Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Feathers by Thor Hanson

The Nature of Words is a great literary event that happens in Bend every November. This year I was lucky enough to go to a workshop by Thor Hanson. At that point I’d only read his memoir about being in the Peace Corps: The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda. Definitely an engaging story and one to read if you’re thinking of being in the Peace Corps or wishing you had been. 

Feathers is a completely different book. It’s exactly what it sounds like – all about feathers. Some main sections are about the evolution of feathers, their use in flight, in attracting mates, and their use by humans. I wouldn’t have thought this would be so interesting, but the material is rather fascinating and the author’s trips are pretty neat. His visits include Las Vegas to see feathers used in showgirl outfits, the Pacific Coast Feather Company and the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. He includes interesting tidbits such as the most valuable cargo on the Titanic was 40 cases of feathers and does some of his own experiments like making a quill pen and fossils. 

By far the most interesting part of the book to me was the discussion of a fossil Archaeopteryx lithographica, a fossil with the skeleton of a reptile and the feathers of a bird. Hanson goes into much discussion of later fossil finds including those of  theropod  dinosaurs with feathers and what impact this has on understanding the development of feathers over time. It’s summarized by evolutionary biologist Kevin Padian in simple language, “ ‘The earth is round, the sun doesn’t go around it, the continents move, and birds evolved from dinosaurs.’ ”

Hanson has a chapter devoted to the Birds of Paradise, which are found only on New Guinea. The December 2012 issue of National Geographic has an article where 39 of the different species have been photographed. I would have loved to have looked at this article again after reading this book, but my kids had already cut out many of the pictures.

This is a surprisingly fun read and makes me think of feathers in a new way. I have a tenuous connection to the author in that I went on a trip to Florida with his brother and other swimmers in high school. In fact I think he might be around the same age as another former swimmer turned writer from the same area – Ryan Boudinot, whose book of short stories I reviewed previously.

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