Book report #18 (2022)

The Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson. Pub 2018

I first heard about this story and book in an episode of the podcast This American Life. It is one of those stories of a seemingly oddball crime by an oddball character that takes the journalist and ultimately the reader to some fascinating places and times. Briefly, in 2009, a young man named Edwin Rist (an American study studying flute at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and world-renowned salmon fly-tier) broke in to the Tring Natural History Museum and made off with nearly 300 rare and exotic bird specimens from the museum’s collection of skins dating back to the early 19th century. While the museum is home to Charles Darwin‘s collected finch specimens and various egg and fossil remains of extinct creatures – all of enormous value – the thief was primarily interested in the fly-tying value of feathers. Rist was eventually caught, but neither restitution nor justice followed. After pleading guilty and managing to secure a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, he was given a suspended sentence and required to turn over any remaining funds from the sales of skins and feathers, which amounted to not very much. As for the purloined birds, the materials recovered from the thief were mostly now worthless as museum specimens, as they had been either cut-up and sold in pieces, been completely plucked, or were missing entirely, having been sold to the fly-tying market; regardless, almost all had been separated from their museum tags, making any of the items meaningless for research and archiving. The loss to the museum and natural history is incalculable.

Throughout the book, we meet the historical figures of science who created these collections. These include Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin’s who:

  • contributed as many species if not more to the natural history collections of the world than did Darwin or others of their time;
  • developed and “proved” the theory of natural selection contemporaneously and independently of Darwin;
  • and was perhaps among the first to recognize the inherent dangers of the very science he was exploring. He noted during his studies of the King Bird of Paradise:

“It seems sad, that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions…while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands…we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were NOT made for man.”

This warning and rebuke against global domination and exploration went, of course, unheeded and unappreciated. Worse, such statements by biogeographers (as they came to be known) were mocked as ridiculous by those who profited enormously from the mining of organic and inorganic resources for such important things as fashion and fly-tying. All of which makes the collections of specimens at museums such as the Tring more significant for science. These historical specimens can provide researchers with important snapshots of the state of the environment and ecology to benchmark current readings such as the presence of mercury in global bird populations, the persistence of DDT in the ecosystem, and, with the advent of DNA technologies, the species evolutions and overlaps that give clues to migrations and emergence of species over time and geography.

As for the fly-tiers, the book reveals their community to be small, secretive, and fetishist (and mostly white and male). While many of them extol the art work of creating and recreating the artistic flies, and the necessity of having original feathers for this (to “feel the history” apparently), it was surprising to learn that very few of the community actually fish with their creations. They make them for the thrill of making them, and of course for selling them, and their zeal/lust for real feathers from the endangered or extinct birds seems beyond foolish. My disdain for the community was only heightened by learning that the salmon – the putative quarry of these fancy lures – take no notice whatsoever of the fancy colours and styles of the flies; they are after all just fish, and when they are sought in the various spawning rivers during fishing season, they are so addled and exhausted by their reproductive work that they will respond to almost anything that touches the surface of the water, regardless of its beauty or origin. The style, colours, and provenance of the flies and feathers matter only to the fly-tiers, not to the fish, making the fetish element of the “art” even more creepy and narcissistic to me.

The story is well told – excellent research and well written. By the end of the book Johnson has reached the end of his time, resources, and patience with the investigation, and so wraps up his own obsession with solving it by providing some theories about the final disposition of the unrecovered birds. By 2017 when he finished writing, approximately 40 full bird skins were unaccounted for. Johnson speculates convincingly that these remain at large (likely in pieces now) within the fly-tying community, through which they will be transformed feather by feather into the weird and wonderful creations of that strange group. In the meantime, Rist has changed his name and carried on with his music career as if nothing had happened, and is now a flautist in Germany. Given his new name and the secret-society nature of the fly-tying community, he may even be back at his old hobby.

I was reminded throughout of the compelling storytelling of Jon Krakauer, especially Into the Wild (1996). Like that story, the mystery of the feather thief is left unsolved at the end of the book. While Krakauer’s book does not solve the mystery of how the wanderer Christopher McAndless died, in the 20 years since the book’s publication he continued to research and eventually came to a clear and well-supported conclusion and so perhaps Johnson will similarly get to the bottom of the mystery of the missing birds someday.

Fate: I’ll offer this one up to a local friend if they’re interested, otherwise it will make its way to a little book library in the neighbourhood.

2 – a book with a body part in the title (albeit not a human body part – does that still count?)
13 – a book set in a place I’ve never been (including New Mexico, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Dusseldorf, and Oslo)
25 – a new author to me
26 – science non-fiction
27 – history/politics, esp. for the history of fly-tying and the politics of endangered species management

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