Taking Flight


Morgan Meis on Jonathan Franzen's Farther Away in The Smart Set:

From his usage of words like “passion,” “obsession,” and “love,” it's obvious Jonathan Franzen thinks birdwatching is neither pathetic, nor, more importantly, is it harmless. For Franzen, birdwatching is a big deal. Paying attention to birds can change you. It can transform your sense of self and the world. Franzen knows this because it happened to him.

Many of the essays in Franzen's book therefore touch on the subject of watching birds. A couple of essays are explicitly about birdwatching, which Franzen has done in Cyprus, on an island in the South Pacific known as Masafuera, and in China, among other places. Franzen has become a defender of the birds. He is appalled by the killing of birds and by the destruction of their natural habitat. He laments with great pathos the lusty shooting of migrant birds that is a favorite pastime of the people of Malta. But what does it mean, this birdwatching, and why does Franzen keep coming back to the theme of birds over and over in his essays?

I wonder if Franzen's special feeling for the birds is related to the evolutionary quirks of bird morphology. As everyone knows by now, birds are the modern descendants of the dinosaurs. Over long eons, the dinosaurs sprouted wings and feathers and took to the air. In so doing, they shed much of their fearsome nature. Even the hunting birds of today — the eagles and hawks — while fearsome to the small rodent upon whom they might swoop, are so elegant and lovely in flight that it is difficult to associate them with the fierce brutality of the dinosaur. The change from dinosaur to bird is a change from something terrible to something refined. Consider as well the bones of the bird. A bird will fly. In order to fly, that bird must be, literally, light as the air. The bones of the bird have thus become porous and slight things over millions of years of evolution. In becoming birds, the dinosaurs took on a lightness, a fragility that has characterized them ever since. This fragility is very important to Franzen. It is the central factor in his transformation into a bird lover.