Saturday, January 3, 2009

Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson

Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson
By Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

If one of the criteria for a good biography is that it makes you feel like you personally knew the person profiled, then Birdwatcher most certainly is a good biography. Although I never knew Mr. Peterson and cannot judge to the accuracy of this portrayal of his persona, Rosenthal’s depiction of his life certainly transformed my view of the man from a rather compressed image of a childhood icon, into a colleague (albeit a very respected and revered colleague) I never knew.
Birds and art were two of my strong passions as a child, but unlike my interest in football or hunting, they weren't something that I was able to share with my friends. Although growing up in Eastern Montana has plenty of benefits for a child, finding others with interests in hobbies that aren't mainstream is not one of them. Therefore Rodger Tory Peterson became much more to me than my childhood football heroes, he became an icon of my not so normal passions, someone (along with my Dad) who made it seem less abnormal. But he was still someone I only knew from afar and in abstract. I even wrote a letter to him when I was ten year old. I don’t have a copy of the letter I wrote, but I do have a copy of the letter I received from him. Even though he was away when my letter arrived in Connecticut and the reply is from his secretary, it still has a special place in my personal treasures.

Rosenthal gave me a chance to know a more dimensional Roger Peterson - a man of passion and problems, feelings and faults. She did an excellent job of portraying the events and people in Peterson's life. I particularly like the way the author wove stories told by others about Roger throughout the text. She also profiled a number of people who Roger influenced during his lifetime. I have a feeling that this chapter could have easily been a book in itself. She introduced me to so much that I did not know about Roger Peterson's life and I particularly was impressed with the role that he played in the conservation movement of his time. I also felt the frustration with his desire to be thought of as an artist rather than an illustrator (a distinction I feel is often made without merit).

In particular, I relished the portions of the biography that dealt with Peterson’s infatuation with Antarctica and the iconic Antarctic birds – penguins. He even took King Penguin as his pseudonym - his favorite species in his favorite family of birds. That this fascination was enhanced by his relationship with Lars Eric Lindblad was even more of a treat since I have worked for Lindblad Expeditions, often with naturalists who worked with Roger Peterson during his travels in Antarctica on the original Antarctic tour ship, the Lindblad Explorer. I took this book with me to Antarctica this year to work on this review with the inspiration of being surrounded by a place so special to Mr. Peterson on a Lindblad ship. It was ironic that during our first landing this year we were greeted by an unexpected out of range King Penguin.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give Rosenthal is that this book was so effective in painting the person who was Roger Tory Peterson that shortly after I finished reading it I had a very vivid dream in which I had a conversation with Mr. Peterson. In the dream we were on a rocky beach in Antarctica, Mr. Peterson was sitting on a rock and I was standing to his right. There were Gentoo penguins walking past us on the beach and we had a very pleasant conversation about penguins (the details of which have unfortunately not stuck in my memory). Thank you very much Elizabeth

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