Cover image for The birds of heaven : travels with cranes
The birds of heaven : travels with cranes
Matthiessen, Peter.
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : North Point Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xv, 349 pages, 20 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
General Note:
Col. maps on lining papers.
Black Dragon River -- On the Daurian Steppe -- Gujarat and Rajasthan -- At the end of Tibet -- In the Nine Rivers -- Hokkaido -- The accidental paradise -- Outback -- Equatoria, Ngorongoro, Okavango, and Transvaal -- Down the edge of the distant sky -- The sadness of marshes -- Grus Americana -- The evolution of radiation of the cranes.
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QL696.G84 M372 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A leading naturalist and writer travels the globe in search of a prized-and vanishing-bird Cranes are ubiquitous in the earliest legends of the world's peoples, where they often figure as harbingers of heaven and omens of longevity and good fortune. They are still held sacred in many places, and for good reason. Their large size and need for wilderness habitat makes them an "umbrella species" whose wellbeing assures that of other creatures and of the ecosystem at large. Moreover, the enormous spans of their migrations are a symbol of, and stimulus to, international efforts at conservation. In The Birds of Heaven, Peter Matthiessen has woven together journeys in search of the fifteen species of cranes in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and Australia. As he tracks them (and their declining numbers) in the company of scientists, conservationists, and regional people encountered along the way, he captures the dilemmas of a planet in ecological crisis, and the deeper loss to humankind if these beautiful and imposing creatures are allowed to disappear. The book includes color plates by renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman.

Author Notes

Peter Matthiessen was born in Manhattan, New York on May 22, 1927. He served in the Navy at Pearl Harbor. He graduated with a degree in English from Yale University in 1950. It was around this time that he was recruited by the CIA and traveled to Paris, where he became acquainted with several young expatriate American writers. In the postwar years the CIA covertly financed magazines and cultural programs to counter the spread of Communism. While in Paris, he helped found The Paris Review in 1953.

After returning to the United States, he worked as a commercial fisherman and the captain of a charter fishing boat. His first novel, Race Rock, was published in 1954. His other fiction works include Partisans, Raditzer, Far Tortuga, and In Paradise. His novel, Shadow Country, won a National Book Award. His novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, was made into a movie.

He started writing nonfiction after divorcing his first wife. An assignment for Sports Illustrated to report on American endangered species led to the book Wildlife in America, which was published in 1959. His travels took him to Asia, Australia, South America, Africa, New Guinea, the Florida swamps, and beneath the ocean. These travels led to articles in The New Yorker as well as numerous nonfiction books including The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness, Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons of Stone Age New Guinea, Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark, The Tree Where Man Was Born, and Men's Lives. The Snow Leopard won the 1979 National Book Award for nonfiction. He died from leukemia on April 5, 2014 at the age of 86.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Prolific and gifted novelist and naturalist, National Book Award-winner Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard) provides literally a worldwide tableau in his quest for various subspecies of cranes. These large flying birds celebrated in myth and folklore are found everywhere from Siberia to Australia, sub-Saharan Africa to North America. The author moves through each of these diverse climes as he not only reminds readers of the awesome beauty of the natural world but also introduces them to fascinating bits of local history and legend. The title of the book derives from the lore of taiga-dwelling shamans, who believe these great birds possess the ability to traverse the three realms of heaven, earth and the underworld. In practical terms, that's not so far off: some species of cranes can fly as high as 20,000 feet, others migrate as far as 3,100 miles. In his wanderings, Matthiessen meets fellow travelers and "craniacs." Ornithologists, guides and hunters offer intriguing anecdotes about cranes and other creatures encountered during their adventures and misadventures in various wildernesses. Additionally, Matthiessen reaches into his store of historical and political knowledge about these remote places. He good-humoredly details, for example, the reluctant cooperation between Russian and Chinese environmental authorities as they try to study and ensure the survival of the various threatened crane subspecies that dwell along their faraway, beautiful, but politically tense borderlands. Eloquent and graceful, this lovely, moving narrative will inspire and delight readers with or without ornithological background or interests. Paintings and illus. not seen by PW. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Cranes--those tall, stately birds ubiquitous in early legends as messengers from the heavens--are the subject of Matthiessen's latest book. Eleven of the 15 crane species are endangered, and all of them face the loss of the vast wetlands necessary for providing food and breeding grounds. In fact, the most endangered--North America's own whooping crane--once plummeted to a population low of 15 birds. Matthiessen writes eloquently of his journeys in search of all the crane species and of his conversations with the scientists working to understand and preserve them. Starting in Siberia and China, the author observes cranes in their natural habitats and notes the effects of the burgeoning human population in the region. Moving on to the steppes of Mongolia, the marshy deltas of India, the Tibetan plateau, the lower Yangtze River Basin, Japan, and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, the author discovers all there is to know about Asia's cranes. He then travels to Australia, home to one species and one recent arrival; to Africa, host to three species; and finally to Europe, where one species resides. In two particularly evocative chapters, Matthiessen writes about North America's sandhill crane--the cause of one of the world's greatest wildlife spectacles, when 500,000 cranes congregate during migration--and the whooping crane, one of wildlife's best comeback stories. Matthiessen is among the most outstanding nature writers of our time, and his latest book more than amply displays his talents. Robert Bateman, an equally great wildlife artist, provides illustrations, helping to make this a superb choice for all natural-history collections. --Nancy Bent

Library Journal Review

Sacred to many cultures and considered a bellwether by environmentalists, cranes have an important place in this world, and Matthiessen tracks them as he did the snow leopard. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-Cranes from all over the world are declining in numbers and are endangered species. America has only two varieties: the whooping and sandhill crane. Matthiessen makes a persuasive case for helping the birds survive human encroachment into their territories. His journalistic style is equally effective in portraying the mystical and mystifying qualities of these amazing creatures. Bateman's paintings and drawings emphasize the beauty and regal nature of cranes. The painting of the red-crowned cranes standing in the mist is a visual "call of the wild" and worth the price of the book.-Irene F. Moose, Fairfax County Public Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Black Dragon River * * * The immortal cranes call, their cries sound from afar, their thoughts circle upward into distant skies. Below, on the autumn rivers, stands a man, above him the bright moon. The man wanders aimless, trailing after the endless Milky Way. The wind blows past him. I, too, thinks the man, would like to be utterly free. --Jiang Yi Ning On a rare clear morning--the first day of summer 1992--flying across the Bering Strait from the Yukon delta toward the Diomede islands and the Chukotskiy Peninsula of Siberia, I imagine the gray sun-silvered strait as seen from on high by a migrating crane, more particularly, by the golden eye of the Crane from the East, as the lesser sandhill crane of North America is known to traditional peoples on its westernmost breeding territory in Siberia. The sandhill commonly travels a mile above the earth and can soar higher, to at least twenty thousand feet--not astonishing when one considers that the Eurasian and demoiselle cranes ascend to three miles above sea level traversing the Himalaya in their north and south migrations between Siberia and the Indian subcontinent.     That cranes may journey at such altitudes, disappearing from the sight of earthbound mortals, may account for their near-sacred place in the earliest legends of the world as messengers and harbingers of highest heaven. In Cree Indian legend, Crane carries Rabbit to the moon. Aesop extols the crane's singular ability "to rise above the clouds into endless space, and survey the wonders of the heavens, as well as of the earth beneath, with its seas, lakes, and rivers, as far as the eye can reach," and Homer and Aristotle comment on great crane migrations. Every land where they appear has tales and myths about the cranes, which since ancient times have represented longevity and good fortune, harmony and fidelity. Heaven-bound ancients are commonly depicted riding on a crane, or assuming the crane's majestic form for their arrival in the clouds of immortality.     The larger cranes, over five feet tall, with broad strong wings eight feet in span, appear well capable of bearing aloft a wispy old-time sage. The cranes are the greatest of the flying birds and, to my mind, the most stirring, not less so because the horn notes of their voices, like clarion calls out of the farthest skies, summon our attention to our own swift passage on this precious earth. Perhaps more than any other living creatures, they evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth, and air upon which their species--and ours, too, though we learn it very late--must ultimately depend for survival. In the large taxonomic order known as Gruiformes, the odd and elastic suborder Grues includes cranes and their closest relatives, the New World limpkins and trumpeters, and also the cosmopolitan jacanas, rails, gallinules, and coots; it does not include the smaller storks and herons with which they were traditionally grouped on the basis of common wading habits and similarities of rostra, bills, and feet. In 1735 Carl yon Linné, or Linnaeus, in his Systema Naturae named the Eurasian or common crane Ardea grus or "crane heron," and in the nineteenth century Audubon would portray a heron as the "little blue crane." Herons were commonly called cranes in Ireland, Scotland, and South America, where no cranes occur, and also in Australia (where the true crane was known, oddly, as "the native companion" because of its close association with the Aborigines). Even in flight and at a distance, cranes look nothing like herons, since cranes fly with neck outstretched rather than curved back onto the shoulders, while storks in flight display broad tails, which all cranes lack. (Crane tails are small and very short, a deficiency obscured by long loose feathers of the inner wing--the tertials, highly modified to form erect, handsome "bustles" or long trailing plumes when the bird folds its wings upon alighting. Otherwise this bird's extremities--bill, neck, legs, and toes--are unusually long.) Furthermore, crane voices with their wild, rolling r are far more musical than the strangled squawks of storks and herons.     Cranes stand straight and erect with bodies parallel to the ground in the manner of ostriches. The hind toe or hallux, elevated like a cockspur, is vestigial in all but the two crowned cranes of the genus Balearica , whose longer hind toe may serve for balance in the perching habit, one of several that distinguish the "primitive" Balearica from modern or "typical" cranes of the genus Grus --primitive in the sense that in its anatomy and behavior, Balearica is closer to the ancestral form. Another is the fully feathered head, which crowned cranes share with the demoiselle and blue cranes of the genus Anthropoides . In all other cranes, the head is ornamented with a bare area of rough red comb or skin--bright crimson when the blood is up during the breeding season--located somewhere on the crown in most of the migratory northern cranes and in varying areas of the face and upper neck in the mostly nonmigratory southern species. (Among the latter, the sarus, brolga, and wattled cranes are additionally adorned with bald greenish brows.) Though the female tends to be smaller, the sexes of all cranes are otherwise indistinguishable when not interacting in pair bonding, courtship, and mating. The brown coast of Alaska, falling away in the bright mists, gives way to rotted pack ice and the rough gray shallow seas of the vanished land bridge between continents, fifty miles across. Cold sea air over the North Pacific numbs the bright red skin on the sandhill's crown; the long stiff wings creak on the wind. "The flight of cranes, the way they form letters" was noted by the Roman poet Hyginus, among other early observers. Like wild geese, cranes often travel in V formation, presumably having learned--after millions of miles and long millenniums of buffeting by the great winds--the aerodynamic limits of formations in the shape of B or H.     The Arctic distances flown at high altitudes by these dauntless creatures humble the seat-bound traveler on Air Alaska. Peering outward from my plastic aerie over the firmament of wind and light, mightily stirred by the unmarred emptiness of land and sea beneath, I could know with Goethe's Faust how "it is inborn in every man that his feeling should press upward and forward" when "over precipitous fir-clad heights the eagle floats with wings outspread, or over flatlands, over seas, the crane sweeps onward toward its home"--in German, Heimgang or "home going," the return to the lost paradise at the source of all man's yearnings.     Off the aircraft wing rises Nunivak Island, where thirty years ago I was a member of an expedition that captured ten burly musk-ox calves, the nucleus of a domestic herd to be raised in Fairbanks and turned over to the Inupiaq people in an effort to stabilize their economy. On Nunivak, according to my notes from that expedition, "cranes on long black-fingered wings bugled sadly across the wind"--among the many far-flung sandhills which have brightened fine days in the field across all of North America, from Alaska to the northern Everglades.     Soon the islands known as the Diomedes--one in the New World, one in the Old--loom in northern mists, then Cape Dezhnev and the barrens of Chukotskiy, home of the Chukot or Chukchi aborigines, kinsmen of the Inupiaq and the Aleuts. Even in late June, the mountain tundra far below looks wintry, with hard, wind-worn snow in the ravines. Following old migration instincts, the Crane from the East will descend each spring to the great eastern peninsulas of Siberia, and some will wander west along the Arctic coast approximately fifteen hundred miles to the Yana River, where their breeding range meets that of the Siberian crane.     Off Asia's north Pacific coast, the airplane turns southward. In this clear weather, one can see most of Kamchatka, that vast and all but uninhabited land of volcanoes and great bears, blue lakes, mountain meadows, swift cold streams, and hard bright coast. Extending a thousand miles north and south, with scarcely a scar or a raw scrape or glint of man, it fairly resounds with emptiness and silence, like the pristine New World continent of great mountains and rivers that astounded the early voyagers along its north Pacific coast.     Off Kamchatka's tip, the Kurile Islands march south through the Pacific haze toward the Japanese archipelago, which continues in a southwest arc approximately as long as the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida. Eventually the plane descends to refuel at Magadan on the Siberian mainland, where even in late June, the barren Dzhugdzhur Mountains to the west are patched with snow. Beyond, the spruce tundra and boreal taiga, immense beyond reckoning, extend three thousand miles to the Ural Mountains and European Russia, in an all but unbroken forest composed of half the conifers and one third of the hardwoods left on earth.     From Magadan the plane heads out across the Sea of Okhotsk. The Siberian coastline reappears in the sprawling delta of the Amur River, shining in braids and floodplains that stretch away under the western sun to far smudges of upland and small mountains. The Amur drainage is the great river system of eastern Siberia and northern China, draining a watershed of 716,200 square miles on its 2,700-mile journey from eastern Mongolia to the sea. With the Ussuri (in Chinese, Wusuli), which joins it from the south, the Amur serves as the northeastern frontier between Russia and China, all the way from Inner Mongolia to great Lake Khanka--or Xingkai Hu--on China's border with Primorski Krai, Russia's maritime province on the Sea of Japan.     The Amur basin, where boreal forest or taiga meets the spruce muskeg tundra of the sub-Arctic, is a region of astonishing biodiversity. Here northern forms such as the Amur or "Siberian" tiger, wolf, lynx, brown bear, elk, and moose share an overlapping range with creatures of the broad-leaved forests, such as roe deer, Asian leopard, black bear, mandarin duck, and paradise flycatcher. A heartland of the Asian cranes, it is the only region in the world where six different crane species appear in each year (and where a seventh, the far-flung sandhill crane of North America, occurs regularly). Arguably the most beautiful of these seven are two species--the red-crowned and white-naped cranes--found in breeding season in the Amur drainage. Though this was not the only reason for my journey (the great Amur itself was an exciting destination), I longed to see such heraldic cranes in their Asian marshes.     The endless delta spreads away beneath the wings as the aircraft heads inland and upriver, descending eventually to the great bend at Khabarovsk. The Amur is the largest free, wild, unbridged, undammed river left on earth, as wondrous in the immensity of its basin as mile-deep Lake Baikal, off to the west. But in recent years, this last wilderness of the Russian Far East has been assaulted by international oil and mining development and timber exploitation, led by multinational corporations of South Korea, Japan, and the United States, and in its throes of economic stress, Russia may not act in time to save it. From Khabarovsk I travel southeast to the coast range of Ussuria to join an expedition doing research on the endangered Amur tiger. From there I proceed to the Bolshe-Khekhstir Wildlife Reserve southwest of Khabarovsk, near the Ussuri-Amur confluence, where I join an international crane conference organized by Russia's Socio-Ecological Union (SEU), representing sixty environmental groups, and the International Crane Foundation (ICF), based in Baraboo, Wisconsin, with the support of American environmental organizations. The two Mongolian ornithologists fail to appear due to travel complications in their country, but China, Japan, and South Korea have all sent delegates, ensuring a chilly atmosphere. The future of east Asian wildlife, in particular the migrant cranes, must depend at present on the cooperation of five nations more accustomed to addressing their disputes with xenophobia and war.     Among those attending the conference are the directors of the Amur basin's hard-pressed wildlife reserves, or zapovedniki , who are anxious to discuss ways to reconcile wildlife protection with lumbering and other compromises that have become necessary for the zapovedniki to survive. In this dark time of myriad uncertainties, economic anarchy, and rapacious entrepreneurs, the regional governments have been leasing rights to mining and timber extraction, oil and gas exploration and development, hunting, fishing, and a tentative ecotourism, with little or no regard for sustainable development, wildlife management, or wilderness preservation. (There is even a rumor of negotiations with the Japanese for concession rights to the crystal water of Lake Baikal, which contains one fifth of all the earth's freshwater that is not locked in snow and ice.)     The Amur basin forests are accessible by navigable waterways to vast markets in South Korea and Japan (which have already destroyed most of their own forests); the timber, like every public asset, is being sold off at bargain rates by local officials and the military, with little or no accountability. The director of Bolshe-Khekhstir describes how its forest has been isolated from regional ecosystems by intensive clearing for agriculture and polluted by the runoff from stone mining. Mikhail Dykhan, who manages the Kurile Islands reserve on the island of Kunashir, deplores its shriveling support from the Russian government--a condition shared by all of the reserves, which are "demoralized and broke"--as well as the impact of military bases and petroleum dumping on his island's brown bears and its lone pair of red-crowned cranes, which return across the Nemuro Strait to Hokkaido every winter. Yet these dedicated people seem determined to find ways to keep their refuges alive, and they welcome suggestions and help from other countries. "We would like to work with you Americans on scientific projects," one Russian tells us proudly. "We are not here simply to beg."     The coordinator of the conference is Dr. Sergei Smirenski of the SEU, a tall, gaunt Russian always in a hurry and chronically exhausted, like the last man standing in a hopeless cause; he is an eloquent defender of the Amur region, generous with his energies, fiercely committed. "Sergei Smirenski might seem crazy to organize an international conference at such a chaotic time in Russia, when even simple things are hard to do," observes James T. Harris, then deputy director of the ICF, an indefatigably cheerful man with lank brown hair and a kind grin. "But he fears that freedom and free enterprise will unleash a wave of irresponsible development and destruction, and that we conservationists must use any opportunity to protect the Amur. In Sergei's mind, we cannot wait for better days in which to hold this conference--we must start right now forging international cooperation, however tenuous these first efforts may be."     In a few days, the conference will continue aboard ship on a voyage up the Amur, north and west from Khabarovsk to the floodplains of the middle Amur, where the red-crowned crane, Grus japonensis , shares its breeding range with the white-naped crane, Grus vipio . The co-director of the conference is Dr. George W. Archibald, head of the ICF, who is widely recognized as the world's leading authority on cranes. A native of Nova Scotia, Archibald is a round-faced man of forty-five with a puckish good humor that belies a firm sense of purpose and direction. Though he has explored most of the crane habitats on earth, this is his first visit to Siberia, which has been closed to foreigners for many years; he has never seen the mainland population of Grus japonensis . Dr. Archibald reminds the delegates that the red-crowned crane is revered as a symbol of long life, good fortune, harmony, and peace throughout the east Asian lands represented at the conference, where it has appeared in every form of art, design, and decorative motif, from screens and painted scrolls to royal robes and wedding cakes. "Just as cranes ignore international boundaries, real crane supporters pay scant heed to ideology and politics," he says, beaming straight into the dour faces of delegates whose countries have abundant cause for mutual suspicion and dislike. Archibald knows all about the obstacles to harmony, of course, but as I will learn, he is indomitable, a self-described "Craniac" in love with life as gloriously manifested by the cranes. "Everything they do seems deliberate and graceful," he says. "There are birds and there are cranes, like there are apes and men."     The Amur has always been a meeting place of many peoples, he continues, not only the Russians out of Europe but traditional Asian peoples such as the Udege and Buryat, the Mongols from the great steppes, the Manchurians from across the Ussuri--he points across the river--and the Han Chinese who have displaced them, spreading north into the region known as San Jiang, or Three Rivers, where the great wetlands--the heart of the Chinese breeding range of the red-crowned crane--are being drained to create what Chinese technocrats refer to as "the Great Northern Breadbasket." While much progress has been made, with new nature reserves recently established in every country represented at this conference--here Dr. Archibald smiles warmly in encouragement--human pressures are threatening irreparable harm to the rivers and forests and their wildlife. In short, he assures us, a more auspicious place for an international conference could scarcely be imagined.     Increasingly, geopolitics must be perceived as a critical factor in crane survival. But observing the delegates' facial expressions as they hear out Dr. Archibald, one can only anticipate all sorts of trouble. A profound mistrust between Russia and China began with czarist expansion into Asia in the nineteenth century and was made permanent when the Trans-Siberian Railroad was forged across the central Asian states and along the borders of Mongolia and Manchuria. Hard feeling culminated in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 against the "foreign devils" who were seizing the main Asian ports, commandeering commerce, and causing fires, flood, and drought by upsetting the natural harmonies of life.     The Russians, in the Chinese view, have no more business in the Amur basin than the Japanese, who made a puppet kingdom of Manchuria in the 1930s. In those days, Korea was also under Japanese control (it was colonized from 1910 to 1945), and South Korea remains fiercely resentful of Japan for failing to acknowledge its forcible abduction of Korean girls as "comfort women" for the Japanese troops. Japan, for its part, can never forget the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans. Russia has chronic trouble with Japan over the Kurile Islands, China has disagreeable memories of its war with South Korea and the United States, and the U.S. has not forgotten the Japanese "day of infamy" at Pearl Harbor, China's role in the Korean and Vietnam wars as an ally of America's enemies, nor Soviet hostilities in the long Cold War. Under the circumstances, the delegations make little attempt to communicate with one another even when translators are at hand.     However, our Chinese colleagues, almost twenty strong, have come to Russia in a constructive spirit, to judge from the red banners raised on the first day, with gold letters proclaiming, "Just as these two rivers come together [the Ussuri and the Amur], so our two countries must inevitably come together." These worthy sentiments only inflamed the paranoia of their Russian hosts--that banner could be read to mean "come together under the flag of China," could it not? Through the translators, both delegations are talking volubly to George Archibald and also to Jim Harris, who has made numerous field trips to China, likes the Chinese, and has their trust.     If only because Manchuria has been eliminated from official mention, the Chinese agree to agree that "red-crowned" is preferable to "Manchurian" or "Japanese" as a common name for Grus japonensis , which breeds in three of the countries represented and winters in two others; they proudly inform us that the red-crowned crane has been decreed a Grade One Protected Species in their country, along with the giant panda and the yellow-haired monkey.     Despite ancient cultural traditions of invoking wild creatures in poetry and art, a genuine interest in protecting wildlife is very recent in the Asian nations. How the cranes' best interests can be reconciled with the national and cultural prejudices of their well-wishers remains the unspoken question that will underlie our urgent discussions in the coming days. Khabarovsk, a large industrial city of the Soviet era, sits at the confluence of the Ussuri and the Amur. Its summer atmosphere is white and hot and humid, dirtied with smog from the coal stacks and factories upriver. The town's huge and empty central square with its sterile Party headquarters and Lenin statue appears more stale and lonely than oppressive, but the well-kept elm-lined streets, waterfront park, and crowded public beach help the city appear less discouraged and decrepit than Siberian cities to the west, such as Irkutsk at Lake Baikal. On the broad river, large oceangoing ships moored in the current seem to await the brave new era of free-market commerce. Already Chinese peddlers are crossing the river from Heilongjiang to sell cheap clones of Western sneakers, jeans, and T-shirts, soft drinks, and CDs--the American monoculture that spreads like a plastic sheet across the world, stifling the last indigenous whiffs and quirks and colors. Among the few ethnic tatters to be found are shawls and scarves spun from the wool of the chiru or Tibetan antelope--fine things so light and wispy that the test of quality is to slip one through a wedding ring. (In recent years, international demand for this wool, known as shahtoosh , has grown so avid that the Tibetan antelope, like the Siberian tiger, has been hunted rapidly toward extinction.)     From Khabarovsk, the chartered steamer V. Poyarkov will forge upriver for seven hundred miles to the Amur's confluence with the Zeya River. Like its home port, the ship is named for one of the nineteenth-century Cossack explorers who helped to extend the Russian Empire from the Urals to the Pacific, extinguishing old central Asian kingdoms on the way. She is 250 feet long, with a draft of 5.7 feet--a bit deep, mutters the captain, for the upper river in this year of tardy rains. She belongs to an outfit called the Sputnik Youth Organization, and to judge from appearances, the Sputnik Youths are on the ball, for their ship is a rare emblem of what the new Russia must become in order to command a fair share of world tourism. White, with clean and spacious decks, she has air-conditioning and plentiful hot water, fresh food and fresh flowers on the salon tables, and a pleasant, sun-filled auditorium on the upper deck for meetings; almost all passengers have cabins with a river view.     Under the new Russian flag (a simpler version of the czarist tricolor, white, blue, and red), the ship churns west-northwest. Like the Mississippi, the Amur is almost a mile across, flanked on both banks by low wetlands and long reaches of broad flat savanna set about with wooded islands of pale willow and black oak. One cannot see far because the banks are high and the river already so low that sandbars have emerged on every side. To the Russians it is known as Amur Dear Father (the Lena is Mother), but to the Chinese it is Heilongjiang, Black Dragon River, which is also the modern name of the great northeastern province--formerly Manchuria--off our port bow. (Continues...) Excerpted from The Birds of Heaven by Peter Matthiessen. Copyright © 2001 by Peter Matthiessen. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

George Archibald and James Harris
Forewordp. xi
Introductionp. xiii
1. Black Dragon Riverp. 3
2. On the Daurian Steppep. 39
3. Gujarat and Rajasthanp. 93
4. At the End of Tibetp. 127
5. In the Nine Riversp. 143
6. Hokkaidop. 164
7. The Accidental Paradisep. 187
8. Outbackp. 211
9. Equatoria, Ngorongoro, Okavango, and Transvaalp. 231
10. Down the Edges of the Distant Skyp. 251
11. The Sadness of Marshesp. 260
12. Grus americanap. 274
The Evolution and Radiation of the Cranesp. 301
Notesp. 303
Acknowledgmentsp. 333
Indexp. 335