.....Touring an Ornithological Gallery
.....by David L. Peterson*
.....Northwest Science, Volume 83, Number. 1, 2009 p. 79
Anyone who has ever used a Peterson Field Guide to identify birds has some appreciation for the beauty of bird paintings. Multiple images on a page not only facilitate species identification, but are enjoyable to use because of their visual appeal. The newer Sibley Field Guide for birds has perfected this combination of accurate imagery with artistic beauty.
Humans, Nature, and Birds uses images of birds to explore what art says about the natural world, but more importantly examines the relationship between birds and human culture. If you think of the 75 beautifully reproduced images of birds in the book as an art museum through which you are walking with a naturalist and artist at your side, then you have some idea of what it is like to read this book. In fact, the authors have organized the book into "galleries" and "rooms" as a framework for examining various topics. Although I did not find this format particularly helpful, it does not detract from the value of the discussions about individual works of art.
The primary focus of the book is an analysis of "science art," or how artistic images can be used to express and interpret scientific information about birds, the environments in which they live, and their sociobiological relationship with humans. Discussions of each painting or image are detailed yet readable, with emphasis on interpretation and a minimum of critique of the art itself. Scientific references are supported with an appendix of bibliographic notes, as well as a remarkable 24-page chronology of bird art and bird science since 30,000 years B.P.
The variety of images included in the book will be a highlight for most readers. I was pleased to find works by most of my favorite artists and to become acquainted with several others. Images range from Paleolithic art on cave walls to European Impressionistic paintings to 20th century abstractions- all interpreted in an interesting and informative manner. My personal favorites include paintings of a northern spotted owl (Robert Bateman, plate 36), common raven (Henry Bismuth, plate 51), and long-billed curlew (Chris Bacon, plate 59), not to mention the beautiful cover illustration of common pintails (Lars Jonsson).
My only disappointment with the book is that it relies so heavily on North American and European art, with few examples from Africa (with the exception of Egypt) and Asia. Native American art from the Pacific Northwest and Arctic, regions where bird images in wood and stone carvings, household objects, and paintings are common place, is not represented at all.
Humans, Nature, and Birds is a book from which scientists can learn about art, and artists can learn about science. It is challenging to integrate diverse fields, but this book does so effectively, mostly with non-technical language that makes it accessible to a wide readership. The cost of the book is low for a hardbound volume with high-quality plates-about the same as the price of admission and a guided tour for a couple of people to a good ad museum-which is exactly the experience the authors want you to have.
*U.S. Forest Service
Pacific Northwest Research Station
400 N. 34th Street, Suite 201
SeattleW, A 98103