as well as mishaps on several trips. The travel narratives are beautifully illustrated, with some of Peterson's own photographs of the native avifauna.

Certain essays describe changes to the birding and conservation scenes in the years since Peterson first began his career. For example, the fortunes of raptors shifted remarkably during Peterson's lifetime, from persecution at migration sites in the early twentieth century, to protection and expansion mid-century, to near-extinction from DDT in the sixties, to a rebound in the century's waning decades. Other essays profile conservation figures and organizations that have come and gone, especially the persons who comprised the defunct Bronx County Bird Club.

As I read All Things Reconsidered, I was struck by Peterson's love of the natural world and his abilities as a writer. I had not read much of his work, so these essays were all new to me. If you have not read much of Peterson's work outside of his field guides, consider reading All Things Reconsidered.

Full citation:

Roger Tory Peterson, All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures. Edited by Bill Thompson III. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Pp. xiv, 354; illustrations and index. $30.00 cloth. ISBN: 0618758623.

To purchase: