Listening to a Continent Sing: Birding by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Donald Kroodsma. 2016. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
“Beyond the glittering street was darkness and beyond the darkness the West. I had to go.” (Jack Kerouac, On the Road, p. 58)
“We are pioneers, embarking on a transcontinental journey unlike any before it.” (Listening to a Continent Sing, p. xiii)
Tales both real and imagined of epic journeys have captured our cultural imaginations since Ancient Greece. Tales of the adventures while traveling long distances in strange lands have a global appeal. What is Homer’s Odyssey other than an account of a gripping road trip complete with Cyclops and Circe? Who hasn’t deeply enjoyed the stories of Sinbad’s fanciful trips as told in the Arabian Nights? If you are old enough, you will remember learning world history as a series of long and exciting voyages by explorers like Marco Polo, Magellan, Captain Cook, and Lewis and Clark. In the 20th century, roads became commonplace and stories of trips by highway also became common. Children’s books featured yellow brick roads and classic road trips like Freddie the Pig’s trip to Florida. Stories of road trips became the subject for many Hollywood films like It Happened One Night (1934), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), and the series of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope Road pictures (1940–1962). With the publishing of Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel On the Road in 1957, the idea of a road trip became “hip” but also personal. We didn’t need to discover new lands or even invent a new way to look at the history of life on the planet (as in Darwin’s voyages) to experience high adventure and learn something about ourselves. If you had the time and the guts, you could hop in your car or stick out your thumb and travel about America on your own personal Odyssey and come back a changed man or woman. Listening to a Continent Sing is a classic road trip adventure, except that this story features bird song as the signposts.
Others have traveled the continent to be sure, including birders who have listed all the species they’ve identified. Not us. We will reach more deeply, more intimately, far beyond such lists as we listen in on the personal lives of individual birds, using their songs and calls as a window into their minds. (p. xiii)
Donald Kroodsma is well known to the New England birding community as the research ornithologist who has written several unique books about the wonderful complexity of bird song. You need to see Kroodsma listening to a bird sing to really grasp how absolutely passionate he is about avian vocalizations. It is like watching an opera fanatic listening to a perfectly sung aria. One of my favorite quotes by Kroodsma is “seeing birds is highly overrated.” (p. 31) But the impetus for this trip was not just the prospect of hearing a lot of birds, but the politics of academia.
I am a professor mired in a biology department that worships cells, genes, molecules, and most of all money. “Show us enough grant money and you don’t have to waste your time teaching,” I am told. The director of my graduate program crowed, “I’m willing to be an asshole to get what I want.” I despaired. (p. 45)
In classic late 60s style, Kroodsma decides to “get his head together” about his academic life by taking the grand tour of the country and the country’s bird song by bicycling the TransAmerica route established in 1976. He will tell only a few close friends before leaving town, and his plan is to avoid email for the entire trip. He will be out of touch with the university completely. Unlike many bicyclists who ride the trail from west to east to capitalize on prevailing winds, Kroodsma decides on taking the route from east to west. Although he lists several reasons for doing this, the main one is to experience the wonders of spring song in the Appalachians. If he rode from west to east, he would hit the Appalachians in mid to late summer. Along for the ride is Kroodsma’s 24-year-old son, David, and it is this pairing that elevates Listening to a Continent Sing into a classic of road literature. Though David is a budding environmentalist concerned with global warming, he is not by any stretch a hardcore birder and furthermore never ever rises before sun-up. Kroodsma, on the other hand, always rises well before dawn, the better to enjoy the dawn chorus. Furthermore, he could spend hours listening to one chat or thrasher sing. The interplay between the two of them is a treat to follow along the way, and it brings this story familiar humanity. David, who is sending email to friends back home, sarcastically parodies his father by writing “New terrain, new birds—help me contain my excitement!” (p. 123) Of course, this doesn’t deter Kroodsma senior from constantly pointing out why that wren singing there by the road is so spectacular. David finally answers at one point, “Cool…but how can all birds be the most spectacular?” (p. 223)
And so they begin their transcontinental adventure, bicycling from Virginia to Oregon. Like any good road trip adventure, there are numerous encounters with interesting people, odd attractions, and wonderful wildlife as well as birds. Kroodsma writes as passionately about the history, geology, and paleontology he sees along the way. In Kentucky, he reminisces about the Passenger Pigeon: “But that’s all past. Like roadkill, the pigeons are forever silenced, our singing continent forever the less for it. Carolina parakeets would have been abundant here too, perhaps even a few Bachman’s warblers, or the occasional ivory-billed woodpecker. But no more.” (p.73)
But any good road trip story cannot consist of just positive events. On the downside were their experiences with nasty domestic wildlife, unpredictable weather, bicycles in need of a repair far from a good bike shop, and serious illness. But the pair persevere through it all, Don often rising far before David and meeting him a bit farther down the road at a pre-agreed-upon location. And, of course, on every page there is Kroodsma’s rich descriptions of the bird song he hears as the land changes from east to west, over several mountain ranges, through prairies and grasslands, until he reaches the shores of Oregon, which have a special place in his life. “Oregon is home, as I lived here while in graduate school from 1968 to 1972 before David was born.” (p. 242) In the end the trip was a kind of homecoming where the bird song is definitely familiar to Kroodsma.
The most unique aspect of this book is its revolutionary use of QR Codes. QR stands for “quick response,” and these are the perfectly square bar codes you often see on product labels or any number of signs. In the margins of Listening to a Continent Sing there are 381 labeled QR Codes. You download a free QR Code reader app on your cell phone, and when you get to a code, hold the phone over it. It will quickly take you to what is essentially another whole book accessed through your phone’s screen. This consists of state of the art recordings of not just bird song, but atmospheric recordings too, like conversations with people they met along the way, bees gathering nectar in fields, even geysers. In addition, there are complete written descriptions of the bird songs and how to listen to them. Kroodsma has a way of describing species songs that stay with the reader: “Henslow’s sparrow: brief, yes, but not pathetic.” (p. 93)
Because these recordings are not limited by recording space, as they would be if the book included CDs, many examples of one species are included, and some of the recordings are quite long. A number of Dickcissel dialects are offered. The reader listens to the very odd songs of the chickadees that are found in the narrow zone of hybridization of Black-capped and Carolina. There is even a two-hour recording of a ruffed grouse drumming! (p. 230) Each recording also contains other birds, as well as natural and human-made sounds, all of which are identified. You end up reading this book with your ear buds in, and magically you are along for the ride. You experience the entire trip through your eyes and ears. The effect is to slow the reading about the trip down to Don’s speed on a bicycle. Instead of speed reading this book, you savor each of Don’s discoveries as you spend time with a species and get to learn about that one bird.
To top it off, there are numerous small drawings of bird species and nice drawings of Don and David “on the road” by Nancy Haver.
Listening to a Continent Sing is a book you don’t just read, but experience. It is a unique addition to the “road trip” canon, and an intimate look into how Donald Kroodsma sees the world. It is also a memorable celebration of habitat and bird song, of eastern and western America and the road that connects both coasts.
But why think about that when all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see. (On the Road, p. 135)
- Kerouac, Jack. 1991 edition. On the Road. New York: Penguin Books.