Jewish Journal

Books: Bird-watching and ‘the Jewish question’

by Jonathan Rosen

Posted on Mar. 27, 2008 at 6:00 pm

No doubt because I once worked at a Jewish newspaper and have written a novel about a woman rabbi -- not to mention a work of nonfiction called "The Talmud and the Internet" -- I am sometimes asked if my new book about bird-watching, "The Life of the Skies," is a Jewish book.

At the risk of sounding like the joke about the zoology student obsessed with Jews who called his thesis "Elephants and the Jewish Question," I invariably find myself answering, "Of course!"

It may seem strange that a book that talks about John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau and Roger Tory Peterson, and that includes a quest for the possibly extinct ivory-bill woodpecker, seems to me to be so obviously Jewish. Must everything be about Jews? The answer, of course, is yes, everything is about the Jews -- or at least Judaism is about everything.

I began bird-watching 15 years ago and, unlike many activities, I can trace it back to its originating moment. I was at Shabbat lunch one day in Manhattan, and a man -- a rabbi, as it turned out -- observed that "the warblers will be coming through Central Park soon."

It was March. I had no idea what warblers were, but I knew I wanted to go out and find them. I felt, almost mystically, that they might lead me somewhere.

I've been following them ever since, and they have led me many places -- outward into this country and other countries -- especially Israel, where birds are movingly abundant, and also into myself, my own evolutionary origins and the mysterious questions about what my relationship is to the natural world that produced me and from which I was nevertheless oddly cut off.

"Birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly they reveal the thoughts of the skies," wrote D.H. Lawrence. That phrase, "The Life of the skies," has theological overtones.

Whether you believe birds were created on the fifth day of creation, as the Bible tells us, or that they evolved in slow, painstaking eons from a dim reptilian past, their existence embodies and raises religious questions.

Are birds the life of the skies because the skies have no life outside of the biological world that fills them -- no divinity? Or are they the life of the skies because divinity, creation itself, is implicit in them? Even as it may be implicit in us, animals though we be.

Environmental questions are at heart religious questions. What do we owe the natural world and why? Must we save the natural world because the earth is the Lord's, as the psalmist said so beautifully? Or because it is ours?

Either way, we should care about saving it, but I think it is important to push through to the questions -- the religious questions -- at the heart of our interest in the environment.

I worked at The Forward newspaper for 10 years, beginning in 1990. It never once occurred to me that Abraham Cahan, the creator of the Yiddish Forverts, was a bird-watcher. But then I read that in 1903, when the Kishinev pogrom broke out, Cahan was off bird-watching in Connecticut and, according to a friend's memoir, rushed back to New York, binoculars and bird guide in hand, because he "wanted to be with other Jews."

This of course might tell you that there weren't a lot of Jews bird-watching in Connecticut in 1903, when bird-watching was just coming into its own. But it makes great sense to me now that Cahan was a watcher and namer of birds.

His whole project as a journalist, in addition to the search for justice for working people, was to help Jewish immigrants feel at home in America. His newspaper, for that reason, used increasing amounts of English and answered questions continually about the habits of the country.

Birds for Cahan were, I suspect, another dimension of the vocabulary of America. We sturdy ourselves in new places by leaning on the natural world.

Audubon, who arrived in America from France in 1803, was an immigrant as much as Cahan, and by creating "The Birds of America," he was in some sense assimilating himself into his new home, even as he was giving his new home a wild, animal aura.

Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, when he was off on a diplomatic assignment, "Do you know that European birds have not half the melody of ours?" That quotation appears as an epigraph in Alfred Kazin's landmark study of American literature, "On Native Grounds," which Kazin published in the dark year of 1942.

Kazin was himself a child of immigrant readers of the Yiddish Forverts, and one feels in his whole book the urge to establish himself as part of the American landscape. Much as any founding father -- or founding mother, which Abigail Adams really was -- he wanted to put his country on equal footing, both morally and politically and also environmentally, with Europe.

Birds are the language spoken by the land itself. In that sense, they are transcendent of any single nation, even as they reinforce national identity.

Birds raise complex questions of belonging, much as Jews often have.

I was once talking to Kazin, and he told me his daughter was living in Israel.

Well, I said, "She's really on native ground."

Kazin became extremely upset. "You think that's funny," he said, "but it's not."

He had labored too long as a child of immigrants to fit himself into a single place. He wanted to be a bird of America.

But even the birds of America nest in one region, winter in another, pass through a third during migration. I see birds in Central Park that come from Costa Rica and are on their way to Canada.

Kazin's ethnic anxiety mirrors a larger anxiety about where we ourselves belong in the natural world. We all must figure out where we belong geographically but also metaphysically. We are technically in the animal kingdom but also in a kingdom of our own devising that sets us apart from the animals. Are we divinely fashioned creatures -- exiles from Eden, waiting to return home? Or have we lost that myth and are now permanently adrift -- are we wandering Homo sapiens with no hope ever of finding a home?

About seven years ago, I wrote a story for The New Yorker about the ivory-billed woodpecker. This bird was -- perhaps is -- our largest woodpecker, a beautiful black-and-white bird with a long white bill that haunted the bottom land forests of the Deep South. Considered extinct since 1944, the bird has aroused speculation and inspired searches ever since, but in 2000, I went down to a swamp in Louisiana because someone believed he had seen the bird.

I was deeply taken with the poetry of the ivory bill's story. For one thing, its common name, the Lord God bird, seemed to reveal a hunger to find more than just a bird.

That name was never much in common use, actually, but the popularity of the name today makes sense, revealing the desire to find in nature, or perhaps behind nature, something transcendent -- something divine. As if birds, poor beleaguered fragments of unspoiled nature, were like the sparks the mystics believed we must each gather up to repair the world.

Me, I kept scribbling in my notebook the abbreviation, "I.B. Woodpecker," and I realized the bird somehow had merged with that long-time famous employee of The Forward: I.B. Singer.

The I.B. Woodpecker, too, was the last of its kind, a scrap of natural history evoking a vanished world, a wild world that had produced me biologically, even if I could not go there anymore -- just as Singer's world had in part produced me culturally, even if I could not find it.

One of the poems I keep returning to in "The Life of the Skies" is by Robert Frost. It's called "The Oven Bird," and it focuses on a humble little warbler. In the poem, the bird laments the encroachments of civilization.

It says, "The highway dust is over all." And the poem ends, referring to the bird's song: "The question that he frames in all but words is what to make of a diminished thing."

I'd always assumed this poem was written in the middle of the 20th century, but in fact it was written around 1906, not much later than Cahan's ill-fated birding trip to Connecticut. Amazing that the highway dust is over all, only a few years after the first automobile was mass produced in this country.

And there was something else about the refrain of Frost's bird that spoke to me at the deepest level: "What to make of a diminished thing." Certainly that line had a Jewish reverberation for me.

Jews have been asking that question, how to make due with fragments -- with a scrap of the Temple, with a tiny fraction of the population promised Abraham, with a wounded post-Holocaust population -- for a long time.

But it isn't a specifically Jewish question, and it becomes more universal all the time. Everyone in the modern world must ask what to make of a diminished thing.

It is a religious question, an environmental question, a national question, a global question and also a personal one. It follows us on the journey we must all make to find ourselves in a post-industrial, post-Darwinian world.

For me, the journey began after a word spoken at the Shabbat table, by looking up.

Jonathan Rosen will discuss "The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature," at the Central Library on April 1 at 7 p.m. as part of the "ALOUD" series. For more information call (213) 228-7025.

Jonathan Rosen is the author of "The Talmud and The Internet" and the novels "Eve's Apple" and "Joy Comes in the Morning." The former culture editor of The Forward, he is the editorial director of Nextbook.

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