Thursday, August 27, 2009

Book Review: Wild America

Posted by Kirk
With all the new books on the market it is easy to overlook a classic older text. For valentine's day many years ago, my wife scoured the shelves at a used book store and came up with a first printing of the 1953 classic, Wild America: The Record of a 30,000 Mile Journey Around the Continent by a Distinguished Naturalist and His British Colleague.

I was somehow unaware of this epic book and I didn't realize at first that the "distinguished American naturalist" was Roger Tory Peterson, as in The Peterson Field Guide to Birds. Who better to lead such an epic journey? I reviewed Return to Wild America last week so now I'll say a few words about the original.

Like a fine wine, this one gets even better with age. When it was originally published, it gave readers a look at their vast country. Now, it does that and more. It is also a look into America's past. The book opens with a transatlantic flight that stops in newfoundland because the constellation airplanes cannot make it all the way from London to Boston on one tank of fuel. Being from a different generation than Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, it gave me insight into what the country and wildlife were like in 1953.

From Newfoundland, the pair make their way down the eastern seaboard of the US all the way to Florida. They then loop around the Gulf of Mexico, into the interior of Mexico and up the pacific coast all the way to Alaska. The entire book is filled with a fascinating look at the wild spaces that make America such a treasure.

Along their route, the pair search for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker in the legendary singer track in Louisiana, smuggle bird study skins across the Mexico-US border under the hood of their car, visit the newly formed Salton sea, run out of gas in the middle of nowhere two to three times, glimpse the elusive California Condor, and cap their trip off with a trip to the Pribilof Islands in Alaska. The book is fun and full of stories any naturalist or bird watcher can appreciate. At one point, Peterson misidentifies a bird in the distance and Fisher suggests he check the Peterson Field Guide.

English naturalist, James Fisher in particular is a wonderful reminder to us as North Americans. He sees our land and animals with fresh eyes and reminds us how marvelous a Blue Jay is to the outsider. All too often, we become jaded by the natural world we see every day.

The route these two naturalists charted back in 1953 is still famous today. By the end of the year, Peterson spotted 637 birds that year while Fisher returned to Europe and ballooned his one year tally to 718. Both were new records.

Wild America was re-issued by Houghton Mifflin in 1997. If you haven't read this classic natural history narrative you are in for a treat.