The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes

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9780374199449: The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes
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A leading naturalist and writer travels the globe in search of a prized-and vanishing-bird

Cranes are ubiquitous in the earliest legends of the world's peoples, where they often figure as harbingers of heaven and omens of longevity and good fortune. They are still held sacred in many places, and for good reason. Their large size and need for wilderness habitat makes them an "umbrella species" whose wellbeing assures that of other creatures and of the ecosystem at large. Moreover, the enormous spans of their migrations are a symbol of, and stimulus to, international efforts at conservation.

In The Birds of Heaven, Peter Matthiessen has woven together journeys in search of the fifteen species of cranes in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and Australia. As he tracks them (and their declining numbers) in the company of scientists, conservationists, and regional people encountered along the way, he captures the dilemmas of a planet in ecological crisis, and the deeper loss to humankind if these beautiful and imposing creatures are allowed to disappear. The book includes color plates by renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman.

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Review:

Acclaimed writer Peter Matthiessen, a self-professed "craniac," has been observing and studying all kinds of birds most of his life, but his pursuit of cranes is closer to a spiritual quest than a naturalist's exercise. These majestic, mythic, and notoriously shy birds, capable of soaring at heights of 20,000 feet, are often fond of remote and rugged places, so just locating the birds can be difficult enough, determining an accurate number often impossible. Some locales, such as the breeding grounds on the Platte River in Nebraska, boast flocks half a million strong--"by far the greatest crane assemblies on earth"; other areas support only a precious few. Matthiessen's search for 15 different species of cranes has taken him to hidden corners of Siberia, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Sudan, and Australia (where Atherton cranes were not even discovered until 1961). Despite his many years of adventure and wide travels, each crane sighting is still a thrill for him, and his curiosity and contagious enthusiasm bring the book alive. But The Birds of Heaven also serves as an ecological warning: "Perhaps more than any other living creatures, they evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth, and air upon which their species--and ours, too, though we learn it very late--must ultimately depend for survival." --Shawn Carkonen

About the Author:

Peter Matthiessen is a naturalist and explorer whose many works of nonfiction include The Tree Where Man Was Born, which was nominated for a National Book Award and The Snow Leopard, which won it. He is also the author of nine works of fiction, including Far Tortuga, and, most recently, the Everglades trilogy that culminates in Bone by Bone.

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