Since one of the main characters – that of Sophie, Colonel Allen Forrester’s wife – is an amateur naturalist and interested in birds in particular, To the Bright Edge of the World is a treasure trove of bird sightings. Moreover, there are a number of birds that play important roles in the story, both recurring and walk-on.
One of the first to appear is the camp robber, or gray jay, which I posted on recently.
Then, of course, there is Raven, who I think will need a post all his own as well, since he is so tied up in the mythology of the region and the magical realism of the story.
The willow ptarmigan also makes several appearances. The first is when it is mentioned by Colonel Allen Forrester, leader of the Alaska expedition, in his personal journal. In that first entry, he is writing specifically to Sophie, listing for her the birds they have seen thus far on their journey. He lists the ptarmigan generically, not by species at this point, and his comment is that any they have seen have gone directly into their cookpots and bellies.
Speaking of cookpots, it was somewhat surprising to me how often the expedition group was close to starving. I expected game to be more plentiful. I’ve read The Journals of Lewis and Clark, and the wildlife is always of interest in such an account. But where Lewis and Clark often speak of seeing beaver, deer, bison, bear – both black and later brown or grizzly, porcupine, coyotes, and many more, Forrester and company mostly seem to starve. Occasionally they are able to find a caribou or perhaps a moose, and a couple of times he writes of eating porcupine and rabbits. The expedition members eat moose with some of the native people they stay with, and moose hides are used for clothing and for the boats. But they don’t even see many bears, let alone shoot any either to eat or in self-defense. Yet that is one of the first things we think of when Alaska is mentioned – an abundance of large, sometimes aggressive, brown bears.
Certainly Forrester has fewer men than Lewis and Clark, so he is not able to send out daily hunting parties, but even when they are starving, the Colonel seems reluctant to spend time hunting.
Nat’aaggi spotted a moose on a far hillside. Tillman wanted to hunt it, but it would require a day, possibly more, with no guarantee of success. As hungry as we are, I am keen to arrive at the lake. I believe we are within a few days march.
He writes of the game (or lack thereof) primarily in strategic terms.
Game is not as plentiful as one might expect. We have seen but a few caribou and moose. Salmon, however, are said to be abundant in the Wolverine River throughout the summer. … The only feasible means of bringing a military force into the country would be to march soldiers across the ice in winter. Even with well-packed sledges, however, food stores would be exhausted well before any regiment could reach the headwaters.
He goes on to recommend that, in case of conflict, the military’s best strategy would be to prevent native access to the salmon during the summer, and let them starve to death the following winter. What a chilling report!
But, back to the willow ptarmigan!
While the Colonel waits at the coast for transport south, he searches on the shore for “a feather, a pretty sea-shell, perhaps even the eggshells of some shorebird.” He mentions this to Nat’aaggi, who recruits the help of some of the local boys.
They led me away from the sea, out through the grass & hummocks. We walked for so long, I thought perhaps they led me on a wild chase. … At last one of them shouted with excitements. They had indeed found a small nest. It had long since been abandoned but inside the bed of grass & feathers were two broken shells. The boys indicated that often these nests hold as many as a dozen eggs. The villagers gather them to eat in the spring.
It doesn’t mention here what type of bird the nest and eggs belong to. But in the newspaper clipping about an exhibit of her photography to be held at the Anderson Museum, the author of the article writes that Sophie shows him/her the basket and eggshells and says they are from an Alaska ptarmigan. We, the readers, know these are the eggshells that Allen brought home, stored in the birch bark basket made by Nat’aaggi.
Sophie also tells that reporter several details about a trip she and Allen made in 1915 to Nome, Alaska to photograph birds in general, and nesting willow ptarmigans in particular. I love how she speaks of Allen lowering her down a cliff face with ropes so she could get close to a nest with her camera.
I would look up at a nest on a cliff and wonder how on earth I could ever get that photograph. He would lead me up and around and farther on until we were on top of the cliff, then he would tie me off with ropes and lower me down until I was face to face with the nest. And then I’d get my picture. … My stomach did give a flutter now and then, … but I knew he could tie a good knot.
She also speaks a little mysteriously about getting her favorite photo of the wild geese–in a way that made me sure that she saw the geese women, though apparently the photo doesn’t show anything too unusual. Allen certainly told her of his experiences, and she indicates he wanted her to photograph them–perhaps to prove that what he saw was real.
Allen never forgot his expedition to Alaska. He had an extraordinary encounter that led him to believe that the wild geese there had a certain enchanted quality. More than anything he wanted to take me there to photograph them. That was our first trip together to the north.
She recalls a flock flying overhead early one morning and Allen telling her to “Get your picture, quick!”
The next day … when the flock had gathered in a marsh near a group of Indian women. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed, and I am afraid I did not do them justice, but it is still my favorite.
Then there are the hummingbirds, which I’ve touched on in a recent post as well. There are two important hummingbirds in the story. First is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which is the only eastern species, and which plays a part in Allen and Sophie’s courtship. Second is the Rufous hummingbird, a western species that is common to the Washington coast where Sophie stays, and which plays a part in her burgeoning interest in and talent for photography.
During Allen’s courtship of her, Sophie tells him she wants more than anything to see the nest of a hummingbird, and he finds a nest with two eggs. Sophie reminds him of this in a letter, and tells him that this was when she first fell in love with him.
Stranded in Vancouver, Washington at the Army Barracks, Sophie takes up bird photography. It takes her quite a few expeditions of her own before she finally finds what she’s looking for–the nest of a hummingbird. In this case, the Rufous Hummingbird, a common species along the Pacific Coast.
The groundskeeper, MacGillivray helps her make a blind to get her equipment close to the nest without startling the mother, and she patiently spends hours there waiting for the perfect photograph – that of one of the young birds leaving the nest for the first time.
In addition to the many birds that Allen’s expedition encounters in Alaska, and that Sophie observes in Washington, there are quite a few birds that are discussed over the course of the book but not actually seen during the main story.
For example, at the dance where Sophie meets Pruitt, she tries to converse with him about photography and birds, saying ” ‘Allen tells me that you have seen the condor. Is it true?’ … Yes, he said–it was a giant, with a wingspan of nearly ten feet and a bald head of many colors.” Sophie also comments on the name the groundskeeper MacGillivray shares with a local warbler. (MacGillivray’s Warbler is a western species, closely related to the eastern Mourning Warbler, which she mentions elsewhere.)
There were also a few birds which I was just not able to identify due to the lack of specific information–both Allen and Sophie mention hearing woodpeckers, but there are at least four species that would have been common in the Pacific northwest, and no information was given about the drumming that would help me identify which they might have heard. The same is true for the owls Allen mentions hearing, and a generic sandpiper he mentions (in that case there are at least 15-20 species it could be).
Therefore, I am separating the birds in this book into two lists on this page – those seen by Allen in Alaska or Sophie in Washington, and those mentioned by either in their journals, with notes about how they appeared in the story. I’ve decided to add to the Life List of Birds in Books all of the species which were seen at some point by either Allen or Sophie. The birds I couldn’t identify, of course, won’t be added, nor will the puffin, which Sophie hoped to see on the way to Sitka. Even making these distinctions, we get to add a tidy number of birds to our ongoing Life List!