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The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes Paperback – 1 May 2003

4.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New edition edition (1 May 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099447045
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099447047
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.7 x 3.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 606,475 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


‘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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Customer Reviews

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By A Customer on 25 Mar. 2002
Format: Hardcover
On his return home to Long Island some years ago after a summer away, Peter Matthiessen was confronted by a woman at dinner. Where the hell had he been all that time? Doing field research on endangered cranes and tigers in Eastern Siberia and Outer Mongolia, he replied. '"Cranes?!" she squawked. "Who cares about cranes?"'
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.
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Format: Hardcover
Following an excellent review in "The Independent" I decided to buy this book. It seems that among all the information we get as birders these days there is very little written about the experiencing of birds. Very few people appear to write about how birds affect them, after all the reason we bird is, that at some level, seeing birds has an effect on us.
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.
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Format: Paperback
This is one mans journey of discovery to find the existing 15 species of cranes (the Birds of Heaven).His travels take him to Mongolia,Japan,Australia,Africa,Europe and north America in his search with wonderful tales to tell.
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.
Highly recommended.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
so delightful to travel with Peter Matthiesen and the cranes! All of his books bring me closer to the Earth, the sky, the souls of humans and all lving things.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x9616521c) out of 5 stars 18 reviews
42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x95a81ed0) out of 5 stars Birds without borders, lessons unlearned, time unwinding 2 Feb. 2002
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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 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."
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x95a81f24) out of 5 stars Be in awe of what we have, weep for what we are losing. 2 July 2002
By Patricia Kramer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The readers of "The Birds of Heaven" should be prepared for joy, awe, geographic and naturalist education, but also sadness,fear and disgust. Matthiessen travels the world in search of the wild cranes. He is not just an observor, he is part of the effort to study and save these amazing birds. Robert Bateman's drawings are beautiful and serve as references as you read.
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.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x95a84378) out of 5 stars preaching to the choir of the birds of heaven 12 Feb. 2003
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Of Peter Matthiessen's non-fiction I have previously read only The Snow Leopard, but I have also enjoyed a collection of short stories called On the River Styx. Mr. Matthiessen's authorial voice is very prickly in Birds of Heaven, much more cranky than I remember it in The Snow Leopard, which was written in the wake of the death of his wife from cancer. The Snow Leopard was permeated with sadness and longing. Birds of Heaven is permeated with anger and impatience.
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.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x95a8472c) out of 5 stars Learning Lessons from the Cranes 28 Jan. 2002
By Rob Hardy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Peter Matthiessen includes stories of native people on all the continents that harbor cranes in _The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes_ (North Point Press). He recounts some encounters with humans ("craniacs") who are trying to save the cranes, which are in trouble everywhere, but most of the extensive travels described in this book can only report trouble. If we do not, however, learn what the crane has to tell us, it will be despite Matthiessen's efforts, for in him, cranes have a lucid and compelling advocate.He has gone to exotic locales wherever cranes go. There are plenty of common denominators wherever he travels. Cranes, like so many other forms of wildlife, are hunted, trapped to sell as exotic specimens, and poisoned as agricultural pests. Cranes need wetlands in which to feed, and humans need wetlands to serve as repositories for waste and to be built over to make more space for more humans. It is clear everywhere that Matthiessen goes that humans are winning, and therefore losing.
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.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x95a84828) out of 5 stars Heaven is a Matthiessen book 8 Feb. 2005
By L. Jody Kuchar - Published on
Format: Paperback
I first read Peter Matthiessen in the 1970s: "The Snow Leopard", and was so moved by his writing that I began to read everything I could find that he authored. I have never been disappointed. "The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes" is, like his other books scholarly and absolutely sings with his love of the subject. And the included art is breathtaking. With International Crane Foundation as well as other authorities on wildlife conservation, Matthiessen has written another book that will transport the reader to numerous countries, under numerous skies to see and hear the ancient bugling of the birds of heaven.
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