Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2505
WILD AMERICA

by Richard Armstrong

Today, a legendary road trip. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In April of 1953, two men set out on a wild road trip across North America. They were talented mavericks and close friends; they wrote constantly as they traced a rigorous route across the continent, fueled by wanderlust and Coca-Cola. Their jottings later became a book, which quickly turned into a classic tale of adventure.

Ivory Billed WoodpeckerNo, I’m not talking about Jack Kerouac or the Beat poets. I’m talking about two legendary ornithologists. Roger Tory Peterson was America’s leading naturalist, inventor of the blue Peterson Guides you can still find in any bookstore. His simple field identification system revolutionized the world of bird watching. Peterson had organized this trip to introduce his English friend James Fisher to the avian splendors of North America. Fisher was himself a leading naturalist in Europe and a pioneer in wildlife conservation.

Their route is astounding, considering this was the early fifties before superhighways and widespread air conditioning. They started in Newfoundland at the great gannet colony on Cape St. Mary. From there they flew to New England and the cradle of American birding at Concord, Massachusetts. Then it was off by car to New York City, to view the vast collections of the American Museum of Natural History; then on to Washington, DC, at that time still delightfully close to nature for a busy nation’s capital. Next they plunged into the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, moved on to chase warblers in the Smokies and Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers in Georgia’s piney woods. Then, it was on to the exotic avian riches of Florida’s swamps and keys, all the way down to the Dry Tortugas. They went up the Chipola River by canoe in a vain quest for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, that Holy Grail of birders. Peterson was one of the last people to see one, though they had no luck on this trip. Pressing westward along the Gulf Coast, they saw the famous egret rookery at Avery Island, Louisiana. Red-Cockaded Woodpecker They drove through stormy Texas to the King Ranch, Rockport, and the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, winter home of the Whooping Crane (there were only 53 in existence at that time).They continued on to the Rio Grande valley, where Fisher was shown 132 species within 12 hours, more than this world expert had ever seen in one day.

They went south into Mexico to Xilitla to chase motmots, bats, and butterflies in the mountain rainforest. They headed back to Texas through Big Bend, and on they went through the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, and into California. They drove up the west coast to Seattle, and then flew to Alaska to end their journey among puffins, murres, and auklets on the Pribilof Islands. By the end, they had traveled 30,000 miles in 100 days, much of it in a Ford station wagon. Peterson had kept his promise to show his friend a broad swath of American wildlife; Fisher tallied up a total of 532 species of birds on the trip, a world record at the time. Their book, Wild America, speaks in their two voices of a passion and a friendship we can’t help but admire half a century later. Every page invites us to cut loose and chase the beauties of this land.

I’m Richard Armstrong, at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Fisher’s tally of 532 was a brief world record for a Big Year—the total species sighted in one year by a single birder in a given geographical area—until a bit later that year Peterson himself tallied 572; neither added the 65 species they saw in Mexico to their lists. In 1956, Stuart Keith followed the Peterson-Fisher route and tallied 598 species. The current Big Year record is held by Sandy Komito, who tallied 745 species in 1998.

[Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_year]

The Whooping Crane population in 1953 was 53; in 2009, the population peaked at 270 and declined to 249 as of March 15, due to food shortages in the wake of Hurricane Ike.

[Link: http://friendsofaransas.org/documents/flightrept31509.pdf]

Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, Wild America (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1955; reprint, 1997).

Scott Weidensaul, Return to Wild America (New York: North Point Press, 2005).

Elizabeth J. Rosenthal, Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson (Guildford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2008).

Images are from Wikipedia Commons.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H. Lienhard.