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Binocular Vision

Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Binocular Vision
    Book Description:

    From meadows to marshlands, seashores to suburbs, field guides help us identify many of the things we find outdoors: plants, insects, mammals, birds. In these texts, nature is typically represented, both in words and images, as ordered, clean, and untouched by human technology and development. This preoccupation with species identification, however, has produced an increasingly narrow view of nature, a “binocular vision,” that separates the study of individual elements from a range of larger, interconnected environmental issues. In this book, Spencer Schaffner reconsiders this approach to nature study by focusing on how birds are presented in field guides. Starting with popular books from the late nineteenth century and moving ultimately to the electronic guides of the current day, Binocular Vision contextualizes birdwatching field guides historically, culturally, and in terms of a wide range of important environmental issues. Schaffner questions the assumptions found in field guides to tease out their ideological workings. He argues that the sanitized world represented in these guides misleads readers by omitting industrial landscapes and socalled nuisance birds, leaving users of the guides disconnected from environmental degradation and its impact on bird populations. By putting field guides into direct conversation with concerns about species conservation, environmental management, the human alteration of the environment, and the problem of toxic pollution, Binocular Vision is a field guide to field guides that takes a novel perspective on how we think about and interact with the world around us.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-002-4
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Sociology, Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-13)

    Field guides are enchanting, visual texts. With brilliant illustrations, careful design, and terse scientific descriptions, field guides help answer a fundamental question:What am I looking at?With the help of a field guide, an unknown tree can become a Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) or a hard-to-identify raptor a Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis). Field guides help render the things around us recognizable, classifiable, and predictable.

    With their attention to taxonomy, field guides typically ignore connections between categories—links between trees and birds, for instance—as well as human alterations to the environment at large. In the case of birdwatching field...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Field Guides and the New Hobby of Birdwatching
    (pp. 14-50)

    In the 1880s and ’90s, someone interested in reading about the birds of New England would have been able to cobble together an array of resources and learn a good deal. There were two comprehensive ornithological manuals in print at the time: Elliot Coues’sKey to North American Birds(1872) and Spencer Baird, Thomas Brewer, and Robert Ridgway’sHistory of North American Birds(1874). Both feature detailed information about bird anatomy and distribution. If one were looking for more experiential narratives about birds, nineteenth-century writers had produced many volumes of natural history writing about birds. William L. Baily’sOur Own...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Nuisance Birds, Field Guides, and Environmental Management
    (pp. 51-82)

    The Bald Eagle is currently known as a patriotic symbol within the United States, but the bird was once despised for its work habits and killed by the thousands as a bounty bird in Alaska. Crows still have a bad reputation. Today they are hunted with few regulations across North America even as research shows diminishing populations of American Crows (due to West Nile virus) and evidence of remarkable crow intelligence. Mute Swans, once imported to North America because of their beauty, are being recast as pests by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and targeted for mass extermination. These...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Picturing Birds in Altered Landscapes
    (pp. 83-104)

    The main purpose of field guides is to help birdwatchers identify birds. As I have been arguing all along, though, these books have always done much more than that. The authors of the first birdwatching field guides used extended narratives to create new feelings about birds that, in turn, were intended to fuel conservation. Blueprints for this kind of emotional birdwatching became less evident in technical field guides that, through their language and artistry, promote a vision of birds as divorced from cultural and environmental concerns.

    One such environmental concern is toxic pollution. In some cases, birds by the thousands...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Technojumping into Electronic Field Guides
    (pp. 105-124)

    Thus far, I have made the case that field guides are based on a range of environmental assumptions with environmental implications. Field guides, though, are changing. Birdwatchers can now buy field-guide applications for personal digital assistants (PDAs) and the iPhone, and numerous online field guides provide detailed, interactive resources about birds. A portable gadget called the Song Sleuth can even identify birdsongs automatically by comparing songs that it “hears” to those in its onboard database. Field guides are becoming automated.

    Although not yet available for birdwatchers, a handheld electronic telescope called the SkyScout automatically identifies stars and constellations using GPS...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Birding on Toxic Land
    (pp. 125-150)

    Some of the natural areas where birders watch birds are toxic. The competitive birding event called the World Series of Birding, North America’s most publicized big-day birding event, takes place in New Jersey, the state with the highest density and number of EPA Superfund sites in the nation (Environmental Protection Agency 2007a, 2007c). Another competitive form of birding, known as big-year birding, regularly involves participants looking for rare birds at active trash dumps such as the Brownsville dump in south Texas (Kaufman 2000, 94–104; Obmascik 2004, 120–23) and reclaimed dumps such as the Montlake Landfill in Seattle. Similarly,...

  11. CONCLUSION: The Birdwatchers of the Montlake Landfill
    (pp. 151-164)

    In 2003 and 2004, I spent a sequence of Sundays at Seattle’s Montlake Landfill—the covered-over landscape described in chapter 5—in an effort to observe and talk with birdwatchers there. I have said a lot in this book about birdwatchers, their politics, and their attitudes; this field work was my attempt to study them in person. In the end, I contacted a dozen birdwatchers at the landfill, and to add to those findings, I circulated an online questionnaire to subscribers of two e-mail discussion lists used by birdwatchers in the Pacific Northwest.¹ With their consent, I recorded the conversations...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 165-174)
    (pp. 175-190)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 191-201)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 202-202)