Wednesday, July 3, 2013
A while ago I expressed my wish for the perfect birding book, a volume that would combine my love of engaging travel writing, natural history, and of course, birds. I have read some enjoyable birding adventure books, but nothing that could fulfill the admittedly daunting requirement of being the "perfect" birding book.
With Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre by Tim Gallagher (Atria Books, 2013), I may not have found perfection, but I'm definitely getting close.
For those who don't know, the imperial woodpecker is a large, charismatic, boldly colored bird with a distinctive call, similar to its American cousin, the ivory-bill. Like the ivory-bill, its numbers declined drastically in the twentieth century due to habitat loss and human predation, and it is almost certainly now extinct. Still, there are occasionally reports of sightings, just to give us a bit of hope that a few individuals might be hanging on in some remote corner of their former range.
Gallagher, who was part of the controversial discovery of the ivory-bill in Arkansas in 2004, wanted to travel to Mexico to see if he could find an imperial woodpecker as well. For many people, a trip to the swamps and bayous of the American south seems daunting enough, what with the alligators, snakes, mosquitoes and various creepy-crawlies. But a quest for the imperial woodpecker takes the danger factor to a whole other level, as its former range was the Sierra Madre Occidental, always a remote and rugged location, and now the scene of some of Mexico's worst drug-related violence.
Earlier this year, I enjoyed a non-birding account of this area, God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre by Richard Grant. In that book, Grant hangs out with as many local people as he can, sometimes looking for vanished treasure or talking with the descendants of Mormon settlers, and sometimes getting drunk with suspicious characters. The constant sense of danger starts to wear on him, and eventually he runs into a situation in Durango that almost led to a very bad end.
Ever the armchair traveler, I read this tale with fascination, but I couldn't help wondering how much trouble Grant found just because of the people he associated with? Some reader reviewers on Amazon insisted that they have been to the same locations and did not agree with his depiction at all. Would he have had the same type of experience if he'd been looking for birds?
I'm sure Tim Gallagher had similar questions on his mind as he prepared for his trips. In fact, he mentions a recurring nightmare he had, in which a man with an AK-47 intercepts him as he runs towards the woodpecker. Despite these fears, he really wants to look for the bird, and had good experiences in Mexico in the past, so off he went.
Much of the book recounts snippets of the area's history -- Pancho Villa, the last stronghold of the Apaches, the famous journeys of the Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz. This was all familiar territory, as God's Middle Finger covered a lot of the same ground. Gallagher even hangs out with some of the same people as Grant (the nice ones, that is), such as traveling with the friendly and helpful Mormom John Hatch, and talking to the elderly expert on the Apaches, Nelda Villa. Still, it's interesting material, and there's a lot more information on the natural history of the area.
Unlike the ivory-bill, who liked swampy bottomlands, the imperial woodpecker lived in the pine forests of the Sierra Madre. In its natural state, this was an incredibly beautiful place, but as with far too many places, ranching, agriculture (a.k.a. growing opium poppies and marijuana), and most especially, logging, has absolutely decimated the area. Still, pockets of forest, traditional villages, and people old enough to remember seeing the woodpecker still exist, and Gallagher seeks them out.
For his last visit, he decides to explore what seems like the best remaining habitat, the place where the only video evidence of the imperial woodpecker was ever taken--the mountains of Durango. (You may recall, this is the area where Richard Grant nearly came to a bad end.) He tries to do this sensibly, including some Mexican biologists in the planning and expedition, even getting some reassurance from one of the local drug growers (or at least, they strongly suspect he is).
This is the most "travelogue" type part of the book, and also the most exciting. Details like coming back to the hut they are staying in and finding a goat chewing on his hairbrush help make the story vivid, and I loved reading about their sightings of military macaws and other birds. Of course, things don't go as planned.
Once again, as I finished the book, I was struck by two conflicting impressions: one, that most of the people he met seemed to be kind and helpful. And two, despite this, the Sierra Madre seems like a dangerous place that would be nerve-wracking to travel through. So, to answer my question about Richard Grant's narrative--he might have sought out more suspicious companions, but it wasn't just him. The Sierra Madre is dangerous. Travel there at your own risk.
I enjoyed Imperial Dreams a lot, and highly recommend it. I will probably read it again. There is only one problem with the book, and that is not a criticism but a reflection of the author's honesty and writing skills. And that "problem" is that, as I finished the last pages, I felt that it is just too sad. The hardships the people face, the senseless and escalating violence, the many tales he heard of people being kidnapped, murdered and/or raped, the on-going destruction of such a rare and beautiful environment, the almost certain extinction of such a marvelous bird. So sad.