Roger Tory Peterson: the first modern birder
BIRDWATCHER, The Life of Roger Tory Peterson
By Elizabeth J. Rosenthal
Lyons Press. Guilford, Conn.
437 pages. $29.95.
It's hard to imagine what today’s birding world would be like had Roger
Tory Peterson not lived as he did. It’s A Wonderful Life gives you a
glimpse into the effects of one dedicated man’s impact on his community.
Without RTP the lives of millions, from birders to the birds themselves
would be quite different… and most likely bleaker. With his publication
in 1934 of the first Peterson Field Guide to the Birds, Peterson
intiated a still-reverberating change in how ordinary people saw nature.
"Gee, I didn't realize there were so many different kinds of birds."
Elizabeth Rosenthal’s biography covers all the momentous occurences in
Peterson’s life from his first Flicker encounter to his first field
guide. From his arrival in New York City as a naive teenager to the
global role he played as the world’s best known birdman. Without a
college education he rose to a position of prominence among
ornithologists, birders and conservationists.
Rosenthal stops short of declaring Peterson a great artist in the
tradition of DaVinci and Renior, but there’s no doubt of his genius as a
man who communicated visually, orally and in writing about birds, their
habitat and the natural world in general. Throughout the many
interviews Rosenthal conducted for this biography she encounters time
and again men and women whose lives and understanding of nature were
enriched by Peterson and his work.
Just think of this: a young artist with almost no portfolio, no academic
degrees, no money, and a job teaching high school puts together a
groundbreaking field guide on birds that alters forever how humans view
the animals and plants in the natural world. Peterson did for nature
study what similar young geniuses did for communication when they
pioneered websites and blogs fifteen years ago.
The arc of Peterson’s inspiring life, from small town to worldwide
respect and admiration is at once familiar in American history, but in
detail unique to this man. He became the most important voice for
nature and conservation for generations following John Muir and John
Burroughs. His friends and associates included Paul Brooks at Houghton
Mifflin who edited Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. There was almost
every big name in American conservation. Peterson was present as
inspiraton at the inception of the World Wildlife Fund. He, Lars-Eric
Lindblad and their friends really initiated eco-tourism in the 1970s.
Always at the core of Peterson, his creativity and his life was a love
Rosenthal captures the man, his passions and his intense wonder at
nature and its workings. There was an earlier RTP biography of Peterson
by Douglas Carlson. It was published in 2007 by the University of Texas.
Carlson interviewed nearly thirty associates and relatives of Peterson.
Rosenthal’s total is almost four times that many. And she had two
interviews with Peterson’s second wife, the one living person who knew
Peterson better than anybody. The more interviews the better when
trying to word-sculpt the many facets of a man as strong, complex, self-
absorbed, brilliant, forgetful, audacious and creative as Peterson.
Further, Rosenthal traces the many strands of influence that went into
making the RTP who became so right, so influential. The Bronx Bird Club
and its mentor, Ludlow Griscom, who developed keen insights into
identifiying birds alive in the field. Thus he became part of the
movement that stopped rampant bird shooting “for science” and egg
collecting. Peterson, of course, pioneered what we know as the modern
field guide. He was among the first to use film and still cameras to
portray bird life. He was there at the birth of eco-travel. And, for
which I shall always be grateful, he and his Bronx buddies first made it
okay to have fun birding, to compete, to endure a Big Day or a Big Year.
I had not realized how influential Peterson was outside the U.S. He
created Europe’s first modern bird field guide. He encouraged those
with the knowledge to do the same for East Africa and other far-flung
parts of the globe. He encouraged and lent his name to conservation and
wildlife efforts on every continent. And he fell madly, incurably, in
love with penguins. How cool is that.
When I teach or meet beginning birders I still tell them to get the
Peterson field guide. NO better way to begin learning your local birds.
I briefly spoke to RTP about twenty years ago when he came to town for a
book signing, his latest new edition of the Field Guide for Western Birds. I look now at his clear, firm signature and his exhortation “For
Harry Fuller, Good Birding.” You betcha, Roger, and no small thanks to
you and those who’ve built on all you knew and all you created. And
some thanks, too, to Elizabeth Rosenthal for letting me see RTP in all
his splendid humanity.
To order this book, go to www.petersonbird.com/index.htm
The Roger Tory Peterson Institute in his hometown - Jamestown, New York: www.rtpi.org.
Houghtlon Mifflin’s RTP bibliography. Does not include his myriad
magazine articles. www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/peterson/rtp/bibliography.shtml.