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The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes 1st Edition

18 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0374199449
ISBN-10: 0374199442
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Editorial Reviews Review

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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: North Point Press; 1st edition (December 20, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374199442
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374199449
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #784,284 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on February 2, 2002
Format: Hardcover
If you've read any of Matthiessen's non fiction you'll know that when he's passionate about a subject he has the ability to bring feelings alive with his poetic and vivid command of language. Tie that in with his inclination to be a naturally introspective writer - literally seeking inner truths through nature - and you've got the threads that are woven together here to make THE BIRDS OF HEAVEN a beautifully written book. In describing a glimpse of three Japanese cranes on a misty early evening on the snow covered banks of a river, Matthiessen is at his evocative best. "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."
While Matthiessen is poetic and romantic as a nature writer he is a blunt and critical social commentator. Our species comes in for some stick. We neither stack up well in creation - look at the beauty of an African Crowned crane, the "red-black-and-white head crowned by a spray of elongated feathers on the nape, like spun gold in the bright wonderful it seems that even the boldest colors of creation are never garish or mismatched, as they are so often in the work of man." Nor do we do so well with what we create - China's Three Gorges Dam will destroy some pristine crane wintering lands and is, according to Matthiessen, "a grand folly of enormous cost." Worse still is that we are such a self destructive species. The dam, he goes on to say, will also cause "social and environmental ruin" in this part of China.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Patricia Kramer on July 2, 2002
Format: Hardcover
The readers of "The Birds of Heaven" should be prepared for joy, awe, geographic and naturalist education, but also sadness,fear and disgust. Matthiessen travels the world in search of the wild cranes. He is not just an observor, he is part of the effort to study and save these amazing birds. Robert Bateman's drawings are beautiful and serve as references as you read.
Peter Matthiessen travels with George Archibald, from the International Crane Foundation, through Asia revisiting places where cranes were previously abundant. They share the wonder of the many sightings of cranes. Yet Dr. Archibald is quoted as saying,"What a species we are!" after "being astonished anew by the destructive and murderous proclivities of man".
I learned so much from this book and recommend it to those who are not afraid to see the world as it is.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Of Peter Matthiessen's non-fiction I have previously read only The Snow Leopard, but I have also enjoyed a collection of short stories called On the River Styx. Mr. Matthiessen's authorial voice is very prickly in Birds of Heaven, much more cranky than I remember it in The Snow Leopard, which was written in the wake of the death of his wife from cancer. The Snow Leopard was permeated with sadness and longing. Birds of Heaven is permeated with anger and impatience.
The book is arranged geographically. Beginning in Siberia, Mr. Matthiessen takes through Asia to Australia and then on to Africa and Europe and finally to North America. There are no cranes in South America (or Antarctica).
The author is at his best when he is combining his wry observations of the people and places around him with an enthusiastic and well-informed account of the natural history of a region. I felt that he was less successful when he lets his righteous indignation get the better of him and begins to make snide comments about the absence of a love of the natural world in Chinese society, the wrong-headedness of various bureaucrats and the corruption of local officials.
It is not as if I disagreed with his point of view, but I knew that I already shared it before I even picked up the book. I can't imagine anyone who had any doubts about the importance of cranes as sensitive indicators of the general health of the environment being won over to the crane's side by this hectoring, doctrinaire authorial voice. But then, perhaps this books is really just an extended love letter to the cranes and to the environment in general. As such, it succeeds wonderfully.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on January 28, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Peter Matthiessen includes stories of native people on all the continents that harbor cranes in _The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes_ (North Point Press). He recounts some encounters with humans ("craniacs") who are trying to save the cranes, which are in trouble everywhere, but most of the extensive travels described in this book can only report trouble. If we do not, however, learn what the crane has to tell us, it will be despite Matthiessen's efforts, for in him, cranes have a lucid and compelling advocate.He has gone to exotic locales wherever cranes go. There are plenty of common denominators wherever he travels. Cranes, like so many other forms of wildlife, are hunted, trapped to sell as exotic specimens, and poisoned as agricultural pests. Cranes need wetlands in which to feed, and humans need wetlands to serve as repositories for waste and to be built over to make more space for more humans. It is clear everywhere that Matthiessen goes that humans are winning, and therefore losing.
He has produced an unforgettably bleak picture of ecological matters in China, and an optimistic account of our own country's efforts in getting whooping cranes started again. That we don't know what we are doing in dealing with the cranes is shown in a paradoxically happy outcome for them in Korea. Wars are, as the posters used to declare, harmful to children and other living things, and the Korean War was disastrous for humans and for cranes. There is now a Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, just a couple of miles wide but running from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea. Human habitation is forbidden in the area, and farming is very limited. Matthiessen is thus able to visit the DMZ's boundary, accompanied by armed soldiers.
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