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Cover Review

The Lost Language of Cranes

THE BIRDS OF HEAVEN: Travels With Cranes, By Peter Matthiessen, North Point Press: 350 pp., $27.50

January 27, 2002|ROBERT FINCH

At the end of "The Birds of Heaven," the author stands in a savanna, "staring at the first wild whooping crane born in the United States in sixty years...." The moment represents the culmination of five years of travel across four continents in pursuit of "the greatest of the earth's flying birds," but it is a curiously subdued, even ironic, triumph. The "wild" whooper chick is, in fact, the offspring of pen-raised birds that are part of a nonmigratory flock artificially and arduously established on the Florida peninsula, which was never part of their natural range. Three weeks after the sighting of this precarious symbol of ecological restoration, the chick's decapitated and mangled body was found, the victim of a bobcat.

This scene encapsulates many of the sensibilities that inform this latest book from Peter Matthiessen, whose body of work in the last four decades is among the most impressive by any living American writer. "The Birds of Heaven," like many of his best-known "nature books" ("The Tree Where Man Was Born," "The Snow Leopard"), is essentially a travel journal, chronicling his encounters with the ever-shrinking remnants of Earth's wild places and pre-industrial societies. His aim here was to see all 15 of the world's crane species in the wild, birds that Matthiessen considers to be "umbrella species," whose status is indicative of broad environmental health and whose fate is thus linked to ours.

In his work, Matthiessen has always been a romantic in impulse and a realist in assessment. Though he claims at the outset that "a curious optimism has opened in my heart like a strange blossom" for the fate of Earth's wild creatures, the book as a whole does not bear it out. There is a pervasive sadness even in its modest success stories, a reluctant recognition of "the lengths to which man is driven to salvage the last wild survivors of his own heedless course on earth."

Writing polemic and poetry at once is not an easy task, and Matthiessen is at his best when writing about the cranes themselves. His treatment of Japan's famous red-crowned cranes, for instance, contains superb, luminous description that both demonstrates his considerable literary powers and helps us understand why indigenous cultures worldwide have made cranes symbols and heralds of the more transcendent aspects of the human spirit:

"Farther upriver, three red-black-white heads come up over a snowbank on a bend. The heads turn in the shining light against a dark background of steep wooded hillside already overtaken by afternoon shadow. We are able to get closer, though not close. 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."

In such passages, Matthiessen's prose rises to the lyric level of Robert Bateman's exquisite and evocative paintings that accompany the text. It also demonstrates nature writing's peculiar power to capture and convey such "silver moments" of apprehension and identification without explaining them, and thus to link our fate to that of Earth's wild creatures with a persuasive power that no mere environmental argument ever could.

His optimism for preserving the world's cranes is guarded at best, and the examples he offers are often problematical themselves. Of all the Third World countries he visits, the small mountainous isolated country of Bhutan best represents an oasis of ecological balance. But this is largely the result of a government that he says "exercises stiff control and keeps progress at bay to protect its people," a political price that Matthiessen refuses to accept, even for the sake of his beloved cranes. And though he takes heart from the tenacity by which the more remote native cultures hang on to their traditional land-based ways of life, it is clear that the most effective preservation and restoration efforts have taken place in the Western industrialized economies.

In North America, for instance, conservation efforts in the last century have brought the endangered sandhill crane's numbers back to about 650,000 birds, making it by far the largest crane species. But such progress takes an enormous amount of time, effort, money and human meddling. Despite his love of unfettered wildness, Matthiessen realizes that "the time is past when large rare creatures can recover their numbers without man's strenuous intervention."

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