Wings of desire
The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes
Peter Matthiessen Harvill, 350pp, £20
North America enjoys a tradition of nature writing that is largely unparalleled in Britain. Springing from the ecstatic essays of Emerson, Thoreau and John Muir in the 19th century, this tradition is distinguished by its exacting eco-consciousness and by its precise, lyrical evocations of wild landscapes. The writer-explorers who are the incumbents of this tradition today - Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder and Richard Nelson foremost among them - braid ecology with elegy; their work is at once celebratory of the natural world and mournfully aware of what is being lost.
Peter Matthiessen is probably the best known of these North American nature writers. His aim until now has been to induce a sense of wonder in his readers and thus inspire the urge to preserve this world. In The Birds of Heaven, however, his long-felt sadness at the "disappearing earth" has ripened into anger. The book is an impassioned account of Matthiessen's journeys to five continents in search of cranes. There are 15 species of crane in the world, and 11 of them are currently threatened with extinction. Given that cranes are among the most venerable of birds - the fossil record reveals that they have been around for more than 60 million years - this is no small testimony to the extinctive powers of human-kind. With their legendary flying abilities (sandhill cranes have been seen cruising at three miles above sea level) and their long- distance migration arcs, cranes have long figured in myth as messengers and heralds. That these ancient and portentous birds now face annihilation makes them an especially plangent emblem for environmental damage. For Matthiessen, cranes are exemplary of "all that is being lost".
The Birds of Heaven is in part a recognisable travelogue. Matthiessen writes with his usual thrilling precision of the landscapes he visits, and of the birds themselves: their gawky-graceful appearance and the distinctive "bugling" calls - the "wild horn notes" - that their unusually long trachea enables them to make. But the book is also, importantly, about the people and institutions through which environmental protection - and persecution - is achieved. Environmental protection, it would seem, is usually initiated by exceptional individuals (of whom Matthiessen is one). Environmental damage, by contrast, is a far more corporate or national affair. China is correctly lambasted by Matthiessen. State-run communism has never been famed for its eco-awareness; the Chinese landscape was raped during the Maoist years. And the turbo-capitalism of latter-day China, which continues at least politically to masquerade as socialism, is more rapacious than Maoism, if that were possible, in its exploitation of the land.
William Fiennes, a young English writer, has undoubtedly studied the lyrical tradition of which Matthiessen is such a distinguished practitioner. And yet, in The Snow Geese, his marvellous first book, he has produced something entirely his own. The book tells the story of Fiennes's journey up North America, as he follows the snow geese during their spring migration from Texas to Baffin Island. Fiennes's metaphoric reflex is impressive. Everything is like something else in this book: nothing can be only itself. So an old lady has "a red flourish in both her cheeks like the smudges left on bats by new cricket balls". A suspension bridge is "strung like a harp". In the sky above a lake, Fiennes watches "thousands of geese swirling round and round, as if the pond were the mouth of a drain, and these geese the whirlpool forming above it" (while Matthiessen's cranes are depleting in number, Fiennes's snow geese are proliferating wildly and travel in flocks of up to half a million). The wings of a flock of bats make "the rapid soft flutter of banknotes hurrying through a counting machine". In clumsier hands, such relentless image-making could become annoying, but Fiennes's comparison reminds us of the two primary pleasures of travel writing - to help us imagine things we have not seen, and to make us see familiar sights anew.
Fiennes decided to follow the snow geese after an illness had left him confined to his home for months. What could be more symbolic of escape, he thought, than following these birds? Almost as soon as he begins his journey, however, he feels the tug of what Matthiessen calls Heimgang, "homegoing". While avian migration is the rationale for his journey, and supplies much of his material, Fiennes meditates on the twin human compulsions to travel and to return home: the productive tension that exists in all of us between dwelling and journey, between wanderlust and nostalgia.