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The Race to Save the Lord God Bird: Phillip Hoose’s 2005 BGHB Nonfiction Award Speech

hoose_race to save the lord god bird

I’d like to tell you how and why I came to choose the Ivory-billed Woodpecker as the subject for a work of nonfiction. I did it to unite my two careers with one project: I am both an author and a conservationist (next week I will begin my twenty-ninth year as a staff member of the Nature Conservancy). In the past, I have written about everything from young people in U.S. history to racism in sports, from Hoosier basketball to an ant about to be squished by a child’s basketball shoe — but not about my job.

It’s never been easy to explain what I do. I have often found myself in a swamp or a prairie, or at the  margin of a pond, standing beside a landowner and working up the nerve to ask him or her to make a financial sacrifice in order to keep a piece of land from being paved or cut or drained. Swallowing hard, I say something like, “According to scientists, this is one of only three ponds left in the entire state where we can still find Blanding’s Turtle.” Dead silence. And of course the turtle never chooses that moment to surface. I can just feel the landowner thinking, “So what? What good is a turtle?” Sometimes they even come right out and say it.

“What good is a turtle?” That’s a hard question to answer. The usual arguments sound pretty abstract: “What good is it? Why, don’t you realize that a cure for cancer may be locked within the genes of that turtle! Don’t you know that the blood of the armadillo was used in leprosy research? Have you forgotten that bee venom is used to treat arthritis?”

But the real reasons I spend my time trying to stop extinction are more personal and, I guess, spiritual. I want to save the creatures of the earth not because of what they can do for me, but because they are so cool. They are inexplicable, mysterious, and important to one another in ways that I don’t always understand, at least not without looking hard. I love to try to figure out why they appear and act and sound and move and smell as they do, and what their particular role is within an ecosystem. I believe it makes us more fully human if we can learn to care not just about the creatures we can pet, feed, and scratch, but also about weird-looking things, some of which haven’t even been named yet and many of which you wouldn’t particularly want curled up on your lap. As one scientist told me, “It’s not all that hard to care about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. But what about the mites on the Ivory-bill?”

As a writer, naturally I think the best way to encourage readers to care about the planet’s biological diversity is to tell them a story. And most good stories, fiction or nonfiction, contain the same elements: characters you care about, intriguing relationships between and among them, suspense, difficult obstacles, and a good setting. So, because I have a special love for birds, and to write about the work that I do, I set out to find a Clark Gable of a bird and a Gone with the Wind of a story.

The Ivory-bill was my number one candidate from the start. Many years before, I had read James Tanner’s book The Ivory-billed Woodpecker at the New York Public Library. I had gone there to do research for another project, but I got so absorbed in the Ivory-bill that I completely lost track of time. It was dark by the time I finally staggered out between the lions and down the front steps. I was filled with admiration for Tanner himself. Barely into his twenties, there he was on his own in the South, searching for leads and clues and sightings of this great phantom bird. I could see him jolting over rutted roads in his old Ford, and trekking through the Singer forest alongside his guide J. J. Kuhn, and snapping his immortal photographs of the baby Ivory-bill they named Sonny Boy. I wondered what Tanner was like. As a conservationist, I respected him for having created such a fair-minded plan to save Ivory-bill habitat at the great forest owned by the Singer Manufacturing Company. I mourned the forest, and, prematurely I hoped, I mourned the bird.

But could I expand Tanner’s scientific study into a page-turning narrative of America’s first real endangered-species showdown? I didn’t know, but I knew I wanted to try. So I wrote a proposal for a book about the Ivory-bill and sent it to Melanie Kroupa, my editor at Farrar. I told her I wanted to address the worldwide crisis in species loss by telling a story about a single charismatic bird species. I wanted to convince readers that they should care about extinction by making them ache for a creature on the brink and admire those who tried to pull it back. I wanted to drive home the point that extinction is the greatest tragedy in nature. As ornithologist William Beebe put it, “When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.” But beyond that, I also wanted my story to show, as my own work with the Nature Conservancy has taught me, that extinction is preventable and worth the energy of all readers.

At its heart, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird is the story of four Cornell scientists who tracked what seemed to be the last population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers into a great virgin swamp forest in Louisiana in the 1930s. The forest was in essence the last scrap of a gigantic carpet of trees that had once stretched along the Mississippi River from Memphis to the Gulf of Mexico. It was owned by the Singer Manufacturing Company, which wanted to keep a supply of hardwood on hand from which to make the cabinets into which sewing machines folded down in those days. But Singer never used the trees. As World War II approached, Singer sold the cutting rights to a lumber company that set out at once to clear the forest. Thus began a high-stakes race between the loggers and conservationists determined to save the last great hardwood swamp forest in America. The Ivory-bill was caught in the middle. Young James Tanner was hired to find out everything he could about the Ivory-bill, at the Singer tract and elsewhere, so that he could write a scientific plan to save the species.

My own research for this book was probably as exciting to me as Tanner’s research was to him. Like Tanner, I often worked from hunches, rumors, and leads. Following a courthouse tip, I uncovered the deeds to the Singer tract in a Louisiana lawyer’s garage. A rare stamp of the Ivory-bill turned up in a souvenir shop across the street from a dance hall in Santiago de Cuba. A small museum contained woodcarvings fashioned by German prisoners of war who cut down the last trees at the Singer tract. Penny postcards from Tanner to Dr. Arthur Allen spilled from a file in a Cornell library. Another file folder contained a copy of the first photograph of the Ivory-bill ever taken. A single sentence in a book led me to three of the last people ever to have seen the Ivory-bill in the United States.

But the best was yet to come. Astoundingly, a few months after my book was published, it was announced that at least one Ivory-bill was still alive in Arkansas. It had been spotted by a birder and verified by scientists. Somehow, several generations of these magnificent birds had survived, out of sight of countless birders who had never stopped looking for them. Ever since the sighting, I have been on tour, seeking to help raise twelve million dollars to save habitat in Arkansas. We at the Conservancy, working with many partners, aspire to preserve and restore a forest there of slightly over a half million acres in size. Rediscovering the Ivory-bill has given us a second chance to save a great southern swamp forest. We were too late at the Singer tract. But we’re going to get it right this time at the Big Woods of Arkansas.

Researching and writing The Race to Save the Lord God Bird was a great and satisfying adventure. The experience deepened my sense of why I do what I do, both as a conservationist and a writer. It made me appreciate those who sought to save habitats before me. It deepened my love for the beauty and mystery of the Earth and the creatures that inhabit it.

Of course, I didn’t make this journey alone. Farrar produced a beautiful book and have supported it with all their abundant skill and energy. My colleagues at the Nature Conservancy could have objected to the time I spent away from other projects but instead encouraged me to write this book. Nancy Tanner, James Tanner’s widow, opened her home and files and archives to me. I treasure her friendship.

I especially wish to acknowledge and thank Melanie Kroupa, the greatest of editors. This book’s success is as much hers as mine. She is a believer in strong characters, inspirational topics, and wide margins on good paper that smells good and feels good to the touch. She insists on clear and good writing, and her central aim is always to make reading a delightful and inspiring experience. I am very lucky to work with Melanie.

For the last two books she and I have been assisted by Sharon McBride, a great researcher. My elder daughter, Hannah Hoose, the co-author of Hey, Little Ant and a senior at Oberlin College, is unable to be with us tonight, but I wish to thank her. Hannah’s sister, Ruby Hoose, is in the house tonight. Ruby, thanks so much for letting me read all those chapters to you, and sharing my Ivory-bill years with me. Finally, I’d like to thank Sandi St. George, who has helped make this past year such a happy time for me.

We Americans are always being urged to reach for the moon, to explore the heavens, to seek our future in the stars. Not me. I’ll stay behind and mind the store. I love this Earth. Give me a great moss-bearded swamp, give me trees that close the canopy of the sky, and leave me with an arkload of fabulous creatures, and I’ll be happy. Especially if one of the passengers is the great, boldly patterned woodpecker of whom it has so often been said, “Lord God, what a bird!” Thank you so much for honoring me with this award.

From the January/February 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Phillip Hoose About Phillip Hoose

Phillip Hoose is the 2015 winner of a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book Award for The Boys Who Challenged Hitler (Farrar).

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