Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Birds of John Burroughs, edited by Jack Kligerman

The Birds of John Burroughs: Keeping a Sharp Lookout Jack Kligerman Ed. New York. Hawthorn Books Inc. 1946. 240pp. ISBN: 0-8015-0647-6

“Study of nature deepens the mystery and the charm because it removes the horizon farther off. We cease to fear, perhaps, but how can one cease to marvel and love.”

Burroughs was well known during his lifetime which ended close to a century ago. He was a leading American naturalist, poet and writer. This book is a selection of writings that spanned about 60 years. They were published in a variety of periodicals such as The Atlantic Monthly. This copy displays the fine artwork by Louis Agassiz Fuertes rendered in monochrome for this book but originally in color.

The author was a true autodidact with little formal schooling. He was quite well read and up to date with scientific news and could understand his nature observations in the light of Charles Darwin’s natural selection.

As a contributor to many national publications, he was very influential in his day. He was quite concerned with a growing trend in popular nature literature which he called “Nature Fakers”. These were written to describe animals in anthropomorphic ways, ascribing human emotions to the actions of animals.

They leaned philosophically towards viewing evolution as goal oriented and driven to some sort of perfection as described by western religion and philosophy. These two things got under Burroughs skin and he wrote much that was specific to that concern. In most of his writings, this book being an example, he simply described nature and evolution from a no nonsense perspective.

The book’s style was neither linear nor sequential. The many chapters were selected at the musing of the editor-Jack Kligerman. Almost all of the chapters were designated by a bird species. So Burroughs described a Northern Flicker for instance, both in its physical way but also its habitat, behaviors at different times of year as well as other qualities that were apt of Burrough’s literary imagination and natural observations.


Northern Flicker

He also offered tips for the budding ornithologists such as keeping a notebook with you at all times. This allows for writing observations and if skilled enough, drawings. Amongst his plain spoken prose is his understanding of ecology and evolution. He saw that adaptation was problem solving, it is neither intentional nor is it inerrant.

He observed the waning of species and lamented about “man’s greed and cupidity” for blame. Likewise he informed the reader of variable behaviors and physiological changes in species based on whether they were migrators (greater gene pool than yearlong residents) or in early stages of species development versus later.

It was an informative book and written in a style that was beautiful in its bluntness. While reading it I was reminded of the terseness of Hemingway’s novels. I enjoyed reading it while learning many new things.

His most important point in the book might be that a heterogeneous gene pool is a strength to an organism, ‘perfection’ is not. New adaptations only strive for functionality. The nature fakers will have to gnash their teeth.

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