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A Field Guide to the Birder

In response to:

A Field Guide to the Birders from the November 6, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

It was an honor to see my book, Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson, reviewed in your magazine [ NYR, November 6] alongside books by such respected and accomplished author-naturalists as Scott Weidensaul and Kenn Kaufman. These two men had been kind enough to speak with me about their memories of Roger Tory Peterson; their observations and stories are prominent in my book. Worth noting also is that my hundred-plus interviewees ranged in age from their forties to their nineties, demonstrating how Peterson’s influence and inspiration spanned generations.

That these family members, friends, and associates of Peterson hailed from North America, Europe, and Africa dramatically evidences Peterson’s global reach. Their reminiscences revivify a man passionate about acquiring knowledge who also generously disseminated his wisdom through personal mentoring, hundreds of public talks and writings, and conservationist leadership. They show, too, that with all the demands on his time, the gifted, omnipresent Peterson fretted that he might never have the opportunity to fully develop his many talents. Thus I’m puzzled as to why the reviewer, Robert O. Paxton, asserts that Birdwatcher does not look “beyond the man to try to explain the public that adopted him or the role the public shaped for him.”

…Missing from Paxton’s review is the fascinating truth about the groundbreaking 1934 field guide to birds that democratized the pastime. Paxton says that it was the “work of a twenty-six-year-old New York high school art teacher and obsessed birder….” Actually, the field guide was the work of a twenty-something, working-class son of immigrants—a radically different creature from other bird scholars of the time—possessed of a high school diploma and an art education funded via furniture decorating, whose prodigious knowledge of the natural world got him a position as a natural history teacher of privileged teenaged boys in a private, Boston-area academy. There he found the time and resources to complete an extracurricular project that, once published, would change the course of birdwatching by transforming it, for all time, into an activity that anyone could do.

Elizabeth J. Rosenthal
Burlington, New Jersey

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