Sunday, April 27, 2014


Today I'm flying low and I'm
not saying a word.
I'm letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I'm taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I'm traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

"Today" by Mary Oliver from A Thousand Mornings
© The Penguin Press, 2012.
It was on this day in 1934 that "A Field Guide to the Birds" by Roger Tory Peterson was published. The son of Swedish and German immigrants, Peterson grew up in Jamestown, a struggling industrial town near the western border of New York state. He was a smart boy, and he skipped two grades. He didn't fit in well with his older classmates, who made fun of him for his obsession with wildlife they called him "Professor Nuts Peterson".  His seventh-grade teacher encouraged him to join the Junior Audubon Club, and this began a lifelong passion for birds. On a field trip, he wandered into the woods with a friend, and they saw a flicker that they thought was dead. He wrote: "When I reached out to touch its back it exploded with life-a stunning sight, flying away with its golden under wings and the red crescent on its nape-I can see it now-the way it was transformed from what we thought was death into intense life. I was tremendously excited with the feeling which I have carried ever since, of the intensity of a bird's life, and its apparent freedom, with this wonderful ability to fly."

Peterson's mother had always encouraged his fascination with nature-she made him nets to catch butterflies and convinced the local druggist to give the boy cyanide for preserving insects-but his father was skeptical of his son's passion, and hoped that he would go to work in a local mill after he graduated from high school, which is exactly what happened. Peterson graduated at the age of 16 and went to work at the Union National Furniture Company, where he was paid $8 a week. His job was to paint Chinese scenes on lacquered wooden cabinets. His manager was impressed by Peterson's artistic skills and told the boy that he should go to art school, not waste his talent at a furniture company.

That same year, Peterson was reading an ornithology magazine at the library, and he saw a notice for the next meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union at a natural history museum in New York City. Part of the meeting would include a show of bird art, and Peterson submitted two paintings. They were both accepted, and so at the age of 17 his work was shown alongside the best bird illustrators in the country.

After two years of working at the mill, Peterson took off to New York City for art school.  Next he got a job teaching science at a private school for boys in Boston. There, he joined the country's oldest ornithological group called the Nuttall Club. He also began working on a bird guide with a new system for identification-grouping species with similar characteristics and using arrows to point out the differences between them. He submitted it to publishers but was repeatedly turned down. He discovered that a fellow member of the Nuttall Club named Francis Allen was an editor at Houghton Mifflin, so took the manuscript to him. Allen was impressed. To make sure that Peterson's illustrations were accurate, Allen took the manuscript to a Harvard ornithology professor and asked him to identify the species from across the room. The professor had no trouble doing so, and Houghton Mifflin agreed to publish A Field Guide to the Birds.


Suzanna said...

I was so glad to read this post, Michelle...a perfect opening for my Sunday...thank you!

grace Forrest~Maestas said...

I LOVE YOU. LOVE YOU ever even MORE for this post.
For the MaryO

and then even more,
for all of it
all of

Mo Crow said...