Saturday, January 7, 2017

Bird books

The birds described and illustrated in these two 1960s-era books from mom and dad's collection haven't changed, but the times have. I was struck by how different the world is today from the one depicted in these books. 

This little booklet tucked into the back of one of the books contains recordings -- to be played on your phonograph -- of bird songs throughout North America. 

Drop the needle at the directed spot on the plastic disc, and you can hear the sound of whatever bird you've chosen. John and I have not tried this yet. 

At the back of the National Geographic Society's 1964 Song and Garden Birds of North America ($11.95 postpaid) is a pocket containing a booklet of recorded bird songs. They are to be played on your phonograph, and there are elaborate instructions for letting the needle down at the right place so you can hear the songs of "70 American birds in their natural settings."

The clear plastic records in that little booklet -- for a device that many people no longer have (and some don't know ever existed) -- are one of the ways that mom and dad's 1960s-era bird books that I unearthed yesterday reflect a totally different world.

Another is the photographs of people in the National Geographic book. A group of birdwatchers -- all Caucasian, all middle-aged and older except for one kid -- could have modelled for a Norman Rockwell illustration, with their sensible checked shirts and dresses, cardigans, bowties and even a neckerchief. There's no racial diversity, no facial piercings or pink hair, nor, I suspect, one tattoo amongst them. Another photo of children clustered around a khaki-clad man illustrating bird banding is similarly idyllic. All are wholesome, conservatively dressed and paying perfect attention.

The tone of the books is serious, even a bit pompous; pre-Internet and Google, this is where information come from. But feminism obviously still had a way to go. In one chapter, ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson writes: "Birding can be a placid occupation for maiden aunts, a rough and tumble sport, or a hair-raising adventure." Presumably, maiden aunts did not have hair-raising adventures in those days.

Peterson, a birder since age 11, says some might consider bird-watching an escape. "But in a world that often perturbs us with its synthetic quality, a world that seems sometimes to be getting out of hand, this is an escape from the artificial -- a return to reality."

 If Peterson needed an escape from the chaos and artificiality of the 1960s, imagine how much he would need it now.

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