Peterson Reprise

(This column was first published in the August 12, 1996 issue of The Buffalo News.)

     When we returned to Sawbill Landing after six days away from civilization canoeing the Minnesota Boundary Waters, the first news we heard was the death of Roger Tory Peterson. We learned that even before we were told about the Atlanta Olympics pipe bombing.

     Indeed, this loss of the world's leading advocate for nature was significant news. Roger Peterson was a very important person, to my mind second only to Rachel Carson in his influence on our attitudes toward the environment. Of course, Rachel Carson addressed environmental concerns, and in particular pesticides directly in her landmark book Silent Spring. Peterson, on the other hand, seldom spoke to environmental issues. He got us there indirectly.

     This Jamestown native (he was recently voted that city's most noteworthy citizen ahead of his nearest competitor, Lucille Ball) brought his talent to bear on the identification of wildlife. A trained artist, he extended an idea first used by Ernest Thompson Seton of marking bird pictures with arrows to call attention to primary identification characteristics. Thus, for example, in illustrations for his Birds of the Eastern United States, arrows point to the song sparrow's central breast spot, to the barn swallow's forked tail, and to the junco's white outer tail feathers. The pictures themselves are what Peterson called "patternistic" with insignificant details suppressed so the eye focuses on key features.

     As a youngster my first resource was the Reed field guide which provided no such assistance, and I found my first "Peterson" -- the name by which his bird guide is universally known -- to be a godsend. So too did first hundreds, then thousands, and today millions of bird watchers. That book, now in its fourth edition, was pivotal in making bird watching an avocation more popular than hunting and fishing and second only to gardening. Guides to other classes followed and today the Peterson series' four dozen volumes include everything from amphibians to wildflowers, from atmosphere to seashells.

     I knew Roger Peterson slightly. For several years in the 1950s Alan and Sandy Klonick and I joined him for breakfast at Joe Taylor's Rochester home whenever Peterson was in town to give an Audubon lecture. It was at one of those breakfasts that I committed one of the social errors for which I am unfortunately well known.

     At about that time Peterson had drawn the plates for The Birds of Newfoundland, a book whose publication was timed to coincide with an annual meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union, the major organization for scientific bird study. The dust jacket of the book repeated Peterson's portrait of three-toed woodpeckers. And in that painting, unnoticed until the books were on display at the meeting, he had portrayed those birds with four toes.

     My mistake was to ask about that episode. Peterson mumbled something and for a few moments the breakfast degenerated into silence. I had clearly touched a nerve. Finally Helen Taylor turned the conversation to a more acceptable topic and I gratefully faded into the background. For all his success, it seemed that Roger Peterson wanted to be known as a bird artist as well as an illustrator and that event had seriously bruised his substantial, but well earned, self-esteem.

     My last observation of Peterson speaks more directly to his commitment to his colleagues. With his wife he sat for over four hours signing books for a seemingly interminable line of birders at a recent Federation of New York State Bird Clubs meeting. Insisting on attending every admirer, he made himself late to the banquet at which he was the major speaker.

     Roger Tory Peterson's life work is a unique legacy.