Our book today is a tiny little classic close to my heart: the 1949 Golden Nature Guide to American birds – part of the quietly fantastic Golden Nature Guide series that we’ll get around to one of these days here at Stevereads. And this great little book is on my mind this evening for a familiar melancholy reason. Late September and October signal a change in the nature of the bird-world all around us – the population changes. Everybody who’s hard-wired to migrate is either gone by now or is all fattened up and ready to go, leaving New England with a sparser nation of birdhood populated by our hardy year-rounders.
It’s the kind of simple observation that’s utterly alien to all those of you who wouldn’t notice the bird-world if their lives depended on it, and of course it’s to sway and entice those very people. The simple optimism of the book’s ethos is wonderful – and, those first editors hoped, contagious: all you need to join the world of birding is a pair of eyes. And that encouragement is couched in 1950s complacency – as an old friend of mine proved to his own satisfaction (and decades-long enjoyment), you can do perfectly well with only a pair of ears.
The book set the template for all those that followed. We get a general introduction to the subject of birds and birding; we get a brief sketch of their natural history; we get a glimpse of their biology; we get that ringing endorsement of the whole concept of simply going outside and watching them (or even staying inside – and this I can attest to as well: the joys of a bird-feeder well-placed for indoor viewing are not to be underestimated); and then we’re off to the illustrations.
Drawn with calmly assertive low-key folksy charm by James Gordon Iriving, those little pictures have captivated me for half a century. Their practical purpose is to show at one glance the kind of place you’re most likely to encounter the bird starring in the picture – a plowed field for the mourning dove, for instance, or a building ledge (with poop!) for a pigeon, or a picturesque mountain lake for the loon. But for me, they’ve always had more than practicality to them – they’ve been discreet little compositions, as self-contained and evocative as an Audubon setting.
Almost all of the Golden Guides are like that to one extent or another – virtually none of them disappoints. But the recurrent theme of the paragraph-long descriptions in the bird guide underscores the emphatic presence of birds, their vibrant uniqueness. Time and again we’re told what we’re told about, for instance, the red-winged blackbird: that the markings of these birds are incredibly distinctive, impossible to miss or confuse. Of course that’s the point of a beginner’s guide like this one – it only lists the main examples of the most easily found and observed kinds of birds. Like all Golden Guides, its main purpose is to encourage.
Most subsequent guide books inadvertently sabotage that encouragement while in the act of facilitating it. They still show you the birds in a typical setting, but they bombard you with half a dozen seasons and plumages and genders and ages. Their goal is laudatory – they want you to be absolutely certain what you’re looking at. But the end result more often than not runs counter to intuition – we get a picture featuring the adolescent male and female colorations and fully adult male and female colorations and seasonal colorations, all jammed together into one drawing. It’s definitely more comprehensive, but it makes me miss the simplicity of the old guides.
I think about those old guides – and the bird guide in particular – every year when the weather changes and the bite of autumn can be felt in the middle of my kitchen. Even in the depths of the woods surrounding Forest Hills Cemetery, the bird population has thinned and changed. It’s not drabber, not at all (that’s only the surface appearance to those who don’t spend time looking), but nonetheless, there are quite a few people missing, gone on their way to Florida or South America or Africa. The months will feel long until one by one they begin to return, and every year I’m glad I have this guide to tide me over.