BIRD OF LIFE, BIRD OF DEATH: A Naturalist's Journey Through A Land Of Political Turmoil by Jonathan Evan Maslow
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BIRD OF LIFE, BIRD OF DEATH: A Naturalist's Journey Through A Land Of Political Turmoil

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Splendidly written story of a naturalist's journey through the political turmoil of Guatemala, while looking for the world's soon-to-be-extinct most magically beautiful bird (and Guatemala's symbol of liberty). Turmoil is understatement, since this account of present-day Guatemala glows with horror. Maslow--accompanied by photographer Michael Kienitz, who is far from the fanatical birder that Maslow is--sets forth an impressionistic account of his search through the dwindling Guatemalan cloud forest for the rare and endangered Resplendent Quetzal, a sacred bird of such incredible beauty that naturalists have thought it a fabrication. Supposedly a denizen of the cloud forest, which is being cleared away, the Quetzal faces extinction along with the forest, which is the only place on earth that can support its habits. Ornithologists think it will be a dead species by 2000. Maslow likes to learn about life directly, but small Guatemala, land of the Death Squads, where 10,000 people a year disappear forever, gives him a charge through the gut that is almost unbearable. Death is an all-present vapor blanketing every city and village, with human bodies left by the roadside for gorged and waddling vultures; it seeps into every dealing and human exchange, too. In the capital, Guatemala City, the poverty is abysmal, with women, children, dogs and vultures all scrambling after the falling garbage from garbage trucks. But this is balanced by life's constant resurgence despite utter fatalism, especially in the young, and in Maslow's arias such as his two-page hymn to the corn tortilla, the eating of which hasn't varied in thousands of years of Mayan history (""Like water itself, the tortilla is all tastes combined, and no taste at all. . .these chewy, bland, slightly smoky and rancid cakes""). When he Finally does meet one of the last coveys of Quetzals, the sensual brilliance, spectacular exuberance and sheer life force of the resplendent birds, with their three-foot tail feathers, call up a sense of spiritual mystery in the reader. In spending as many words observing the stomach-turning habits of the solemn vulture as he does the joyous blue/green iridescence of the blood-breasted Queztal, Maslow creates a text that thrives on life and horror. What will go out of nature when the Quetzal dies? The same force that has gone out of Guatemala with the death of liberty.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Simon & Schuster