Thor Hanson Talks About "FEATHERS"

In Thor Hanson’s book FEATHERS: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle (Basic Books; June 1, 2011) — recently awarded a Pacific Northwest Booksellers “Book of the Year” award — the San Juan Island-based conservation biologist blends his own field ornithology experiences from Africa to Antarctica with the work of paleontologists, biologists, engineers, art historians and even fashion designers to offer an engaging narrative of the natural and cultural history of feathers.
Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, insulating, beguiling. Their story begins in the Jurassic and leads through the development of flight to high fashion, from leaping dinosaurs to showgirls on the Las Vegas strip. They’ve given us the word “pen” and inked documents from the Magna Carta to the Constitution. They’ve decorated queens, Aztec priests, and Victorian women’s hats. They silence the flight of owls, give shimmer to hummingbirds, and keep penguins dry below the ice. Yet their story has never been fully told.
“The human fascination with feathers runs much deeper than science, touching art, folklore, commerce, romance, religion, and the rhythms of daily life,” writes Hanson. “From tribal clans to modern technocracies, cultures across the globe have adopted feathers as symbols, tools, and ornaments in an array of uses as varied and surprising as anything in nature.”
We are delighted to be hosting Thor Hanson at our first 2012 Sourdough Speaker Series on March 24-25th. Please join us in welcoming him to the Environmental Learning Center to learn about feathers, birds, evolution, and stories of wonder and insight from the field of conservation biology.
In anticipation of Thor’s upcoming visit, I struck up a conversation with him over email about his captivating explorations of this remarkable subject.

CK: What did you learn in the writing of FEATHERS that surprised you? Did you end up somewhere different than where you expected?
TH: At the start of this project, my knowledge of feathers came from my observations in the field, where time and again I had been amazed by the ways birds use them for flight, insulation, waterproofing, camouflage, and of course their wonderful mating displays. But as I got further into the research, I discovered that the ways people use feathers are just as diverse and incredible. Soon I was visiting hatmakers, touring down factories, tying trout flies, interviewing showgirls, and studying the history of golf balls. I knew that bird plumage was amazing, but the depth and breadth of the human fascination with feathers far surpassed my expectations.
CK: What do you hope your audience will take away after reading your book?
TH: I hope the book will give people new things to look for and think about when they see a bird, or for that matter anywhere they encounter feathers, from ski parkas to Mardi Gras masks. In our increasingly urban and technological lives, strengthening our connections to the natural world has never been more important. And it can be as simple as picking up a feather, and holding it up to the light.
CK: Is there a particular feather that stands out as more fascinating and spectacular to you than any other? Why?
TH: My answer to this question changes all the time. Today I’m going to choose the oddly-shaped plumes of the Club-winged Manakin, a small South American songbird who, for all practical purposes, plays its feathers like a violin. By thrusting its wings up over its back and hammering them together, it forces the ‘pick’ on one feather across a series of ridges on the next. Specially swollen quills at the base of the feathers then resonate with the hum, just like the body of a musical instrument. Incredible!
CK: How has your study of feathers connected you more intimately to place?
TH: While I feel very deeply rooted to the Pacific Northwest, I would say that a fascination with feathers transcends place. One of the great things about feathers is how commonly we encounter them — from the wilderness to city parks to the pillows we rest our heads on. They give us a constant reminder of the sheer wonders of evolution.

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