Feathered symbols of hope

The world's 15 species of cranes are struggling for survival

Peter Matthiessen has always been a writer of wide sweep and small moments, large concerns balancing lyricism, delight balancing a well-earned skepticism about where the world is heading. These concerns and counterbalances are alive and well in "The Birds of Heaven," in which Matthiessen pursues the 15 species of cranes - those tall, elegant, and near-mythic birds - following them through Siberia, Japan, Africa, China, Bhutan, the Koreas, Australia, and, finally, Florida and Wisconsin.

The book begins, fittingly considering its sweep, with a plane flight up the Alaskan coast, across the Bering Strait, and down into Siberia. Over the next 300 pages, we follow a small band of international ornithologists and "craniacs" as they attempt to track, tag, and preserve the endangered birds.

Those with a taste for small scenes and the personal may be at first thrown by the book's large scope and constantly changing locales. As with Matthiessen's classic, "The Snow Leopard" (1978), real effort is required, like a hiker finding his or her trail rhythm, before the journey's momentum takes over. The pay-off comes in the form of crystalline moments when we are lifted into a rare and quiet place created by Matthiessen's precise lyricism.

We feel the excitement of glimpsing these unique "sun-silvered creatures" as they "step down lightly out of the air," or watching the cranes "moving gracefully without haste and yet swiftly in the black diamond shimmer of the Muir River."

It's hard to imagine a more fitting nature book for this time when American eyes are focused outward, toward the world, as never before. Since September 11, we are learning again the old lesson of how interconnected the world is. The cranes don't respect borders, requiring territories that span and transcend different countries and governments. In following the birds, Matthiessen provides us with a state-of-the-world report that is both enlightening and distressing.

We discover just how constant war, drought, and oppression are for much of the globe, and how those conditions influence both man and bird. Matthiessen brilliantly describes "China's chilling indifference to the natural world," as well as "the American monoculture that spreads like a plastic sheet across the world, stifling the last indigenous whiffs and quirks and colors."

In his estimation, it seems a tossup which has been more destructive to the environment, old school communism or the "frenzied capitalism" that now grips much of the new Asia. For all the book's beauty, we're left with a picture of the planet where diversity is threatened, where crows and magpies and rats prosper, but where more delicate creatures, dependent on large tracts of undisturbed land and clean water, can barely hang on.

American nature writing since Thoreau has embraced a basic duality: If we love the wild world, we feel all the more outrage at watching it destroyed. Strange that the places and animals we love, the sights that "open like a flower" in memory, can also inspire the opposite emotions: despair and outrage.

"Yet at the bottom of my contentment," Matthiessen writes, "lies the inevitable sense of sadness and foreboding one feels that the fate of beautiful rare creatures whose last habitats and populations are disappearing to make room for ever more members of the human species."

"The Birds of Heaven" is a plea made by a man who has seen enough of the world - and of man - to not necessarily believe we have the good sense to save ourselves or our fellow animals. The cranes then, as "heraldic emblems of the purity of water, earth, and air that is being lost," are both a cause for despair and one of our final wild symbols of hope.

David Gessner's most recent book is "Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder" (Algonquin Books, 2001).

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