What We’re Reading: Peter Matthiessen’s The Birds of Heaven
Posted by on September 11, 2014


The Birds of Heaven chronicles Peter Matthiessen’s many journeys on five continents in search of the fifteen species of cranes—from the border of China and Siberia to the marshes of Florida.

Cranes prefer different habitats of vast, open wetlands, and this preference is one of the main causes of their vulnerability. Matthiessen writes in the introduction: “Today eleven of the fifteen species may fairly be considered threatened or endangered. If we act quickly and concertedly, there is still a chance to save the rare cranes and a wide array of their beautiful wetland territories, but the opportunity may close in this decade or the next.”

As I was reading The Birds of Heaven (published 2001), my thoughts turned to how fragile even such a large, long-legged, noble, and magnificent bird’s future can be.

In the final chapter of the book, Matthiessen writes this of the whooping crane (grus Americana) and efforts to sustain a non-migrating population of the species in Florida:  “The fierce nature of the species offers hope that it may prevail, but it cannot survive without strong assistance and commitment from the creature that drove it to the abyss of extinction in the first place.”

The smooth, journalistic prose and beautiful descriptions of natural settings, cranes, and other wildlife had me turning the pages, as did the sense of urgency that instills all of Matthiessen’s nonfiction environmental works.

Matthiessen, a trained naturalist who’s early work included Wildlife in America (which I wrote about here), dedicated space and detailed descriptions to his crane subjects: “The name monachus comes from “monk crane,” as it is known in Germany, due to its white cowl or hood. Little is known of the natural history of this wary and elusive bird except that it nests in forest swamps of larch peat-moss bogs with small and scattered trees; perhaps its short-limbed, heavy-looking shape, which gives it an inelegant appearance, at least by comparison to other cranes, is an adaptation to the more constricted flight demanded by its wooded habitat.”

This book was more journalistic in approach than The Snow Leopard. Matthiessen blends sublime beauty with the narrative prose of the travel writer: “The track descends. At the far end of a plain, under gray storm light and the shrouded western sun, clouds mill and drift chaotically on the dark peaks. The monsoon has overtaken us.”

What becomes striking is not only how drawn Matthiessen is to the cranes, but how he is a birder through and through. I recommend The Birds of Heaven to anyone looking for a good read, whether they are a birder or not.

-Post by Roger

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  • Photo by Tyler Malone