Saturday, December 13, 2008

Review: Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson

Roger Tory Peterson is probably the most famous birdwatcher of the 20th century. I recently had the pleasure of reading a new biography of Peterson by Elizabeth Rosenthal, Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson. The book is based on interviews with many people who knew Peterson, as well as Peterson's own writings. Birdwatcher is the most thorough account of Peterson's life that I have read so far. It covers his entire his, from childhood to death.

Peterson's career spanned several generations and multiple decades. When Peterson was coming of age as a naturalist, market hunting, including hunting of raptors at migratory concentration points, was still common; field guides were unsuitable for easy field identification; and bird watching was still in its infancy. More than anyone else, Peterson influenced the transformation of bird study from a pursuit of specialists to a popular pastime. His field guide, first published in 1934, simplified the identification process such that each bird could be identified by noting a few key field marks. Peterson's field mark system, illustrated with schematic drawings, set the standard for future field guides. In future years, the expansion of his field guide series opened better understanding of not just birds, but also insects, flowers, trees, and many other taxa to the general public. He influenced the growing environmental movement not just through his field guides, but also through his writings in popular publications such as Audubon magazine and Bird Watcher's Digest, as well as through direct contact with naturalists in younger generations.

While many of the events were familiar to me – his childhood in Jamestown, his naturalist publications, his wartime service – many were not. In particular, I was pleased to learn that Peterson increasingly used his fame in later life to promote conservation. His travels abroad were designed to raise awareness of the places he visited, and many of them resulted in specific conservation actions or helped raise funds to purchase critical habitat. In this country, he helped arrange funding for some of the research that connected raptor declines in Connecticut with DDT.

To her credit, Rosenthal does not shy away from less attractive aspects of Peterson's biography. For example, his family life was extremely strained. His second wife, Barbara, seems to have left him out of frustration with her role as his unpaid secretary and social manager, even years after Roger achieved fame and fortune. His third wife, Virginia, seemed to shut out his children from his second marriage; how much Roger attempted to fix the problem is unclear.

The book would be stronger without the discussion of whether Peterson's paintings should be considered art. Answering that question would require a better explanation of the categories of "art" and "illustration," and why they should be considered distinct (if at all). The discussion is further muddled by the reliance on art dealers and other wildlife painters rather than art critics or historians who might be able to compare Peterson to his artistic contemporaries. I am not entirely sure what is at stake in that argument anyway since Peterson's reputation will ultimately rise or fall on the basis of his contributions to ornithology and conservation rather than his artistic efforts.

Some portions could stand to be more concise. In particular, chapters dealing with Peterson's middle and later years could probably have left out some material without losing much substance. Since the source material included many interviews, the narrative style occasionally becomes chatty; this may or may not bother a prospective reader.

Overall, Birdwatcher is a strong and thorough biography of Roger Tory Peterson. Even those familiar with Peterson ought to learn something from it. This book's publication is particularly timely given that this August marked the 100th anniversary of Peterson's birth. It is a good time to reflect on how far we have come since August 28, 1908, and where birding and the environmental movement might be going.

Elizabeth Rosenthal, Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson. Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2008. Pp. vi, 437; photographs, bibliography, notes, index. $29.95 cloth.

Kindle version