Why? Because today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man who invented the field guide -- Roger Tory Peterson.
Today also happens to be the official pub date of the new one-volume Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, which we reviewed in our October 2008 issue.
To celebrate both, the anniversary and the field guide, we chatted recently with Lee Allen Peterson, the younger of Roger's two sons and a Peterson-guide author himself. His answers to our questions are below.
Lee Peterson: Yes, he thought about doing a combined guide, but for one reason or another, he never did. He would have been very pleased with the sixth edition.
BW: What makes a good field guide?
LP: A good field guide needs to be both comprehensive and concise. And it needs to be portable. This is a balancing act because these goals are somewhat opposite. The degree to which any guide achieves this balance is a measure of its success. Over the years, Dad's books have done this more successfully than the others.
The objective is to convey the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount of space and still retain the feel, the gestalt, of the birds being described. The defining characteristics of any given species needs to be easily extractable from both text and illustration (hence the use of italics in the text and arrows in the illustration for the Peterson Identification System).
The overall organization of the book needs to be logical, consistent, and immediately understandable to the average birder. Since, in this case, we are usually dealing with quick visual impressions of birds on the move, the book should be ordered with primary emphasis placed upon visual similarities rather than strict taxonomic considerations.
A common failing of some field guides is trying to be all things to all people. For example, while the Peterson Field Guide to Birds is comprehensive enough to serve as a handy reference for elite birders, its real audience is the average birder. Because of this, the text and illustration focus on the essentials of identification and limit the number of possible variations of any one species to only the most important in order to prevent crowding and confusion.
In addition, a great field guide can spark the imagination. When I was a kid, we used to practice our identification skills using flash cards that had a color illustration on one side, text about the bird on the other. I don't remember who did them (not my father), but the illustrations were good, and we would dream about seeing the birds for the first time. (A Prothonotary Warbler comes to mind. I was in Maine at the time and did not see one until some 30 years later. I knew it immediately.) The sixth edition of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds does just that. The paintings are beautiful — just the thing for rainy-day dreaming.
BW: In a 1993 article, the New York Times called the Peterson guide the birding bible. Nowadays birders refer to the Sibley Guide as the bible. Is this justified?
LP: Yes, and legitimately so. The Peterson guide (especially the 1947 edition) was considered the birding bible for decades because it was the ultimate authority on bird identification. At one time, it was all there was, and later it was the best there was. But the Peterson guide was always designed for quick identification, especially for the average birder. While the intent was to be as comprehensive and up to date as possible, much was sacrificed for ease of use. Sibley's book, showing all the possibilities and variations in great detail, is without question the new standard of reference for advanced and elite birders in the problem areas of field identification.
BW: Is there a person out there today who could rightly be called the next Roger Tory Peterson? Who?
LP: As to Dad's successor, a number of people come to mind — Kenn Kaufman, Scott Weidensaul, and David Sibley, to name a few — but no one individual, no Roger Tory Peterson. And none of them bring to play as many different skills as he did — artist, author, lecturer, photographer, cinematographer, environmentalist, teacher, and birder. He was the very first — an original.
It is easy, in this age when field guides abound, to forget that before he published the original Field Guide to the Birds in 1934, there were no field guides as we know them — the concept did not exist. More often than not, birds were identified through the barrels of a shotgun and not through the lenses of a pair of binoculars. What literature was available was either not illustrated or inadequately illustrated. Identifying field marks were buried deep in the text and given no special emphasis. (The robin's red breast is only mentioned near the end of Frank Chapman's description in Handbook of Birds in Eastern North America.)
That first Peterson field guide (and all the subsequent field guides) created a sea change in our environmental awareness. By the simple device of putting similar-looking birds together and then pointing out their differences, he allowed us, all of us, to identify and give names to the birds around us.
With it, he began the process of not only reconnecting us with the natural world but allowing us to gain greater insights into its workings. The importance of this (the simple ability to put a name to a thing) cannot be overestimated. As others have said, Rachel Carson may have sounded the alarm bells with her 1962 book Silent Spring, but it was Dad's Field Guide to the Birds that made her environmental concerns a cultural imperative. He is a hard act to follow.
BW: You mention in the foreword to the new guide that "Dad always likened writing a field guide to serving a prison sentence." What was a typical workday for him? And what was it like to grow up in the Peterson house while your father was serving his sentence?
LP: A friend of ours from up the road was a medical doctor doing research for the U.S. Navy. He always insisted that Dad's circadian rhythm was 25 hours, not the more normal 24 hours of the rest of us. When he was working full-bore, he would work around the clock. The most finicky artwork was done during the morning and afternoon hours, text and layouts for plates at night.
Each day he would get up and go to sleep an hour or two later than the day before. There were a lot of times when my mother would serve him dinner at breakfast-time and breakfast in the afternoon.
As for my brother, Tory, and I, there were days when we might only see him at the breakfast or dinner tables or hear him return from the studio in the middle of the night. His focus and intensity at work were phenomenal. And yet, not once, when I would bring him a bird's nest, an insect, or something else to be identified, do I remember him not pausing in what he was doing and focusing on answering my questions.
BW: Did he ever consider stopping?
LP: As far as I know, he never considered stopping. Up until the day he died, he was always looking forward to the next project. One of the defining things about Dad was that he never lost his early enthusiasm for birds and birding, and it was basic to his nature to want to share it with those around him.
BW: You wrote the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants in the 1970s, and you say in a new biography of your father that at one time you thought you'd take over the editorship of the series. Why did you decide not to?
LP: I'm not sure. It may have been that I felt that there wasn't much more that I could add to what he had already done. Or it may have been simply that there were other things that I would rather do. For whatever reason, I chose a different route.
BW: Your father was a great champion of the conservation movement. What do you think he would say about the state of conservation today?
LP: While I am sure that he would feel that the outlook in some areas is bleak and that we have a great deal more to do, I feel confident that he would also see some cause for optimism. Even though our environmental concerns have become systemic and global in scope, overall public awareness of those same problems has grown exponentially.
He would point to the recovery of birds such as the Osprey, the Peregrine Falcon, and even the Eastern Bluebird as examples of what can happen when public attention is positively focused. Consistent throughout his writings and teachings is the belief that if we, ourselves, make changes in our behavior, the natural world has the capacity to recover. The trick, of course, is to recognize and act upon the needed changes before it becomes too late.
About Lee Allen Peterson
Lee Allen Peterson is the younger son of field-guide creator Roger Tory Peterson and his second wife, Barbara. Lee grew up in Old Lyme, Connecticut, watching his father’s creative process first-hand. He wrote the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, published in 1977, and did most of its illustrations. Today he lives with his wife Courtney on a farm near Philadelphia. They create highly detailed single- and mixed-metal jewelry depicting birds, dogs, turtles, and other creatures at their studio, Courtney Design. — M.M.