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‘Craniac’ stalls in mid-flight

Book takes long look at endangered cranes

By Leigh E. Rich

The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes
By Peter Matthiessen, with Paintings and Drawings by Robert Bateman
North Point Press
December 2001
352 pages, 16 pages of color illustrations

In the same year Colorado, the “centennial” state, became the 38th addition to this country, the rare and obscure black-necked crane was discovered near Qinghai Lake in China—the last of the 15 species of the genus Grus known for its tidings of good fortune and longevity to be scientifically categorized and studied.

Grus nigricollis, as it is known, is now one of the 11 species of this large bird—though mythologized and heralded in the folklore of several cultures—threatened with extinction. Like many other species, the crane is “endangered by Homo sapiens, either directly through hunting, poisoning, or trapping, or indirectly through despoliation of the earth’s resources, most dangerously its dwindling fount of good fresh water,” naturalist and explorer Peter Matthiessen explains in the introduction of his latest work, The Birds of Heaven.

Cranes, which can live for 25 or even 30 years, exist on five of the earth’s seven continents, excluding South America and Antarctica, and the 74-year-old Matthiessen has visited them all.

The Birds of Heaven, reading at times like a travel journal, complete with both impulsive musings and contemplative insights, recounts many of Matthiessen’s adventures with scientists and conservationists from the International Crane Foundation and around the world. In each chapter, he explores the geographical, ecological and political landscapes of the countries he has visited, taking readers on a journey from Mongolia, Russia, China and Japan to East Africa and Australia and then homewards to the United States and the native land of the sandhill and the dwindling whooping crane.

The Birds of Heaven embarks on solid footing as Matthiessen describes a crane conference organized by Russia’s Socio-Ecological Union in which delegates from Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and the United States—two from Mongolia missing due to travel snags—chartered a steamer and traveled up the Amur River in the Russian far east to observe these wondrous creatures and hammer out the incipient stages of international cooperatives.

Reporting more on the politics of the logging and fishing industries, cultural differences and the long histories of abuse and mistrust among the regions represented, Matthiessen notes the “future of east Asian wildlife, in particular the migrant cranes, will largely depend on the cooperation of five nations more accustomed to addressing their disputes with xenophobia and war.”

And that future looks dim. In the vein of a diary entry, Matthiessen writes, “Some barriers among the conferees are beginning to break down in response to genuine interest—excitement, even—in the concept of international reserves. … Yet despite gallant efforts by the conference organizers and our tireless translators … in the end the language barriers and effortful civilities prove too wearisome, and each man returns to the companionable chatter of his countrymen.”

A self-described “craniac” from Sagaponack, NY, and author of 19 other environmental volumes, Matthiessen has done his homework—with more than two dozen pages of notes and citations at the back—but the book’s organization disintegrates and its author’s writing style wavers with the turn of subsequent pages. The elegant prose Matthiessen musters in some places—“The cranes are the greatest of the earth’s flying birds and, to my mind, the most stirring … [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”—leaves a void in may others.

At times, The Birds of Heaven is a protracted, disjointed, continent- and time-hopping journey that leaves one breathless and inexpertly juggling too many historical, political and environmental facts.

While many a reader tends to neglect the introductions of books, this is where Matthiessen has much to say and skillfully so. Agilely balanced on his soapbox, the septuagenarian drives home the book’s point in three pages: that “the plight of Homo may not differ very much from that of Grus.”

“Since most crane species are cosmopolitan in range, they offer an opportunity to protest the stunted industrial (hence political) vision behind the broad range of unrestrained, often senseless activities, from war to the ill-advised building of great dams that degrade or destroy what is left of precious habitats around the world. … [If] one has truly understood a crane—or a leaf or a cloud or a frog—one has understood everything.” 

Rich, L. E. (2002, January 11). Book takes long look at endangered cranes. [Review of the book The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes by Peter Matthiessen.] Rocky Mountain News.

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