- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

By Peter Matthiessen
North Point Press, $27.50, 349 pages, illus.

As I cross over the Potomac River on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge each day, I see a maze of cranes as the new bridge is built, a new bridge demanded by the same increases in population and industry that threaten the birds for which this most beautiful of mechanical objects is named. In order for the animal cranes to survive, object and animal must somehow live together.
The birds of the genus Grus, the 15 species of cranes, have probably inspired more art, more reverence, and more myth than any other group of birds and with good reason. Not only are they beautiful, they are the largest of all flying birds on earth, standing in some cases six feet tall, taller than most humans. In their elaborate dances, they can leap four to five feet in the air. They can soar to 20,000 feet. In captivity they can live to the age of 80. They are birds of great strength which have fought human beings and won.
With enormous effort, two of these 15 species (the Whooping Crane of North America and the Red-crowned Crane of Japan) have been brought back from what seemed inevitable extinction. Nine more can be classified as "threatened or endangered."
During the last decade, under the sponsorship of the International Crane Foundation, this country's most eminent writer-naturalist, Peter Matthiessen, set out to explore the breeding and wintering grounds of all the world's cranes. Although he met with many people dedicated to saving the crane, what he found overall is not reassuring. The journeys took him to some of the world's most isolated areas, such as Mongolia and Bhutan, as well as to some of the world's most populated and polluted cities.
There is less in "The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes" of the kind of spiritual quest to be found in Mr. Matthiessen's great and much revered "The Snow Leopard," but the author does convince this reader that human survival and the crane's survival are linked. He says, "In the growing scarcity of good water and the impending competition for this resource which may well become the greatest crisis for all life on earth in the new millennium the plight of Homo may not differ very much from that of Grus."
The book begins with a trip up the Amur river basin between China and Russia (access to which for years was forbidden to foreigners), where several species of cranes winter or breed. Mr. Mathiessen was accompanied by a group of Russian, Japanese, and Korean scientists and a group of Chinese who seem more bureaucrat than scientist. The Amur, which he describes as the "largest free, wild, unbridged undamned river left on earth," is threatened particularly by the Chinese, who are proposing a series of 27 hydroelectric plants on the river. Already the timber of the region "is being sold off at bargain rates by local officials and the military, with little or no accountability."
Although Mr. Matthiessen repeatedly acknowledges the problems of China's burgeoning population, China is the country on whom he is harshest, speaking of its "Chilling indifference to the natural world." It contains nine of the world's 10 most polluted cities, and "one third of all Chinese deaths are associated with the ruin of the air and water." Water is considered safe if drinkable after being boiled. During the Cultural Revolution, the last Chinese tigers, leopards, and wolves were hunted down and killed as vermin.
There was even a massive three day country-wide campaign to wipe out street sparrows for consuming too much of the country's grains. (Mr. Matthiessen notes that since then "it has been decreed that sparrows compensate for their counterrevolutionary activities by their consumption of insects, and the common bedbug has replaced them on the death list.")
In the United States, the endangered crane is the Whooping, Grus americana, of which one flock remains, wintering in Aransas, Tex., and breeding in Canada. Today there are fewer than 300 in the wild, but that is far more than the 25 or so that existed in the 1940s. Although great efforts have been made to establish other flocks, one hurricane could wipe out this last flock as one wiped out a Louisiana flock in the 1930s.
When I visited the Aransas wildlife refuge in the 1970s I saw in four hours probably one fourth of all the Whooping Cranes in the wild. I also saw the barges that move through the refuge's canals, to which the cranes seemed oblivious, a sign I hope that industry and the birds can live together.
The conflicts between various political and economic rivals in this century have undoubtedly contributed to the heedless waste of natural resources, but ironically, these have led to what Mr. Matthiessen calls "the accidental paradise," the 149-mile long demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, an area where the streams and springs essential for the cranes remain open all winter. "Because the combatants would have been indifferent to an accidental refuge even had they realized it existed," it was not until the 1960s that an American army lieutenant came to realize that the zone had become a major crane gathering place.
Today, however, both Koreas already are eyeing this last large tract of undeveloped land on the peninsula for commercial development, and Mr. Matthiessen writes, "The welcoming doorbell of my Seoul hotel room simulates birdsong, but nostalgic longing for its lost harmony with the natural world can only be elegiac in the new Korea."
Mr. Matthiessen as ever writes with a sensory vividness which places him among the great nature writers in our history. Here is a passage describing a climb in Bhutan in the Himalayas (a country, incidentally, where killing a crane is punishable by death.):
"A fine climb through the mountain oak and rhododendron and andromeda is enhanced by the rush of waterfalls and chime of bells, the prayer wheels turning in the steep current, the squall of nutcrackers and song of laughing thrushes (not at all like laughter), lavender primula in sheltered sun patches, and red cotton berries higher on the path, and everywhere the fine smells of smoke and cow dung mixed with spruce. Emerging at last on a ledge bedecked with prayer flags, I am set up on by three black mastiffs, which turn away when I stoop to pick up rocks; they soon permit me to put down my missiles and make friends."
The book is beautifully illustrated in color by renowned artist Robert Bateman and contains 30 pages of annotated bibliography and often fascinating notes. Mr. Matthiessen is not a naturalist content to bolster his opinions with rumors, anecdotes and apocalyptic theory.
This is a book which, in its description of natural and human conditions in China, India, Africa and Korea can be downright scary, but it is a book to be cherished by anyone concerned with the natural world and the threats of industrialization and over population to that world, as well as the humans in it.

Lloyd Shaw is professor of English at Prince George's Community College.

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