Acclaimed writer Peter Matthiessen, a self-professed "craniac," has been observing and studying all kinds of birds most of his life, but his pursuit of cranes is closer to a spiritual quest than a naturalist's exercise. These majestic, mythic, and notoriously shy birds, capable of soaring at heights of 20,000 feet, are often fond of remote and rugged places, so just locating the birds can be difficult enough, determining an accurate number often impossible. Some locales, such as the breeding grounds on the Platte River in Nebraska, boast flocks half a million strong--"by far the greatest crane assemblies on earth"; other areas support only a precious few. Matthiessen's search for 15 different species of cranes has taken him to hidden corners of Siberia, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Sudan, and Australia (where Atherton cranes were not even discovered until 1961). Despite his many years of adventure and wide travels, each crane sighting is still a thrill for him, and his curiosity and contagious enthusiasm bring the book alive. But The Birds of Heaven
also serves as an ecological warning: "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." --Shawn Carkonen
From Publishers Weekly
rolific and gifted novelist and naturalist, National Book Award-winner Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard) provides literally a worldwide tableau in his quest for various subspecies of cranes. These large flying birds celebrated in myth and folklore are found everywhere from Siberia to Australia, sub-Saharan Africa to North America. The author moves through each of these diverse climes as he not only reminds readers of the awesome beauty of the natural world but also introduces them to fascinating bits of local history and legend. The title of the book derives from the lore of taiga-dwelling shamans, who believe these great birds possess the ability to traverse the three realms of heaven, earth and the underworld. In practical terms, that's not so far off: some species of cranes can fly as high as 20,000 feet, others migrate as far as 3,100 miles. In his wanderings, Matthiessen meets fellow travelers and "craniacs." Ornithologists, guides and hunters offer intriguing anecdotes about cranes and other creatures encountered during their adventures and misadventures in various wildernesses. Additionally, Matthiessen reaches into his store of historical and political knowledge about these remote places. He good-humoredly details, for example, the reluctant cooperation between Russian and Chinese environmental authorities as they try to study and ensure the survival of the various threatened crane subspecies that dwell along their faraway, beautiful, but politically tense borderlands. Eloquent and graceful, this lovely, moving narrative will inspire and delight readers with or without ornithological background or interests. Paintings and illus. not seen by PW.
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