Flight Maps

Jennifer Price

Read June 2003

I've never particularly paid attention to natural history museum displays of stuffed birds, even extinct ones.  By the time I'd read the first essay in Price's book, which is about the extinct passenger pigeon, I saw these displays in a whole new light.  If just one bird at the Smithsonian could tell such a story...

This is an enjoyable collection of essays on the American relationship between nature and Nature (nature objectified), with an emphasis on birds.  The good pieces are eclectic and dramatic.  They are also suffused with more ambiguity than one might expect (perhaps it's no surprise the author moved to LA to take up scriptwriting?).  The book's illustrations are a delight.

Igore the introduction and the last two essays.  Price, who has training in biology, is at her best writing about birds.  The introduction rambles, while the last two essays (on Nature in malls and on TV) are predictable.  The writing, overall, leaves something to be desired: there are too many rhetorical questions and repeated phrases, as well as lots of Capitalized Words.  And enough about the Volvo All-Wheel Drive, already.  Yes, we know, you're buying a car, not your soul (despite what the VW New Beetle ads (1, 2) said).

Back to birds.  Just over a century ago, passenger pigeons apparently flocked the sky in such numbers that the New Yorker called them a "living wind".  But they immediately became the targets of hunters, and eventually also of shooting clubs (today's "clay pigeons" were invented to replace them).  Price deftly traces their transformation from objects of nature to economic entities; for instance, as pigeon pies moved upmarket, restaurants stopped placing the pigeon's legs on top of the pie as a reminder of the food source.  She briefly documents the theories that represented a denial of their extinction, and the subsequent backlash against their hunters.  But Price takes no prisoners.  She does not spare those who sentimentalize the flocks, nor the wealthy who conveniently blamed the hunters without castigating their own consumption.  She draws to a close by observing, but not moralizing about, the effects of increasingly complex, networked societies.

The other two essays are equally good.  One is about the tendency to use birds to decorate ladies' hats in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, and how groups like the Audobon Society (then principally an organization of women) successfully campaigned against this practice.  The essay includes incisive views of the roles women played in the society of that time (especially as keepers of morality).  The third essay is a Brief Natural History of the Pink Flamingo.  That title alone should be incentive enough to buy this underrated book.