The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes Paperback – 1 May 2003
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Matthiessen writes with passion, poetry and precision. His descriptions
are frequently lyrical -- Financial Times
Matthiessen is a writer of great integrity, who lives the life he writes...' -- Scotland on Sunday
Peter Matthiessen is beyond dispute the best nature writer working today -- Peter Farb
About the Author
Peter Matthiessen is a naturalist, explorer and writer. His works of fiction include At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Far Tortuga and the acclaimed 'Watson Trilogy'. His explorations have resulted in many fine works of non-fiction, among them The Snow Leopard, The Cloud Forest and The Tree where Man was Born.
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Top Customer Reviews
If she read this wonderful book, it's quite possible she would experience a conversion within the first few chapters. This is anything but a birdspotters' manual, though birdspotters will love it. As someone who struggles to tell heron apart from stork or buzzard from kestrel I can vouch for its non-specialist appeal. In fact, I was only vaguely aware of what a crane might look like before I was swept along on Matthiessen's fantastic journey across five continents. The experience is rich, varied and mesmerising, as well as enlightening.
Matthiessen combines natural history, ecology, geography, politics and travel writing in such a personal, effortless way that the many lessons he offers never feel like lessons at all but jewels of wisdom he wants to share. It's not false modesty when he insists he is an enthusiast rather than an expert. One of his great strengths is the ability to convey his own sense of discovery and awe alongside a deep concern for the survival of species and habitats.
In The Tree Where Man Was Born, published 30 years ago and still considered a classic, Matthiessen focused on East Africa. He has written widely on other regions and animals too but Birds of Heaven, describing his expeditions over the course of more than a decade in search of the 15 remaining species of crane, must be his most wide-ranging effort so far.Read more ›
This hardback book was one I really enjoyed. The author sets everything in its place whether it is the wide open skies and landscapes of the Outer Mongolian steppe or the crowded farmlands of northern India. He discusses the 14 species of Crane extant today, putting them in their historical and cultural context. The place of Cranes in Asian iconography and mythology features strongly in the early chapters and this is a particularly strong part of the book. At the same time he discusses the taxonomy and phylogeny of the Gruidae in terms which are easily accessible for the non specialist, opening up the reader's thoughts to how and why speciation occurs.
The book also discusses the conservation of cranes from the hopeful, in the Whooping Crane programmes in the US, to the pessimistic, cranes in Asia. He ties the conservation of cranes into the conservation of whole ecosystems, emphasisng the cranes' requirements for huge, undisturbed territories. Matthiesen communicates the wonder of the far flung wild places he goes in search of Cranes, describing the landscape and the other wild species found within them. He also describes the reactions of the local people to the conservationists and the cranes, as well as giving pictures of different personalities working to conserve Cranes. He even manages to visit Norfolk and see Common Cranes and discusses this species in its British context.Read more ›
What really makes the book outstanding are thr colour plates of the 15 species ny the Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman
There is an excellent evolution key that demonstrates that all species developed from one.There are first class notes.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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."
Peter Matthiessen travels with George Archibald, from the International Crane Foundation, through Asia revisiting places where cranes were previously abundant. They share the wonder of the many sightings of cranes. Yet Dr. Archibald is quoted as saying,"What a species we are!" after "being astonished anew by the destructive and murderous proclivities of man".
I learned so much from this book and recommend it to those who are not afraid to see the world as it is.
The book is arranged geographically. Beginning in Siberia, Mr. Matthiessen takes through Asia to Australia and then on to Africa and Europe and finally to North America. There are no cranes in South America (or Antarctica).
The author is at his best when he is combining his wry observations of the people and places around him with an enthusiastic and well-informed account of the natural history of a region. I felt that he was less successful when he lets his righteous indignation get the better of him and begins to make snide comments about the absence of a love of the natural world in Chinese society, the wrong-headedness of various bureaucrats and the corruption of local officials.
It is not as if I disagreed with his point of view, but I knew that I already shared it before I even picked up the book. I can't imagine anyone who had any doubts about the importance of cranes as sensitive indicators of the general health of the environment being won over to the crane's side by this hectoring, doctrinaire authorial voice. But then, perhaps this books is really just an extended love letter to the cranes and to the environment in general. As such, it succeeds wonderfully.
He has produced an unforgettably bleak picture of ecological matters in China, and an optimistic account of our own country's efforts in getting whooping cranes started again. That we don't know what we are doing in dealing with the cranes is shown in a paradoxically happy outcome for them in Korea. Wars are, as the posters used to declare, harmful to children and other living things, and the Korean War was disastrous for humans and for cranes. There is now a Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, just a couple of miles wide but running from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea. Human habitation is forbidden in the area, and farming is very limited. Matthiessen is thus able to visit the DMZ's boundary, accompanied by armed soldiers. ("One may visit a North Korean museum that reveals American atrocities, but we decline this educational opportunity, electing to go birdwatching instead.") He thus gets to watch cranes in the "most fiercely protected wildlife sanctuary on earth... an accidental paradise for cranes." Woe to the cranes if peace breaks out.
This volume includes paintings and drawings of cranes by Robert Bateman, lovely renderings that are more compelling than the usual field guide renditions. They complement Matthiessen's fine text. Cranes are long lived, and they often mate for life. Their windpipes are modified like French horns to produce eloquent and distinctive calls. Their size and their pugnacity, for they are protective birds and dangerous to handle, should make us respect them as fellow-citizens of the planet. There is no need to invoke anthropomorphism; there is a spiritual bond between humans and these animals which Matthiessen has movingly demonstrated. He knows, however, that "the time is past when large rare creatures can recover their numbers without man's strenuous intervention," and despite his romantic optimism, his stories show we are strenuously bent on something else entirely.