Book Review

With the help of a supporting cast of ornithologists and experts, as well as a hermit, a painter of birds, and five billion extirpated passenger pigeons, B. J. Hollars delivers a finely crafted and often profound memoir, Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds. For his protagonist Hollars chooses a remarkable creature known as the Lord God Bird, and as the book’s narrator Hollars marries scientific rigor with wide-eyed wonder, letting readers enjoy both his command of and joy in his subject.

“Once upon a time there lived a bird and then that bird stopped living. They were here, then they weren’t, and then, one day many years later, they were believed to be here again.” This was the ivory-billed woodpecker, whose reverent nickname, Hollars writes, came from “the regularity with which the phrase ‘Lord God!’ escaped the mouths of those lucky enough to glimpse one in the wild.” That ivory-bills “were one day believed to be here again” may not surprise some readers, as the bird, last definitively sighted in 1944, made news in 2005 with its supposed rediscovery in Louisiana. Hollars frames his story of the ivory-bill, because he must, through the words of those who experienced the bird in the past. He begins with Don Moser, author of a seminal 1972 article on ivory-bills who also wrote on the discredited 2005 rediscovery: “The culminating paragraph [of Moser’s article] reads like a battle cry, not only to defend a bird but the wilds of our uncharted imagination.” In Moser’s words,

[T]he bird means more as an idea than it ever could in reality. A real ivory-billed would be observed and trailed, reported on in scientific journals and the popular press. . . . If the question of its existence remains unanswered, it will continue to range the backcountry of the mind, and those who wish to trail it there can find it in their visions.

This suggests the love affair of the book’s title, whose futility Hollars acknowledges: “Moser’s powerful language does little to counteract his heartbreaking message: that quite likely, the only refuge for these birds remains in our minds.”

The ivory-billed woodpecker was Hollars’s “spark bird,” what ornithologists call the bird that “through its beauty or grace or other intangible quality” sparks someone’s general interest in birds. The ivory-bill’s extinction means Hollars can admire them only in posterity—through writings, paintings, and specimens. Parallel to his study of this bird are his evolution from neophyte to experienced birder, and commentary on birding’s environmental and social significance. He writes on his subjects in prose rich in science and history, but also lyricism. This is, after all, a love story.

It is also a story about vanishings, as the title implies, and furthermore a Wisconsin story. Hollars, a Madison-based professor, follows in the tradition of Aldo Leopold, whose Wisconsin-set A Sand County Almanac remains a classic of conservation ethics and luminous prose. Here is Leopold on passenger pigeons:

For one species to mourn another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.

Hollars introduces us to other Wisconsinites who operated at the intersection of science and poetry. The fascinating Frances Zirrer spent a half-century in the Wisconsin wilds documenting his surroundings and corresponded with conservationist Bill Schorger, another of the book’s compelling personalities. “You are right that the only foolish animal is the ‘man,’” Zirrer wrote, “perhaps he would be less so if he would realize that he is an animal.” Hollars could easily have romanticized the hermetic Zirrer, but avoids this by admitting both his envy of Zirrer’s existence and its impracticality for himself.

Zirrer’s final written words were:

Outside my cabin the forest looks empty and desolate. Before long, however, the chain saws will be back here. In spite of conservation talk, the woods are still exploited to the limit.  Every tree that is not too small must go.  There is hardly a day that I don’t hear the distant buzzing of the chain saw.

Such melancholia is inevitable in a book on conservation: Don Eckelberry, the last person to see a living ivory-billed woodpecker wrote, “The only spirit I could hear [that day] was the voice of doom for this entire natural community, epitomized by that poor lone ivorybill . . . and vocalized by the shrill squeals of the donkey engine which worked all night bringing out the logs.”

As a memoirist, and therefore a character in his own book, Hollars is appealingly capable of wonder and longing. One has the feeling he would be good company on a tramp through the woods: “Some snowy evenings, while walking home from work, I march up the hill desperate for a bird or an owl to give me some sign and sometimes—when I’m lucky—one does.” By acknowledging his status as fledgling birder, he projects relatable modesty: beginners in any realm will recognize his anxiety at failing to identify birds. Hollars often lets experts speak for him and with unabashed admiration; about a particular naturalist, he writes “I marvel at his knowledge of this land and its people; his ability to pinpoint property lines at 50 miles per hour while simultaneously offering information on the rotation of crops.”

Such marvel is common both in nature books and love stories, but unchecked it can become fatiguing. Hollars avoids this by reminding us of the regret inherent in extinction, and assesses this with particular elegance after having his closest encounter possible with an ivory-billed woodpecker—a stuffed specimen.

In that episode and throughout the book, Hollars balances a learner’s humility with confidence as an observer. Regarding the reality of natural extinctions, he is willing to counter, “Might we all agree that there is nothing natural about hunting the most abundant species of bird to extinction?” When Aldo Leopold writes, “We know now . . . that man is only a fellow voyager with other creatures in the Odyssey of evolution, and that his captaincy of the adventuring ship conveys the power, but not necessarily the right, to discard at will among the crew,” Hollars responds with a question—“We’d never dare sink ourselves, would we?”—whose italics reinforce its inherent tension.

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers, a book by Christopher Cokinos, which Hollars quotes, takes its title from Emily Dickinson’s poem: “[Hope] perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops at all.” At the end of Hollars’s book, he is in his kitchen washing dishes, looking out the window for “that carmine crest, that bill of ivory . . . and on my lips, I continue to hold my hopeful whisper: Lord God, Lord God, please, Lord God, let it be you.” It is a comment on both love and extinction that Hollars’s closing image is his own feathered version of hope.

About the Reviewer

Geoff Kronik lives in Brookline, MA and has an MFA from Warren Wilson College. His fiction and essays have appeared in Salamander, the Boston Globe, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Common, and elsewhere.