[Review] The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature

The Life of the Skies by Jonathan Rosen

In this sprawling meditation on birdwatching, Rosen reflects on some of his own experiences as a birder: how he got started, what it’s like birding in Central Park surrounded by the city, and a fruitless search for the (likely extinct) Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Along the way, he also reflects on some bird-y poetry and literature by greats like Walt Whitman, Faulkner, Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost.

I liked the book, mainly for all the great literature it incorporates, but also for the way he explores birding carefully and deeply, with a religious awe. It is a bit long and unfocused, with some strange diversions (somehow a book about birding winds its way to the holocaust) — and by the second half, he seems to be coming back to the same ideas again and again. But overall it was worth it for me for the little gems along the way, like this poem by Thomas Hardy:

These are brand-new birds of twelve-months’ growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
Nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
And earth, and air, and rain.

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Angels in Mexico


I am temporarily in another District, el Distrito Federal of Mexico City. Paseo de la Reforma is one of the main avenues in the city and it is lined with monuments and statues. This section which runs through the Bosque de Chapultepec features a series of gorgeous angel statues.

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City lights from space, a great neural network

A narrated tour of Earth as seen from the International Space Station:

From space, our planet looks like a giant brain, with city lights illuminating a great neural network:

Image by Hermann Cuntz

And in some ways that’s what it is. All of us working together and against each other are collectively building, destroying, and rebuilding. The bright city lights catch the eye.  In an ode to one of his favorite cities, Pablo Neruda writes: “Amo, Valparaíso, cuanto encierras, y cuanto irradias.” or “I love you, Valparaíso, all that you lock in, and all that you radiate out.”  That’s a perfect description for all the great cities on the planet, dense collections of minds which shine bright and send out endless ideas and connections.

Washington, DC comes into view at 3:55.  It’s just another cluster of light sending, and receiving signals from the rest of the network.  But it contains so much — all the photos on this website are from the center of that bright light.  And it is connected to almost every country on the globe, through the hundreds of embassies that are clustered here.

It’s certainly humbling to realize how small we each are individually, but also inspiring to see the planet from above like this.  All of us collectively living, thinking, experiencing, and discovering what we are, what the world’s made of, and how it works.

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Where has Cuba been?

photo by Brian Snelson

I was in school for 18 years, and only my geography teacher ever mentioned Cuba. So I know where it is.  Until recently, that was about it.

The New York Times Magazine published a beautifully written article by John Jeremiah Sullivan called “Where is Cuba Going?.” I want to know — where has Cuba been? Why was it never mentioned in school? I picked up terms to associate with Cuba from little snippets of news and radio — Fidel Castro, Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis. But none of these things really meant anything to me.

I’ve only begun to learn more in the last few years.  It’s fascinating that there’s another whole world, just off the coast of Florida, on hostile terms with the US.   Sullivan opens his article with a time-warp:

On the plane, something odd but also vaguely magical-seeming happened: namely, nobody knew what time it was. Right before we landed, the flight attendant made an announcement, in English and Spanish, that although daylight saving time recently went into effect in the States, the island didn’t observe that custom. As a result, we had caught up — our time had passed into sync with Cuban time. You will not need to change your watches. Then, moments later, she came on again and apologized. She had been wrong, she said. The time in Cuba was different.

After the plane lands, he sees a man with an ox plowing the field right next to the runway:

The fertility of Cuba is the thing you can’t put into words. I’ve never stood on a piece of ground as throbbingly, even pornographically, generative. Throw a used battery into a divot, and it will put out shoots — that’s how it feels.

The whole article is written like this.  You should read it.  Also check out the incredible photos of Cuba by Andrew Moore that they published alongside this story.   I’m going to keep learning about this place which I know so little.  More to come.


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Letter to N.Y.

Two Pigeons in New York City
In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you’re in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,

and most of the jokes you just can’t catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,

and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.

—Wheat, not oats, dear. I’m afraid
if it’s wheat it’s none of your sowing,
nevertheless I’d like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.

—Elizabeth Bishop


The late David Rakoff said that he used to recite this poem to himself to help deal with his claustrophobia when going through an MRI. I heard it for the first time when Terry Gross asked him to recite the poem in an interview. It’s interesting what gets changed in our minds when we commit something to memory. He doesn’t change any of the meaning in the poem, but Rakoff does alter a few words here and there. Just out of curiosity, I compared the version he recited from memory on the air with the actual poem, changes are in bold:

In your next letter I wish you would say where you were going and what you were doing. How are the plays and after the plays, what other pleasures you are pursuing? Taking taxis in the middle of the night, driving as if to save your soul, where the road goes round and round the park and the meter glares like a moral owl, and all of the trees look so queer and green standing alone in big black caves. And suddenly you’re in a different place, where everything seems to happen in waves, and all of the jokes you just can’t catch, like dirty words rubbed off a slate, and the music is loud but also dim and it gets so terribly late. And coming home to the brownstone house, to the gray sidewalk, the watered street, one side of the buildings rises with the sun, like a glistening field of wheat. Wheat, not oats, dear. And if it is wheat, I’m afraid it’s none of your sowing. Nevertheless, I would like to hear what you were doing and where you were going.

I never remember poems word for word either, and it can be kind of surprising when I see one in print and notice all the little changes I’ve made along the way.

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