July 2005

Colleen Mondor


All Hail Lord God Bird

Initially this article was going to be about nature books, specifically bird books, and why someone like me who is not an avid birdwatcher could still enjoy the genre. I was hoping to point readers in the direction of two books I recently enjoyed, Peter Cashwell’s The Verb "To Bird" and Phillip Hoose’s The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. Then on April 28 an article was released in the journal Science about the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (also known as the Lord God Bird), a bird believed by the scientific community to be extinct for sixty years. The news of that discovery, and the fact that one of the key players involved had a book coming out in May called The Grail Bird, made me suddenly reconsider how I was going to write this article and what it should say. One thing, however, remained unchanged: I knew that I had to start with Stephen King.

Over the years I have learned several pieces of critical wisdom from King, things I have learned to trust no matter what:

1. Clowns are evil
2. Don’t accept jobs taking care of vacant hotels in remote areas during the winter
3. That strange dog down the block could take your head off
4. A lot of weird shit happens in Maine
5. Never, ever, reach for something down in a storm drain
6. Clowns are really really evil

King’s novel It had a huge effect on me. I fell in love with each one of the kids in that book and every time I read it I’m reminded just how well King knows how to make a stranger into your best friend; he has a gift when it comes to writing people and that is what draws me back to his work again and again. One of my favorite passages in It involves the boy named Stan and his solitary success at defeating the monster, Pennywise. Stan was an intellectual kid -- a brain -- and one of his hobbies was bird watching. After being lured into an empty building and chased by a legion of dead children, Stan pulls out his bird-book and begins chanting, “Robins! Gray egrets! Loons! Scarlet tanagers! Grackles! Hammerhead woodpeckers! Redheaded woodpeckers! Chickadees! Wrens! Peli-” And then he escapes, running away still calling out bird names, still holding his bird-book like a shield. His weapon, his miracle, is his faith in the list. It’s his faith in the collection of birds, in the pursuit of birds, in the quiet hobby of watching for birds that saves his life.

Stan kicks evil’s ass because he’s a birdwatcher. Now do you understand why I love Stephen King?

When I first read Peter Cashwell’s book, I was reminded immediately of Stan’s quiet victory. Cashwell is Stan all grown up. He also collects happily collects birds, but fortunately for the rest of us he is also a very eloquent writer who somehow has managed to write a book about bird watching that interests and engages someone like me, a person who has never watched a bird that wasn’t flying right in front of me. Cashwell has been interested in birds since he was a child but actively started seeking them out after receiving a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern America for his 25th birthday. He attended his first official “count” in 1991 and was hooked, after realizing “that birding can be both social and scientific, not just one guy wandering around in the woods, unconnected from the rest of the world, but a network of people with common interests and goals.” It’s a big step from birdwatcher to writer, but a natural one, as it turns out, for Cashwell.

“I’m trained as a writer,” he told me recently, “even if I were collecting salt and pepper shakers, I’d probably try to make it sound interesting to others. Maybe it’s just a form of extended rationalization, but I think birding, like any human activity, is interesting because it shows how humans behave.” Bird watching then is a hobby that is as much about the person out watching as it is about the birds themselves. Writing about it is a different matter and required the author to accept certain truths about himself. “Many of my favorite books in recent years,” wrote Cashwell, “have fallen into a category I call the ‘literature of obsession,’ in which the writer immerses himself in a field populated by very passionate individuals and finds himself tempted to remain immersed: Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic, Stefan Fatsis’s Word Freak, Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain and so on. I think that sort of book, like good fiction, shows character through conflict; the writer’s desire to immerse himself in the world conflicts with his desire to describe it objectively, and you wind up, if you’re lucky, with a good picture of both the world and the character describing it.”

This is a perfect description of the type of book that Cashwell has written with The Verb "To Bird". While taking his readers through various birding adventures he also introduces an entire cast of fellow birders (dare I call them obsessives) who he joins on his forays into the woods, marshes and even the Shrimp Shack on Highway 21 in South Carolina. (The sighting at the Shrimp Shack was not planned, however, and it was just sheer luck after an excellent meal of a shrimp burger and hushpuppies.) Cashwell is part of a “mixed marriage," that of a birder and nonbirder, and has to find his birding companions among friends and through accidental meetings. Fortunately for him the country seems to be full of people who will happily wander along the beaches of Delaware Bay in the middle of a bitter wind, skirting water that Cashwell described like this: “Have you ever sampled a cup of strong coffee, tried to cut it with about four ounces of skim milk and still found it undrinkable? Well, if you took that cup of coffee and left it on the nightstand for a couple of days, it might achieve the same shade of cold, oily, brownish gray as the waves that were lapping at the sand.” Now that sounds like a pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

But for Cashwell, as for the other birders, it is all about the quest, the hunt to find more birds. His book dwells mostly on his own process in becoming a birder and filling his life list and although he does pay homage to those who came before him, The Verb "To Bird" is not a historical book -- it is more a nature-type entry into Cashwell’s own topic, the literature of obsession. Cashwell’s book is from the man in the field today, clutching his list and scanning constantly for new entries (and I do mean constantly). To know about those who came before, those who originated bird obsession, I turned to another recent title in the genre. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was hitting pay dirt when I picked up Phillip Hoose’s book The Race to Save the Lord God Bird.

As Hoose wrote in his book, the last official sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was by a 12-year old boy in 1944. The trees the bird was dependent upon, specifically the sweet gum and Nuttall’s oak, were falling like rain across the Southeast during this period. Saving the Lord God Bird’s habitat paled in the face of economics and war. Even the venerable Audubon Society could not preserve the old growth forest that the last Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers called home. It was, as Hoose refers to it, “a ghost bird” destined to remain visible only through Audubon’s painting, the stuffed specimens at Louisiana State University and the photographs taken by its tireless champion, biologist James Tanner (someone should write a biography of this guy). It was extinct, until Tim Gallagher, of Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology followed up on an amateur sighting and saw his dream fly right past him. Gallagher’s subsequent book The Grail Bird was just released and recounts his efforts to find the long presumed extinct bird.

While Gallagher and Cashwell insert themselves into their books, Hoose has written strictly a historical work on the ivory bill as well as bird watching in general. He has included everything from Alexander Wilson and James John Audubon shooting and stuffing birds so they could learn more about them (hey, everybody was doing it back then), to the formation of the National Audubon Society and the work of four scientists from Cornell University who went into the Louisiana swamps in 1935 and emerged with both a sound recording and 12-second film of the bird in flight. This was the only film until last year’s discovery and a breakthrough for naturalists of the period. It was hoped that the film would spur an effort to save the area the ivory bill depended on to live, but as Hoose’s book reveals with painstaking accuracy, that miracle was not going to come in that place, at that time. What amazes me after reading about what happened to that forest is that it finally showed up at all.

When I spoke with Tim Gallagher about writing The Grail Bird and finding the woodpecker, he told me that, “it was a dream come true” and perhaps more than anything, “He just didn’t want to give up on the dream.” I was interested, though, to hear him say that several people over the years had in fact seen the bird; they just had not been believed. As he recounts in his book there have been a lot of dismissed sightings in the past fifty years and it was partly because of this pattern that he decided to write The Grail Bird. “I took a chance with my career,” he said, “but I wanted to know why people were still fascinated with this bird. I went to places where people had seen it, talked to the people who made the sightings and spent a month traveling across the South.” He initially started gathering information for the book in 2001 but it was not his top priority, not until he was alerted about kayaker Gene Sparling, who saw an amazing bird at Bayou de View in the Arkansas Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. After speaking directly with Sparling, Gallagher was convinced that he had a credible woodpecker sighting and he was off to Bayou de View and on the road to history.

Reading The Grail Bird is more like watching a buddy movie than anything else, something that Gallagher readily admits. Along with his friend and fellow ivory bill enthusiast (I’m thinking obsessive again) Bobby Harrison of Alabama’s Oakwood College, Gallagher headed back to the swamp to see just what Sparling had seen. This is where the book gets very funny, as Gallagher recounts their adventures canoeing into the abyss and trying desperately to dodge Cottonmouths. The two manage to stay alive largely due to the curative powers of Dinty Moore stew, something Harrison swears by, and Gallagher blows away any misconceptions that readers might have about this type of book, worrying that it might be “too dry or earnest.” More than anything, it is simply engaging and as much a treatise on friendship as it is about finding the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.

But that search and its defining moment when the bird flies seventy feet in front of Gallagher and Harrison, prompting both of them to yell “Ivory-Billed Woodpecker!” is what makes this book as thrilling as anything John Grisham has to say. It gets even better when Harrison calls his wife to tell her the news and then finds himself falling into uncontrollable tears. His emotion, echoed by Gallagher a few days later, is exactly what you would expect from someone who has seen a resurrection. Give the man his due; he was there when the word extinct ceased to mean anything at all.

Gallagher addresses several times in his book his disappointment in the scientific community and how, as he told me, “it has been treating the people who made sightings [over the years] as either crazy or liars. A lot of them were hunters and boaters,” he said, “not birdwatchers or scientists.” But of course as he explains in the book, what scientists are going to sit in the middle of a swamp for hours on end on the chance that they might see a bird they believe is long dead? It had to be amateurs who would find this bird, who would insist that it was still there and because of that, it was easy for the professionals to dismiss them.

I explained to Peter Cashwell in our first e-mail exchange that I am mostly someone who appreciates birds from afar and thinks well, maybe someday I’ll get out there with some binoculars of my own. But when his book conjured up that favored memory of Stan facing down his great fears with only birds by his side and then Hoose’s book gave me both the fantastic image of thousands of children joining Junior Audubon Clubs and signing a pledge “not to harm our birds or their eggs and to protect them both whenever I am able,” as well as Jim Tanner’s unfailing devotion to save the bird he had come to respect so much, I had a mini-epiphany. Everyone says that books can change the world, that the pen is mightier than the sword. Everyone says it, but not too many people do anything about it. Well here is my chance, a chance for all of us in fact. The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is a miracle, a once in a lifetime opportunity to save something that shouldn’t be lost, to save something that matters far more than any of us realize. What we can do is read about it, and then know about it, and then take action. We can save the land this time, and make absolutely certain that the Lord God Bird is with us forever.

And it wouldn’t hurt now to remember men like George Lowery, an esteemed ornithologist who brought photos of the Ivory-Bill to the 1971 meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union. The photos were taken by a friend of Lowery’s, a man he trusted, but his fellow scientists received them with, as Gallagher writes, “immediate withering skepticism.” They treated Lowery as a fool, or even worse, a liar. Later Lowery wished he had never even made the photos public, writing, “A lot of people seem to want to doubt the record, and perhaps it is only human nature for them to do so. If they can’t see an Ivory-Bill they do not want to believe that anyone else has done so.”

And this brings us to Gallagher’s central point that science has not done right by this bird. He knew he was taking a chance with his career when he admitted he had seen the ivory bill. “I had to wonder,” he told me, “was I going to get fired for this? It was like a Bigfoot sighting.” But along with Harrison and Sparling and everyone else who eventually came onboard, he persevered and insists now that it is time to change. “The belief that this bird is extinct has been held so strongly for so long that it has become a tenet adhered to by many ornithologists as rigidly and dogmatically as the tenets of the most fundamental religious sects. It’s time to change that.”

Indeed, change is certainly overdue.

Ultimately what I have learned by reading these books is that only good things can happen when you take a chance on learning about something new. Even Peter Cashwell has realized this as he just finished a novel that is not at all about bird watching. As he continues to gain more experience in the natural world, he finds more and more to write about. I thought it was interesting though that he has spread his wings so to speak, moved beyond the genre that he is so familiar with. “I hope I’ll always be able to write in a variety of genres and styles and subject areas,” he says. “I just had an essay in Basketball in America and I’m in the middle of writing a children’s book, and my wife and I are collaborating on an alternate history and I have a dream of someday writing comic books… so I don’t think I’ll ever be able to settle on just one area, but I won’t give up writing about birds until I give up birding and that should be slightly after I’m dead.”

Peter Cashwell is no more obsessed with birding then he is writing and that’s a good thing for all of us who like a good story. After all it was his excellent book that started me on this journey in the first place. Cashwell pointed me in the direction of birds, which led me to Phillip Hoose, who sent me hunting for anything else on the Lord God Bird I could find and made me aware of what Reuters was talking about when the article in Science and Tim Gallagher’s book hit the press. All of them combined to give me a new look on the world and isn’t that the best thing about good writing? Isn’t that why we pick up a book in the first place?

And yeah, it all just proves another piece of Stephen King’s wisdom: You have to believe in something when the chips are down, even if it’s just your bird book. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a buddy along to see you through the tough spots. It never hurts to have someone else who believes.

The Verb "To Bird" by Peter Cashwell
Paul Dry Books, Inc.
ISBN 1589880013
320 pages

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374361738
208 pages

The Grail Bird by Tim Gallagher
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 0618456937
288 pages