I’ve long been an admirer of Peter Matthiessen although I find his books to be semi-dense reads.(The lone exception is The Snow Leopard, one of my top ten books.) This isn’t a bad thing because what you learn from his work requires numerous post-it notes, underlined passages and page after page of digital followups. The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes is no exception. Matthiessen lived a life most of us can only dream of. Naturalist, explorer, author, zen teacher and one time CIA agent. (All I can claim is “influencer.”) He also co-founded The Paris Review, one of my all time favorite magazines.
Long voyages to Russia, China, Tibet, Mongolia, South Korea, England, Australia and New Mexico were required to complete this book on cranes. I’m not talking fly in, fly out type modern trips. Oh no, I’m talking long overland journeys via bus, train, 4×4, and by foot. The book also contains gorgeous paintings and sketches by Robert Bateman.
In our case, Sandhill Cranes, among the oldest living birds on the planet. (2-6 million years old) Matthiessen ventures forth with bird experts from all over the world, slowly tracking and recording his experience. Books like this are a reference to other explorers, organizations and NGO’s built to save what’s left of our rapidly dwindling species list. Cranes, like all other birds, are falling prey to vanishing habitat, illegal hunting and pesticides. If you don’t know about cranes then this book is a must. If you do know about cranes, this book is still worth your time because the adventure and the paintings are top notch. Matthiessen is known for his nonfiction but he also won numerous book awards for his works of fiction, several of which have been made into feature films. (At Play in the Fields of the Lord is worth a watch.)