For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: Birds of Heaven

Original Air Date: Sept. 16, 2002

Laura’s book club will be meeting this week to discuss Peter Matthiessen’s book about cranes, The Birds of Heaven.

Duration: 4′38″


I started a nature book club in Duluth, where I live, a couple of years ago. We’re now meeting at a small non-chain bookstore in Superior, where they give us a discount on our books and serve shade-grown coffee at our meetings.

On Wednesday of this week, we’re going to be meeting and discussing Peter Matthiessen’s wonderful book, The Birds of Heaven. This lyrical, informative book about cranes of the world is a plea for understanding and conservation of these magnificent birds.

Despite the tragic difficulties they face from each comer of the earth, Matthiessen never lets us forget why ifs important never to give up on them. I love this passage after he talks about cranes traversing the Himalaya Mountains. He writes:

That cranes may journey at such altitudes, disappearing from the sight of earthbound mortals, may account for their near-sacred place in the earliest legends of the world as messengers and harbingers of highest heaven. In Cree Indian legend, Crane carries Rabbit to the moon. Aesop extols the crane’s singular ability “to rise above the clouds into endless space, and survey the wonders of the heavens, as well as of the earth beneath, with its seas, lakes, and rivers, as far as the eye can reach,” and Homer and Aristotle comment on great crane migrations. Every land where they appear has tales and myths about the cranes, which since ancient times have represented longevity and good fortune, harmony and fidelity. Heaven-bound ancients are commonly depicted riding on a crane, or assuming the crane’s majestic form for their arrival in the clouds of immortality.

The larger cranes, over five feet tall, with broad strong wings eight feet in span, appear well capable of bearing aloft a wispy old-time sage. The cranes are the greatest of the flying birds and, to my mind, the most stirring, not less so because the horn notes of their voices, like clarion calls out of the farthest skies, summon our attention to our own swift passage on this precious earth. Perhaps more than any other living creatures, they evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth, and air upon which their species-and ours, too, though we learn it very late-must ultimately depend for survival.

With exquisite writing like that, Matthiessen holds his reader even as he discusses the difficulties facing cranes today, which make the world seem bleak indeed. Fortunately, in addition to his prose we get respites from grim news in the form of beautiful color plates painted by Robert Bateman, one of the finest bird artists in the world. These celebrate the grace, vitality, and simple loveliness of cranes, and the joy of living on a planet that holds such extraordinary creatures.

Matthiessen closes with the hopeful story of the Wisconsin Whooping Crane flock, an introduced group which last year was trained to follow an ultralight airplane from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to its wintering grounds at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. This first group returned to Wisconsin entirely on their own this spring, and this year a new flock is joining them.

The Birds of Heaven is so far available only in hardcover, and the cover price is $27.50. But public libraries are still free, as is our book club. Anyone is welcome to join us at JW Beecroft in Superior on Wednesday night, September 18, 2002, at 6 pm for shade grown coffee and fine conversation about The Birds of Heaven.