Kirk Wallace Johnson has seen hard days. As an officer in the US Agency for International Development, he was given the brief of rebuilding the Iraqi city of Fallujah after years of war. The work hit him hard; in a posttraumatic fugue state, he relates, he sleepwalked out a window and cracked his skull, among other severe injuries he sustained.
Yet, he figures, he had it easier than the Iraqi allies who had worked with USAID, the military, and other agencies, targeted for assassination by militants at home—all reason for Johnson to found what he called the List Project to relocate and protect those who had been condemned as collaborators. “Though we managed to bring thousands of refugees to safety in the United States over the years,” he recounts, “it was clear that we would never be able to help everyone.”
The work was stressful, awful. As a break, he went to the Red River in the high country of New Mexico for some R&R, looking to forget himself for a while in the whirling waters of a prime fishing stream. It was there, while fly casting, that a fishing guide told him the odd tale of a fly-tying enthusiast who had worked one of the oddest corners of the angler’s obsession: namely, crafting period lures out of feathers plucked from birds way back in the Victorian era. The guide himself practiced the art, with one of his proudest creations: a fly made with feathers taken from a dozen long-gone creatures. But that’s nothing, the guide announced: You should get a load of this guy who broke into the British Museum to steal feathers from its collection—now there’s a fly-tier.
The story hooked Johnson, and the result is his new book The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. To write it, he embarked on a crash course in ornithology, museology, and investigative journalism that would become all-consuming—and, he allows, itself a good diversion from that stress. “I didn’t really know much about Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace,” he tells Kirkus. “And then I had to crack into a culture of fly-tiers and collectors who really didn’t want to talk to me. It turned into a full-blown obsession, and fortunately I was able to give it the years of patient prodding that it took. But I couldn’t resist a project that can be summarized with the sentence, ‘A young American flautist broke into a British museum to steal the feathers of long-dead birds to sell to a cultish community.’ ”
That obsessive young man, Edwin Rist, not only stole feathers from some of the world’s most important natural-history collections, including material gathered by Wallace himself, but he also “blew a hole in the scientific record,” says Johnson, whose pursuit of the story eventually took him to Rist’s door. “When I’d asked Edwin why he didn’t just use substitute feathers that had been dyed to resemble the real thing,” writes Johnson, “he winced: ‘The knowledge of its falsity eats at you…and all these people have been eaten by it. Including me.’ ”
Rist did it for the money, says Johnson, but he had other motivations—including that quest for authenticity. It led the young man to commit crimes that will mark him for the rest of his life. But the story is not just about Rist. Says Johnson, “It speaks to us all, because all of us have a fraught relationship with the natural world, to say nothing of our own obsessions.”
Johnson’s life is better now. He has wrestled his first book to the ground, and it promises to find many readers. A recent father, he has moved to Los Angeles and has thrown himself into various projects. These days he worries mostly about one thing: “I fear that I’ll never find another story as eclipsing as this one.” Still, he has other investigative pieces in the works. As for The Feather Thief, he says with audible relief, “I’m thrilled that people are interested.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.