If you've read any of Matthiessen's non fiction you'll know that when he's passionate about a subject he has the ability to bring feelings alive with his poetic and vivid command of language. Tie that in with his inclination to be a naturally introspective writer - literally seeking inner truths through nature - and you've got the threads that are woven together here to make THE BIRDS OF HEAVEN a beautifully written book. In describing a glimpse of three Japanese cranes on a misty early evening on the snow covered banks of a river, Matthiessen is at his evocative best. "Sun silvered creatures, moving gracefully without haste and yet swiftly in the black diamond shimmer of the Muri River - a hallucinatory vision, a revelation, although what is revealed beyond this silver moment of my life I do not know."
While Matthiessen is poetic and romantic as a nature writer he is a blunt and critical social commentator. Our species comes in for some stick. We neither stack up well in creation - look at the beauty of an African Crowned crane, the "red-black-and-white head crowned by a spray of elongated feathers on the nape, like spun gold in the bright sun...how wonderful it seems that even the boldest colors of creation are never garish or mismatched, as they are so often in the work of man." Nor do we do so well with what we create - China's Three Gorges Dam will destroy some pristine crane wintering lands and is, according to Matthiessen, "a grand folly of enormous cost." Worse still is that we are such a self destructive species. The dam, he goes on to say, will also cause "social and environmental ruin" in this part of China.
Poignancy, yes, even sorrow at the passing of so many of the last wild and unspoilt areas of the planet, but sentimentality, wistfullness, hopelessness, and inaction are not words that are in this author's vocabulary. Indeed the fact that cranes are the central focus here is cause for cautious optimism. Cranes have always been a vibrant part of our cultural history and remain evocative symbols of our spiritual and creative imagination and are seen as omens of good luck and longevity in many countries.
The fifteen species of cranes (eleven of which are endangered or threatened) have lessons to teach mankind. Matthiessen's recounting of the sectarian squabbling that took place at an international gathering of crane conservationists is illustrative. While economics, politics, and nationality remain common dividing factors among the human participants, more than half of the species of cranes are content to make the Amur River basin in central Asia their common gathering ground.
A powerful book for Matthiessen's writing, the beautiful paintings and illustrations offered in support, and the stories of the cranes themselves - Saurus, Crowned Crane, Brolga, Siberian and the rare Whooping and Japanese Cranes - two of the most endangered species that Matthiessen says are "heraldic emblems of the purity of water, earth, and air that is being lost." We need to conserve, appreciate, and learn from these birds of heaven, and heed the "horn notes of their voices, [that] like clarion calls out of the farthest skies, summon our attention to our own swift passage on this precious earth."