What Birds Mean to Us
March 13, 2023
A review by Rebecca Heisman
Flight from Grace: A Cultural History of Humans and Birds, by Richard Pope
McGill Queen’s University Press, 2021
304 pages, hardcover
I have to admit, my first impression of Richard Pope’s Flight from Grace: A Cultural History of Humans and Birds was of its size: This is a hefty, almost textbook-sized tome, not a book suited to light bedtime reading. But as I flipped through it, admiring the full-color illustrations on each page and skimming the table of contents, the book drew me in.
Flight from Grace is, as the preface states, “a meditation about birds and their meaning for human beings” from the Neolithic era to the present. When I consulted the “about the author” blurb, I expected to find that the writer was an ornithologist or historian, but Pope, it turns out, is a retired professor of Russian literature and culture. A little further digging led me to the fact that he is also the author of a “big year” memoir and has long been involved with birding and ornithology groups in Ontario. This book, then, is the work not of a bird “professional,” but of a birder, trying to make sense of his—and humanity’s—longstanding fascination with our feathered friends.
The book is divided into three sections. In the first and longest, Pope explores the significance of birds in prehistoric and historic art from around the world, arguing that birds have been regarded as divine almost since the dawn of human culture. He traces how we went from directly worshipping birds as gods to creating anthropomorphic gods with avian features. Over the course of eight chapters, he gives a whirlwind tour of the significance that birds held for Stone Age cultures, the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and (jumping across the Atlantic) Peru, and finally ancient Greece and the early Judeo-Christian world. In the book’s second section, Pope turns to our drive to imitate birds, both their flight (moving briskly from the Icarus myth all the way to modern airplanes) and their musical song.
Finally, Pope tackles “what went wrong” in humans’ relationship with birds and offers his prescription for how it might be fixed. His chapters on our “betrayal” of birds encompass not only humans’ ecological impacts on bird species but also more personal sorts of mistreatment such as cockfighting. He ascribes this to the gradual rise of anthropocentrism, the conviction that God gave humans “dominion” over animals. “The way ahead is to recover the best of what we had,” Pope writes in his final chapter. “Although it is true that as individuals, we are frustratingly powerless to stop deforestation and habitat destruction on a large scale, we can take many small actions to cumulatively slow the impoverishment of our biosphere.”
Pope’s passion and approachable writing style, combined with the gorgeous illustrations of bird art and artifacts through the ages, will quickly win over anyone initially intimidated—as I was—by the book’s sheer size. It should be noted, however, that since it covers such vast ground, this book is by necessity only a very high-level overview of many of the topics covered. Pope’s denouncement in the book’s final chapters of falconry—particularly his scorn for Helen Macdonald’s much-lauded H is for Hawk—and of many of the methods used to study avian intelligence may raise a few eyebrows, though doubtless other readers will be nodding along in agreement.
Flight from Grace is an idiosyncratic book. It reads like the work of a retired academic who, suddenly finding himself with ample free time, turned his scholar’s eye on a field in which he is an enthusiastic amateur. But if you, like Pope, are curious about the long cultural history of humans’ obsession with birds, it may be worth a place on your coffee table. Flip through it a chapter at a time, and you’ll gain a new sense of perspective about how your own love of birds fits into an interspecies relationship stretching back to the earliest days of human culture.
Rebecca Heisman is a freelance science writer based in Walla Walla, Washington. Her first book, Flight Paths (HarperCollins), released this March, explores the history and science of bird migration research. She has written previously for various professional ornithological organizations. Find her online at rebeccaheisman.com.