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by Tom Thomson
In Memoriam: Roger Tory Peterson
A love of birds and a talent to portray them was the gift that Roger Tory Peterson bestowed upon us. Birds are the magic that angels are made of and this man was instrumental in showing millions of people the truth of that inescapable fact.
"Because birds fly, they represent freedom," he was fond of saying, and his artist's eye also reminded us how perfect they are in form and texture and color. In his prose, he described how bird songs could swell our hearts with gladness, or raise the hackles on our necks with their wild vocalizations.
Roger Tory Peterson had another enduring trait: a resolute dedication to his fellow human beings. Seldom did he turn down a speaking engagement, and almost to the end he competed in Big Day events with the zeal of a far younger man.
He had a column in Bird Watcher's Digest, and he wrote an untold number of other articles, reviews, and book introductions.
Most of us know his art work through his field guides. Forgotten sometimes is the fact that he was also a skilled photographer, and a consummate artist of paintings that far exceeded the simple renderings in the guides.
Many of the books he authored or contributed chapters to over the years were like bright beacons that helped light my way through the darkness.
In the introduction to "The Bird Watcher's Anthology," he describes the people attending a meeting of the Linnaean Society of New York. "There were boys not yet seventeen, men past seventy; several housewives; a man who lived in a hall bedroom in lower Brooklyn, and at least two millionaires.
There was one banker, a publisher, a cartographer, two lawyers, at least three physicians, a playwright, two artists, assorted businessmen, and at least one man with no visible means of support." Such reporting fanned the fires that burned in my own breast-for birding wasn't an everyday occupation in the days of my youth.
In "Birds Over America," over a hundred of Peterson's photographs are incorporated in a text that includes chapters on everything from birding in Arizona to the ornithological adventures of exploring Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. The book was published in 1948, and already the author mentions that he had "exposed more than ten thousand negatives during the past twenty years."
Interesting enough, some of the chapters in this book describe the early days of competitive birding as a sport. But in a chapter titled "The Lure of the List," he relates how the thrill of the chase often gives way to more serious pursuits, such as breeding bird counts, life history studies, and photography.
Maybe the book I enjoyed the most was "Wild America" which Peterson co-authored with his good friend from England, James Fisher. Published in 1955, it is an account of a wonderfully exciting birding romp across the United States. It too was a forerunner of things to come.
I was fortunate enough to have met Roger Tory Peterson several times. On one occasion, at Kenmare, North Dakota in 1973, I heard him give the keynote speech at the first national meeting of the American Birding Association. It was a marvelous talk and the listeners were so intent on his words you couldn't hear a chair squeak.
He is gone now, but he has left behind a legacy of wonderful treasures.
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