"HOW OFTEN," asks Alexander Skutch in his epilogue to this masterful book, "in our moments of supreme delight . . . do we pause to examine the sources of our joy?" Not often enough, he reflects ruefully. "Yet the effort to discover and acknowledge all that contributes to the fulfillment of all lives, however alien to our habits it may be, is a fruitful practice, able to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our world." He then adds a Wordsworthian dimension. "[This practice] may be the foundation of natural piety."
But Skutch is not only a romantic when it comes to the natural world and the world of birds. Far from it. His whole life as set out in this book bears testimony to what he holds dear. In A Birdwatcher's Adventures in Tropical America he sets up a broad canvas on which he paints with consummate skill and grace the experiences of more than 50 years of living and working in Central and South America as a botanist, ornithologist and consultant to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He apprenticed under the now almost legendary Frank Chapman in the Panama Isthmus in the '20s. His credentials are impeccable.
Adventures literally teems with life in myriad and abundant form. From a description of the minute Azteca ants infesting every Cecropia tree and their importance to the food chain of all living animals in the tropical rain forests, Skutch ranges through the symbiotic relationship between ants and birds to the mating and nesting habits of the tanangers, finches, oropendolas, toucans, and dozens of other species, "whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)" Rarely does he bog down in the minutiae of scientific terminology. He writes clearly, and if at times his style is a bit dry, his language always strives to clarify, to distill and frequently to inspire with its delicate imagery: 'To me, a hummingbird was, and is, a fairylikd bird, with a tiny body of slender grace, that hovers, miraculously suspended between two broad sectors of misty light, like the separated halves of a halo, giving forth now and then a bright glint of green from its back, and sending out a low murmurous humming from those wings vibrated into an unsubstantial haze, while it probes the cool depth of some bright corolla with a long and delicately slender bill."
The title of this book is deceptive. One should not presume it is only about birdwatching. It is, as well, a graphic account of 50 years of adventures in the great, almost unexplored vastness of tropical America, and what adventures! With casual Modesty, bordering on the diffident, Skutch takes us with him as he probes the headwaters of the Amazon 40 years ago in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. On foot and aboard a Peruvian gunboat he leads us on journeys that might put Bogart to shame in The African Queen. He narrowly survives a turbulent revolution that explodes around his small farm in Costa Rica in the '40s. And throughout, with a magnanimity and sense of cool detachment that almost defy credulity, Skutch keeps us delightfully distracted by the doings of the Black-striped Sparrow and the Olive-backed Thrush.
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each in natural piety.