A Field Guide to Peterson


Roger Tory Peterson was born on August 28, 1908, and died July 28, 1996, just before his 88th birthday. This is an article I wrote about him for New England Monthly in June 1987. In the last thirty years, some things about birding have changed—such as the development of various birding apps for personal devices—but some things have stayed the same, not least of which is the essential joy of watching and listening to birds every day wherever you may be.

In the perfect light of his Connecticut studio, Roger Tory Peterson shuffled through a stack of papers like a fox sparrow rattling through dry leaves. The most famous bird watcher in America was preoccupied, a little beady-eyed. “This is quite a story here,” he said, “Do we have that many copies of this or not?”

Ginny Peterson, his ubiquitous helpmate, replied, “Chuck is suppose to Xerox all this stuff for you.” And turning my way, “So we can really get a package before you go.”

Peterson—author of the world’s first useful bird-watcher’s field guide, artist, conservationist, birding bon vivant—is a tall, handsome man. The youthful vigor belies his seventy-eight years. And the Scandinavian pallor—the flaxen hair turned white, the limpid blue eyes, the alabaster skin—makes him seem almost other than human, a feat of bionic engineering that might go on birding forever.

He fiddled with a new calendar, illustrated with his photographs of birds. “Was there anything…I know there’s been so much written lately,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“I hope not to be redundant,” I said.

“You can’t help it,” Ginny reminded me.

The topic of Xeroxing went on for some time, until, almost shouting, I said, “The first thing I’d like to talk to you about is your ear.”

Peterson froze for the microsecond that is required of all organisms when it is time to prioritize. The fox sparrow stops shuffling when it hears the high-pitched squeal of a hawk. Peterson dropped the small talk when he hears the word ear.

For birders, it is a word full of implications. For people who are hooked on birds, watching them is a foregone conclusion. Hearing them is the next dimension. Listening to birds has everything to do with the richness and complication of the activity, from the pure joy of it to the hierarchies of skill and snobbery that ensue when bird watching is pursued as a sport. One of the sporting events for which a bird-tuned ear is a necessity is the Big Day. During this game, a team tries to count as many species as possible in a twenty-four-hour period. It’s much quicker to identify birds by the sounds they make than to try to see each one as it flits high in the trees.

Birders always watch to see how other birders hear. Peterson knows all the good ears across America and has an excellent ear himself. He has used his ears throughout his life in his loving pursuit of birds and, though he is somewhat reluctant to admit it, as a birding jock. Like a lot of birders, Peterson is ambivalent and at times critical about the fairly garish evolution of bird watching. In recent years, it has slipped from a serene, almost religious pastime into a raucous, all-too-human activity stoked, like any other sport, by competition and gamesmanship. His ambivalence has not been so great, however, as to make him abstain. He is a member of the four-person team that currently [1987 when this was written] holds the North American Big Day title—244 species seen on May 1, 1985, in Texas.1

Thinking about ears, Peterson began to slump back comfortably into his overstuffed couch. He cast his eyes across the room as if talking to someone sitting behind me. The slouch and the faraway stare are so familiar to his friends and associates as to be classifiable as a field mark, a way to identify Roger Tory Peterson, like the twitch of the eastern phoebe’s tail or the hunched profile of the American kestrel.

“Bird watchers from the East,” he mused, “tend to use their ears more, and those from the West tend to use their eyes more. I think that’s understandable, because in the East you’ve got so much woodland, and the ears are therefore more important. In the West it’s a lot of open country and the eyes are more important. I think, amongst my own friends, the ones with the sharpest ears come from places like Pennsylvania or Connecticut. So my ears really are better than average. I still have my high registry.”

High registry. It is a touchy subject among birders. With age, people lose the ability to hear high-frequency sounds. For most people this is a loss of little consequence. Birders, however, don’t like to contemplate the inevitable waning of the shrill zees, weets, tsees, and breets many species emit. It is a sign that they are losing touch with their world. Peterson is worried, and to observe his soliloquy on the matter is to get a poignant glimpse at the man beneath the bionic exterior.

“I can still hear practically everything,” he said, almost defensively. “I’m afraid I’m about to lose blackpoll warbler, grasshopper sparrow, golden-crowned kinglet. These are the first to go. I’ve heard them all within the last year. I’m right at the edge—”

“Would you feel better, honey,” Ginny broke in from her straight-backed chair, “if you were sitting up here? You’re all kind of crunched.”

INTERRUPTION SEEMS TO BE a standard event at the home of Roger Tory Peterson, where he’s lived for thirty years. As one conversation after another got derailed, an unsettling thought began to surface. In the lives of famous people, one sometimes arrives too late. The stories that make the right points have been told and retold. The stories that make the wrong points, or no point at all, are lost conveniently in the past, regardless of how much richness and texture they might add. The eminence is mythologized—and simplified: the facts that remain, although indisputable, often sound pat. A lot of famous couples—Andrew and Betsy Wyeth come to mind—practice this kind of reductionism, but that’s no solace when you know that a larger-than-life presence has been lost in the process. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising in Peterson’s case. After all, he has spent a lifetime rendering birds in their simplest forms, but while this technique is wonderful for field guides, it makes for somewhat less satisfying biography.

Thus, the information available on Peterson’s parents fits the stereotype of the immigrants establishing a foothold in America. His father, Charles Gustav Peterson, came with his family from Sweden as a baby. By the age of ten, he was working in the woolen mills in Jamestown, New York. In The World of Roger Tory Peterson, Peterson’s biographers gingerly suggest the paterfamilias had a drinking problem and that he was impatient with his son’s love of nature. Roger’s mother, Henrietta Bader, came to America from Germany when she was four. She was more tolerant of Roger’s proclivities. According to one famous Peterson story, she once allowed him to use the family parlor as pupation grounds for eight hundred or so caterpillars on their way to becoming moths.

Roger was in love with the natural world from an early age and he was directed toward birds at age eleven by a teacher Blanche Hornbeck, but with or without her encouraging instruction, it is likely the die was already cast for the young boy. This pattern of early, irrepressible fascination with birds and butterflies, snakes, frogs, fossils, and rocks is the standard beginning for the most proficient adult birders and naturalists. For a handful of children, nature speaks in an argot that the rest of us largely ignore. As they watch and listen, their lives are forever changed.

Nevertheless, the mothers of child birders often provide subtle, silent support for their slightly aberrant offspring. Since the information on Henrietta is scant, I inquired if Peterson’s mother played this protective role for him. “More or less—“ he began.

“His mother was fantastic!” Ginny interrupted, at which point the conversation became something of a Ping-Pong match with Henrietta playing the part of the ball.

“My father took a dim view of it,” said Roger.

“But your mother said he was supportive, hon, he never—“ Ginny returned, fearful that some less-than-charitable light might shine on the elder Peterson.

“Yes, he was supportive in the end,” said Roger in a distracted lob.

“His mother was unusual in that she would allow Roger to take over her living room with—“ Ginny volleyed.

“But you weren’t there, sweetie,” Roger returned.

“But you told me—with all this paraphernalia—and you even hatched something like eight hundred moths…”

At which point Roger dropped the ball, as he is wont to do, and launched into a discourse about his concern over the disappearance of many large moth species, due most likely to the spraying of larvicides. Ginny, however, was not through.

“…this was her living room, this is what I want to point out. This was her living room. And they didn’t have—how many rooms did you have in your house, hon? You didn’t have—“

“Oh, it was a fairly good-sized house,” replied Roger.

Undaunted, Ginny went on until Roger concluded, gently but firmly, “I’d better tell about her. You weren’t there.” Then he proceeded to talk instead about his sister and only sibling, Margaret, who lives in California.

AS FAME GOES, Peterson’s is circumscribed. Among those who place little emphasis on telling a mockingbird from a turkey vulture, he remains a nonentity. In the circles where such things do matter, Peterson is so famous that his name has become generic. Birders say Peterson when they mean field guide. This usage has been modified in recent years with the entry into the market of so many competing guides, but still a birder would never say, “Get me A Field Guide to the Birds.” It is always, “Get me Peterson.” As a kind of economic indicator of his fame, books in his series have sold more than ten million copies, and a Peterson bird painting now brings between $10,000 and $25,000.

Peterson’s fame springs from one thing. He had a brilliant idea at precisely the right time—when for a variety of reasons, including a growing awareness of shrinking natural landscapes and declining numbers of birds and animals in those landscapes, there was a growing cultural shift from a quest-and-conquest approach to nature to a passive enjoyment of it. On a few spring days in 1934, all two thousand copies of A Field Guide to the Birds, written and illustrated by Peterson, sold out. He was twenty-five years old at the time and was moving from his anonymous small-town life into the rarefied world of birding as it was then practiced in Boston and New York. Birding today is a much more heterogeneous affair—thanks in large part to the mass marketing of A Field Guide to the Birds—than it was earlier in the century, when it tended to be a pastime of wealthy white males. It has never been such a closed society, however, that its members would exclude from their ranks a good birder on the basis of pedigree alone. In the end, all that matters to birders is whether you can tell the difference between blackpoll, bay-breasted, and pine warblers in their fall plumages.

After high school, Peterson, whose artistic abilities were already apparent, went to work in one of the Jamestown furniture factories, painting chinoiserie on cabinets. In this spare time he painted birds, and at seventeen he submitted two of these paintings to what at the time was the most prestigious show for bird artists in the country, the exhibit accompanying the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists Union. The paintings were accepted, and in the fall of 1925, Roger was rubbing elbows in New York City with the most influential bird men in America.

Within two years, he had saved enough money to return to New York as an art student. From 1927 to 1932, he studied at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design, continuing to support himself by painting furniture. And he birded. He joined ranks with eight other young men, all birding whiz kids. They called themselves the Bronx County Bird Club, soon shortened to BCBC. They were tireless and competitive, the prototypes for today’s birding jocks.

For five summers Roger was a counselor at Chewonki, the preppie and proper boys camp in Maine. The founder of Chewonki was also director of the Rivers School—equally preppie, proper, and for boys—near Boston. Roger went there to teach natural history. By night he began working on the idea he’d had for a bird-watchers field guide. He also began to merge into the birding elite. After some hesitancy, the Nuttall Club of Boston, one of the most exclusive of the men’s ornithological clubs, asked Peterson to join, and there he met Francis H. Allen, an avid bird watcher and an editor at Houghton Mifflin. The story goes that four publishers turned down his field guide before he took it to Allen. (As Allen was the one editor in Boston equipped to judge the book’s merits, one has to wonder why Peterson didn’t take it to him first.) Houghton Mifflin accepted it, but apparently even Allen had some reservations about its chances for success; he asked Peterson to forgo royalties on the first thousand copies.

There were two wonderful things about A Field Guide to Birds: it was simple, and it filled a vacant niche. Before Peterson, bird books were written for two readerships—children and scientists—missing altogether the middle ground inhabited by an untold number of eager but untutored bird watchers. When these people turned to the scientific texts, they met minutiae, not birds. Most ornithologists of that era were taxonomists, interested in sorting out the different families of birds. Their books were discourses on avian anatomical parts and nuances of plumage. Terms like fuscous, ochraceous, and chaetura drab were of no use to bird watchers who used a simpler color lexicon—brown, black, blue, yellow, red—to watch and identify the objects of their affections. Peterson decoded these ornithological hieroglyphics in his first field guide. In so doing, he made bird watching fun.

For sixty years now [1987], Peterson has worked steadily, often furiously, sometimes indiscriminately, at what he knows and does best: teaching passionately about birds. While all this hard work is wrapped up in an almost eerie desire to stay at the head of his class, it is also one of the most admirable things about Peterson. He’s never been inclined to rest on his considerable achievements. From the wildly successful A Field Guide to the Birds, which covered only the eastern United States, sprang the entire Peterson Field Guide Series. It now [1987] includes thirty-four books, and ranges far from birds to such titles as A Field Guide to the Atmosphere and A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants (written by Peterson’s younger son, Lee). Peterson is the titular editor of the series and the author or co-author and illustrators of six of the guides.

From 1934 until 1943, Peterson worked for the National Audubon Society as a teacher and lecturer and was on the staff of the society’s magazine Audubon. After a stint in the Army, he embarked on an extremely successful and lucrative career as a writer, artist, photographer, and celebrity tour leader. He virtually never turns down an offer to write a glowing preface to any book dealing with birds. In the last ten years he has devoted more time to painting portraits of birds, which are sold as originals and limited-edition prints. And in the face of increasing competition from other field guides and an ever more sophisticated and critical readership, he has been working obsessively to revise his eastern and western United States bird guides. The latest A Field Guide to the Birds came out in 1980. Peterson wants to complete his revision of A Field Guide to Western Birds by 1988, before he turns eighty.

On the day of my visit, a half-finished color plate of gulls for the western guide lay on his drafting table. In the requisite north light beaming through the large window of Peterson’s studio, those tiny undone gulls flying across the page were like ghostly apparitions imploring their venerable artist to get back to work.

I’M GOING TO GET A LITTLE CLOSER,” the photographer said to Peterson.

“You’re going to get all the pores in my nose now,” Peterson mumbled.

“S’cuse me?” she asked.

“All the pores in my nose.”

“No, I’m not getting that close—yet.”


Peterson was out on the lawn surrounded by women, having his picture taken. A great deal seemed to be at stake in the making of this image. Age is not discussed at the Petersons. “We’re not talking numbers,” Ginny announced, when mention of her husband’s imminent birthday came up. “He and I promised when we got married that if he’d never mention my numbers I’d never mention his. That’s the deal.” Roger and Ginny see the camera not as a device for recording verities but rather as a tool for enhancement.

Ginny to photographer: “Roger likes backlighting, preferably Vaseline on the lens, soft focusing, and so forth, but you know what he’s after. That softer look. Just make sure he’s younger. That’s what he’s after.” Chasing this will-o’-the-wisp, we all got giddy on the lawn. “Those are awfully pretty blue eyes,” I heard myself say at one point to Roger Tory Peterson.

He seems to elicit a frothy, mothlike behavior from the opposite sex, but it is the kind of fluttering that is not so much flirtatious as motherly. There is a long tradition of women helping Peterson, of whom the most recent and avid is Ginny. Besides being press agent, program director, nutritionist, bouncer, and wife, she has been a diligent coworker on the revisions of the eastern and western field guides.

The divorce rate is high among birders and ornithologists. A lot of women get tired of having to compete with birds for their husbands’ affections, and they get tired as well of the schlepping that goes along with chasing birds, whether for fun or for science. Peterson is no exception. Ginny is his third wife. The first was Mildred Warner Washington, a prominent New England beauty whose lineage traced back to Washington. Mildred loved nature, but only among other things, such as music, which became a problem. She and Roger, twenty-one and twenty-eight respectively, met at an Audubon camp—birders are always falling in love out-of-doors; it has to do with the grand vistas and all the fresh air—but no doubt their competing wills conspired to end the marriage. They parted company after seven turbulent years.

Shortly thereafter, Peterson married Barbara Coulter, at the time a secretary with the National Audubon Society. She was everything Mildred was not, including long-suffering. During thirty-two years of marriage, Barbara was amanuensis, suitcase-packer, organizer, travel companion (she went with him to Antarctica eight times), crisis manager (she once produced a shear pin from her personal effects when an outboard motor broke on a field trip), horsewoman, environmentalist, fond companion to Roger’s aged mother, and the mother herself of two sons, Tory and Lee. It seems to have been a marriage of great richness, conviviality, and no dull moments that ground to a halt largely because of spousal burnout.

Shortly after the divorce, Roger, sixty-seven, married Virginia Quinlan Westervelt, then forty-nine, a neighbor and social friend of the previous Mr. and Mrs. Peterson for some twenty years. If there was any chance that the aging Peterson might have been drifting into quiescence, Ginny headed off that specter at the pass.

IN PROTECTING AN EGO UNACCUSTOMED TO ABUSE, Ginny has had to work overtime since 1980. That year, the newly revised—and eagerly awaited—A Field Guide to the Birds came out. But to Roger and Ginny’s horror, the book met with some scathing criticism. The first shock was that it happened at all. There is a tacit understanding among the elder generation of bird watchers that any bird book is better than no bird book; hence Peterson’s habit of writing prefaces or dust-jacket blurbs for even the most marginal of texts. The second shock, of course, was that it happened to Peterson.

According to the critics, neither Peterson’s paintings (all new) nor his text (more or less old) took into account the many pointers about identification that have been discovered by ardent birders in recent years. Three reviews in particular were merciless. Peterson’s thrushes were fat; the throat pouches on the cormorants were all wrong; the various plumages of the sandpipers were confusing. A comment on this last problem by one reviewer hints at the kind of minutiae that is now standard dialogue among birders: “Certainly, no full winter-plumaged Western Sandpiper ever shows any trace of rusty on the scapulars.” The complaint is well taken, but stuff like this means nothing to tens of thousands of bird watchers, for whom Peterson’s revised field guide basically did what it’s always done: provide simple identifications of the major groups of birds.

Nevertheless, his critics were technically right. The inclusion of much of the new information would have made the guide better. And all of it was available to Peterson, since he runs in the circle of truly accomplished birders who pass around such information in ornithological bulletins and journals and by word of mouth. (To bird in the company of such people, who spout obscure field marks like Bible students quoting verses from Colossians, is a truly amazing experience.) In the end, however, one senses that something other than missing facts was eating at these reviewers. It is as if their feelings had been hurt. Their father figure, the man whose book they had clutched to their breasts since childhood, the man they would have been eager to please, ignored them.

Beating their chests, these critics incidentally marked a historic moment in the annals of bird watching. With their reviews, birding became a bona fide American sport, replete with egotistical jousting and generational squabbles. Birders, just like their counterparts on baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and football fields, were now play King of the Mountain. For better or worse, Roger Tory Peterson was not about to budge.

Amid the tussle—in part because of it—a second generation of field guides is now emerging. These take one difficult group—the gulls or the shorebirds, for instance—and pontificate on every manifestation of plumage, every nuance of leg, bill, and eye color. They are wonderful guides, with, yes, prefaces by Roger Tory Peterson. People with a sense of irony will note, however, that these guides are not unlike the ponderous texts written by nineteenth-century taxonomists, the books from which Peterson saved a whole generation of birders.

One has to ask how the game got so complicated. It has to do not so much with the ardor of the participants—Peterson is no less passionate than his younger counterparts—but with their accoutrements. Today [late 1980s], sporting birders go into the field with high-powered binoculars and telescopes and devices for playing and/or recording bird song. With recording devices they call the birds in close, and with their powerful optics, they study these birds minutely. After seeing a bird so well, the next step is to notice that the illustration in the field guide doesn’t quite duplicate the living thing. To engage in this is an instructive exercise and it has contributed to a greater understanding of plumage molts in various groups of birds, but in the end it misunderstands the purpose of a field guide—and the inestimable contribution of Roger Tory Peterson.

These days, Peterson birds in the company of people who use all this equipment, simply because it enhances his ability to watch birds—with a sixty-power Questar one can get breathtakingly beautiful looks at birds—but still he feels a little sabotaged by all this high-tech paraphernalia. “These fellows now with Questars—you can see the fleas on a phoebe,” Peterson told me ruefully. “They’re always talking about abraded tertials and all that, and they’re right back to the specimen tray. It was exactly what I was trying to get away from.”

At moments like these, Peterson seems dogged by his critics, even though they wouldn’t fill one pew in his congregation. It was inevitable that the disciples would challenge their leader; it is a little sad Peterson can’t quite let it go. He is determined that the revised A Field Guide to Western Birds be flawless, which in the realm of field guides is almost a contradiction in terms. “Westerners are more sophisticated about their birding than the Easterners, I think. Some of the roughest critics are in California,” he said. “The Western guide is going to be trickier. It’s tricky with the gulls. With such critics, I’ve got to get it right.” The man who made birding fun seems to have lost that theme in a thicket of hubris.

FORTUNATELY, THOUGH, PETERSON has not lost the birds in that thicket. Earlier on the day of my visit, a pair of red-breasted nuthatches—the first of the season—had appeared in the trees outside his studio. Their arrival caused an enthusiastic outburst. A red-breasted nuthatch, charming as it may be, is not a bird that would necessarily excite a person who has been watching birds for some seventy years. It is not a resplendent quetzal. It is, instead, a bird that provides a barometer of a person’s interest in the subject. Peterson was thrilled. He was just as excited later, when one of them reappeared. “Ginny, Ginny,” he exploded. “The red-breasted nuthatch has already found the feeder!”

Shortly before this unequivocal confirmation of Peterson’s unabated passion, I had, at Ginny’s encouragement, called a cab. In those last few moments, we rambled. He talked about how in the end he sees himself as basically a teacher. He talked about what birds nest in his woods. He grumbled about how he can’t eat sweets anymore. And we compared notes about who we enjoy being in the field with. As it happens, Peterson, because of his eminence, and I, because of good luck, bird with some of the same people who are among the best birders in the world. “I enjoy being with Ted Parker,2 who has a very good ear. He’s excellent. So are the Rowletts [the brother and sister birders, John and Rose Ann], and Victor [Emanuel] has one bad ear, but his eyes are extremely good, quick, very fast in the field. One of my favorites here in New England, probably one of the best in the world, is Noble Proctor in Connecticut.”

And, toward the end, I asked him if he got out alone anymore, which at times can be the best way to bird.

“The only birding I do alone is incidental to getting my morning exercise. When I’m at home I don’t get much chance to do birding except very incidentally.”

“Like the red-breasted nuthatch?”

“Yes,” replied Roger Tory Peterson, “you can’t ignore birds.

1 The current North American Big Day record is 294 species seen and/or heard by a team in Texas on April 25, 2013. Here is a link to an article about that and other Big Day records: https://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/blog/2017/01/16/big-days-record-books/

2 Ted Parker died in 1993 at age 40, along with botanist Alwyn Gentry, in a plane crash in Ecuador while doing a Rapid Assessment survey for Conservation International. Their untimely deaths were a great loss to tropical ornithology, botany, and conservation.



Posted in Past Writings

Here’s to the flag


Today is Flag Day. It was established by an act of Congress in 1949 and set on June 14, the same day the Second Continental Congress adopted the flag as the symbol of the country in 1777.

If you feel so inclined, you can burn the flag. In 1989, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision in Texas v. Johnson upheld that burning the American flag is protected by the First Amendment, which safeguards freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly and petition. In response to this decision, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act of October 28,1989, and two days later, the plaintiff in the Texas case, Gregory Lee Johnson, joined Shawn Eichman, David Blalock, and Scott Tyler and burned three American flags on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. This incident led to a legal challenge of the constitutionality of the Flag Protection Act, which reached the Supreme Court in 1990. In that case, United States v. Eichman, a 5-4 majority of justices struck down the act as unconstitutional.

After the most recent presidential election, scattered protesters burned flags (for example, on the campuses of American University in Washington D.C. and Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and outside the Trump International Hotel and Tower in New York). In response and apparent amnesia about the protected status of flag burning, Trump tweeted on November 28, 2016: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag—if they do, there must be consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

Flag burning is just that—a truly incendiary act—which causes countless people to lose their powers of reasoning (forgetting, for instance, the difference between democracy and totalitarian government) and their understanding and appreciation for the bedrock principles of the First Amendment. This conundrum was not unanticipated by the Supreme Court. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted with the majority, wrote in his concurring opinion in Texas v. Johnson, “The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like. We make them because they are right, right in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result.”

There’s something worse about our treatment of the flag than setting it on fire. While folks get their shorts in a knot on the very rare occasions when someone burns a flag, there seems to be no controversy whatsoever about the widespread neglect of the American flag by public institutions, businesses, and private citizens. All these entities and individuals are overlooking the regulations regarding the proper display and use of the flag as spelled out in the National Flag Code (Title 4, United States Code, Chapter 1), legislation first passed by Congress as public law in 1942 and frequently amended, most recently on March 28, 2017 (P.L. 115-305, a modification to encourage the display of the U.S. flag on National Vietnam War Veterans Day, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/305).

My Mother was a stickler about observing proper care and respect for the flag. The things I remember her explaining to me and my sister – the flag should only fly during daylight hours, it should not be raised (or taken down) during inclement weather, it should be folded a certain way, it should be replaced when it becomes tattered or dingy – indeed come straight out of the National Flag Code (https://www.legion.org/flag/code).

Some other regulations: the flag should not be displayed on a float in a parade except from a staff, it should not be draped over a vehicle or used as a cover when unveiling a statue or monument, it should never touch the ground, floor, or water, it should not be used as wearing apparel, and when draped over a casket, the union should be at the head over the left shoulder. While the Flag Code states the flag should not be displayed during inclement weather (just like I was taught), it seems to fudge by stating it is OK “when an all weather flag is displayed” (which apparently is a flag made of nylon and which I personally think is a cop out). As for when to display the flag, the Flag Code states it is “the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset… However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.” I strongly suspect “patriotic effect” has really come to mean “laziness.”

Flags used to be mainly flown on government buildings and at public schools. Now they are ubiquitous on the landscape – outside fast-food franchises, shopping malls, bars and taverns, in people’s front yards, and those freakishly humongous ones flapping above big-box stores and car dealerships – and these flags are being universally neglected.

Channeling my dear, departed Mother, I have been galled about this situation for a number of years. It is particularly annoying in this era of hyper-patriotism, when it is easy to hoist a flag and even easier not to take proper care of it. In the last nine years, as my husband and I have driven twice a year across the country from Minnesota to northwestern Mexico, I have observed hundreds of mistreated flags in towns, cities, and rural settings, mostly in red states, but also in a few blue ones, like Minnesota. Tattered flags, flags turned dingy by car fumes in high-traffic areas, unlit flags flying at night, flags in the rain, snow, and sleet. There’s nothing quite so pathetic as a rain-soaked flag, whatever material it is made of, hanging from a staff like a wet dishrag.

One of the more recent tattered flags we saw on our travels – photographed on May 6, 2017 – was flying at the Bennett County American Legion Post 240 in Martin, South Dakota. It was frayed. It was not taken down at sundown. It was not properly lit. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it flies during the thunderstorms and blizzards that are so characteristic of South Dakota’s weather. I am not dissing the American Legion. In small towns all across the country, American Legion Posts are among the last bastions of community cohesion. And perhaps today the members of Post 240 are putting up a new flag, as is often the tradition among American Legions on Flag Day. If so, good for them; however, they still have a few other Flag Code violations they could remedy.

When a new flag is raised, on Flag Day or any other day, the old one must be properly discarded. In the National Flag Code, this is known as the Disposal of Unserviceable Flag Ceremony, which recommends that when a flag is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display it should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferable by burning.

For an account of the legal history of flag burning as a form of protest, see:(https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/a-history-of-the-flag-burning-controversy)



Posted in West Saari Road | 1 Comment

The hands die last

The hands die last intent on phantom tasks.

The wheel-chaired woman knits and purls away
her final days in wordless concentration.

Another beads her absent rosary.

The man an edifice of bones in bed
measures out his ghost white spread with ghost white fingers.
“How wide is it?” he asks.

What is he making—a sail, a robe?

Hands that first clutched a mother’s breast have come to this:
go off in tangents in the air weaving secret messages.

She hands me phantom stones or crumbs.
“Here take this.”
“Here take this.”

The hands die last.


Posted in The Occasional Poem

The Nafta Salad Formerly Known As Waldorf

Local lettuce and global products for the Nafta Salad Formerly Known As Waldorf

I was surfing the New York Times Cooking app, a frequent escape from current affairs, when the recipe for Waldorf salad drifted across the screen. I clicked on the photo and looked at the recipe. So simple—four ingredients. So American—well, except, as the recipe explains, it was created by a Swiss immigrant named Oscar Tschirky.

Later that day, when I started thinking about dinner, I decided to make the Waldorf. Even a salad as simple as this is complicated and involves a lot trading-agreement regulations, domestic and international labeling and tracking requirements, supply-chain steps, merchant-customer interactions, the occasional irrational purchase, customs rules interpretation or ignorance thereof, environmental compromise, and modes of transport, including the bike I ride around town when grocery shopping.

The lettuce grows in our backyard in Alamos, Sonora. We brought the seeds for the greens with us from Minnesota, having purchased them from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds based in Mansfield, Missouri, and Johnny’s Select Seeds in Winslow, Maine. I have yet to find a definitive explanation of Mexican customs restrictions on bringing in seeds for personal use.

The apple, the celery. I got on my bike and coasted about two minutes to my local abarrotes (neighborhood grocery), which is called DT-8. Day-tay-o-cho. I go there multiple times per week, sometimes twice a day. It is not locally sourced! Who cares! I don’t and neither do the other clients of DT-8. The flour tortillas are locally made and fresh daily. For the six months of the year we are in Minnesota I dearly miss the fresh flour tortillas at DT-8. All the flour tortillas I have encountered in the U.S. look and taste like the paste glue used by kindergarteners.

The apple in Mexico this time of year is a Red Delicious from Washington State. Like every piece of commercially grown produce, it has one of those annoying little plastic-coated, non-compostable, bar-coded stickers on it. Plastic infests every cranny of life. Washington is a huge producer of Red Delicious apples. In November 2016, the fresh crop was estimated at 137.4 million 40-pound boxes. That’s 5,496,000,000 pounds of apples. Last year was the second-best crop of Red Delicious in the state’s history. Fifty percent of the harvest was destined for global export. I bought two applies—12 ounces—one of which went in the salad. The Red Delicious is not a bad apple. Considering it’s long journey, it is remarkably firm and has an apple taste—not something you can say about industrial tomatoes. It sufficed. However, for the six months we are in Mexico I dearly miss the truly delicious apple varieties I buy in the fall in Minnesota.

From the refrigerator case, I grabbed a plastic bag of Mr. Lucky celery. I was lucky because DT-8 doesn’t always have celery. And talk about marketing savvy. Who can’t feel good about buying a product called Mr. Lucky? I buy quite a bit of Mr. Lucky produce while we are in Mexico, including its organic kale. The name may be English, but it is a wholly owned Mexican corporation with all its growers and distribution facilities in the state of Guanajuato. It produces a variety of lettuces, greens, and vegetables, primarily for the Mexico, U.S., and Canadian markets. Because people in Mexico pinch their pesos, most shoppers in my experience never buy a whole stalk of celery but rather pick off how many ribs they want placing the remainder back in the plastic sleeve. I have not adopted this custom. I always buy the whole bag. More plastic into my bike pannier. I try to reuse plastic bags but most ultimately go in our garbage. There is no recycling in Alamos. In recent years, the city has just figured out how to maintain a sanity sewage system.

I have been shopping for more than a decade at DT-8 and consequently have come to know the owner, Ebelia, in a casual merchant-customer way. She is a delightful, distinguished woman, and visiting with her is one of the great joys of living in a small Mexican town. She and her husband live next door to the store. Her sister and family live across the street. She is a devote Catholic. Her living children have gotten higher educations, married, and three have flung out of Alamos. One is in Provo, Utah, another in Amarillo, Texas, another in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora. A daughter still lives in Alamos. Another daughter died in her teens a number of years ago, I believe in an automobile accident. I do not ask. A photo of this daughter sits on a shelf by the cash register. “When old age shall this generation waste/Thou shalt remain…”

I had a jar of mayonnaise (mayonesa) in the refrigerator. I could make my own but seldom do. The brand is Best Foods. It is made in Tultitlán, a city in the state of Mexico, and is marketed for domestic distribution as well as export by Unilever de México, one of about 100 worldwide subsidiaries of the Anglo-Dutch mega-consumer-products conglomerate Unilever https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unilever. I am cynical about lofty corporate proclamations, but Unilever seems to understand the marketing value of being environmentally aware. In 2007, for instance, it enlisted Rainforest Alliance to begin sustainably sourcing all its teas; there have been criticisms of the effectiveness of the effort.

Unilever de México is tracking its parent company’s messaging. Check out this promotional video about its sustainability plan and efforts to reduce waste in the manufacturing and distribution processes. Basically the video equates waste to throwing money in the trash or down the drain. It’s pretty slick. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wU8hVFTxpc

I’m a little embarrassed about the salt. I used Pacific sea salt I bought from Penzeys Spices in Tucson. I was buying other spices that are not available in Mexico and kind of irrationally put the bag of salt in my basket. I admit I like Penzeys product presentation—the simple jars and bags, the graphics, the serif type. I know perfectly well that Sonoran salt is mined on the coastal flats in the nearby fishing town of Yavaros. It is a quite flavorful Sea of Cortez salt. I often take some back home to Minnesota.

The original Waldorf does not call for nuts, but I’m Texan and my husband’s Mississippian and we both grew up eating pecans. I throw pecans in lots of salads. For several years after we started coming to Sonora for extended periods in 2009, we brought 10-pound bags of Georgia or Texas or New Mexico pecans with us. And we paid a lot for them—$50 to $60 a pop as I recall. Around this same time, commercial pecan growers in the U.S. were pushing pecans in China. The Chinese got hooked on pecans (who can blame them?). This in turn drove up the price of U.S. pecans. In 2015, when China’s economy was stalling, pecan exports dropped off but have picked up again in 2017. But now a lot of those pecans going to China come from Mexico.

About a decade ago, we started noticing farmers in the Sonora River Valley were putting in pecan orchards. According to Fresh Plaza, an online source for global produce and banana news, Sonora’s pecan orchards have grown from 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) in 2006 to 13,000 hectares (32,123 acres) in 2015. Sonora is Mexico’s second-largest pecan producer (neighboring Chihuahua is first). And 80 percent of Sonora’s pecan crop goes to China. Fresh Plaza claims that the pecan harvest, which is done manually, employs 283,000 people in Sonora.

The other amazing news, at least to pecanophiles, is that for two consecutive years (2015 and 2016) Mexico has surpassed the United States, long the global pecan colossus, in the production of pecans. (This is according to Nature’s Finest Food, a marketer of tree nuts.) Pecans have been a great success story for Mexico. And a handful of those toasted pecans went in my Nafta Salad Formerly Known As Waldorf.

Web sources:







Posted in Mexico

Trump, Locovore-in-Chief

January 24, 2017

President Donald J. Trump
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Sir,

Well, I am trying to put a positive spin on the situation as you plow ahead to wreck our trading partnership with Mexico. And—bingo!—I realize your true intention is to promote the wonderful locovore movement in the United States.

It is still a nascent (that means “little-bitty”) movement and can certainly use a boost from you!

Grow local! Eat local!

Millions of people who will no longer be able to buy affordable produce in their grocery stores imported from Mexico will at last start growing their own food! Like some of us already do! This is fantastic! Thank you Mr. Trump!

I will warn you, however, that Americans—quite a few who voted for you—do love their avocados, which mainly come from Mexico. You will stop that of course. No more of those bad, bad, hugely bad avocados from Mexico. But be prepared: Americans might rise up in protest if they can’t get their guacamole! And you will want to be prepared to claim that the crowds who go out to protest your ban on avocados are much smaller than the millions who came to your inauguration!

Our tiny, hugely tiny farmers market in northern Minnesota, in the town of Tower (pop. 500), will certainly benefit from increased customer traffic after NAFTA is dismantled. People might even buy stuff they used to think was weird—like our leeks, okra, garlic scapes, and kale—so desperate will they be for vegetables. I can foresee a burgeoning of farmers markets all across America. And you can take the credit for all the jobs it will create!

Best thing of all—this is a fantastic opportunity for your family. You all can start composting! Mrs. Trump can expand the vegetable garden at the White House started by Mrs. Obama! Maybe the White House will open a farmers market for the people of Washington D.C.! With global climate change, you may soon be able to plant an avocado tree there on Pennsylvania Avenue. Then you can start trading with your neighbors!


Suzanne Winckler

Posted in Mexico | 1 Comment

No one is noticing

No one is noticing.
You cooked dinner. You are exhausted.
You can’t find the top to the cumin spice.
You are fleeing your country.
You saw a beautiful bird.
You will not be on the nightly news.
You will fall into bed.
That is my best wish for you and me.
The day will dawn.
There will be dishes to wash.
Water or fire wood to gather.
There will be music.
And dancing.
No one will notice.

Posted in The Occasional Poem | 1 Comment


Two avocados, which I purchased in Alamos, Sonora, on November 26, 2016.

Two avocados, which I purchased in Alamos, Sonora, on November 26, 2016.

“See you bought some Monarch-killers,” my husband said as I pulled two avocados out of my grocery bag.

“Yes, I did,” I replied.

We had both read the recent article in The New York Times about encroaching avocado orchards threatening the winter grounds of Monarch butterflies. (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/world/americas/ambition-of-avocado-imperils-monarch-butterflies-winter-home.html?_r=0)

I bought the avocados to take their photograph, to try to determine if the stickers on them really explained their provenance*, and as a personal test to see if they are the last avocados I buy. Probably not. I’ve gotten over making sanctimonious pronouncements about my choices vis-à-vis environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, and global climate change. I’ve found I am not very good at keeping these kinds of promises. But even if they are my last avocados, what will I do the next time a host offers me some guacamole at a party? Lecture him or her on the threat to Monarch butterflies in the Mexican state of Michoacán because of U.S. consumers’ voracious appetite for avocados? Probably not.

In December, I did make a painfully unsuccessful effort to take a stand on the avocado issue. As the compiler of the Reserva Monte Mojino Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which attracts 30 plus birders from the U.S. and Mexico, I made the executive decision to not include avocados on the menus of the dozen meals we prepared for teams encamped at different locations in the Sierra Madre. To not have avocados as part of a breakfast, lunch, or dinner in Sonora (indeed, anywhere in Mexico) is a radical move. At our last breakfast, I pointed out to the group that we had excluded avocados from the Christmas count menus as an acknowledgement of their threat to Monarch butterfly’s wintering ground. No applause! No high-fives! No right-ons! Basically I just bummed out my friends.

I can see it will take someone more charismatic than me to start a bi-national movement to boycott avocados.

Monarchs may be getting all the media attention, but avocado cultivation is slamming much more than the butterfly. I started getting a sinking feeling about buying and eating avocados after my husband and I went on a birding trip in Colima and Jalisco in 2014. These two states in western Mexico (together, about the size of Maine) are particularly rich in bird life (400 species, including 40 Mexican endemic) in large part because of the Central Volcanic Belt of high mountains that creates a coast-to-coast barrier restricting avian gene flow. These and neighboring states are also the wintering grounds for many North American songbirds, including numerous warbler species that nest in the boreal forests where we live in northern Minnesota. What happens to forests in Mexico impacts the birds I see out my kitchen window.

The Central Volcanic Belt is a rugged, gorgeous landscape dominated by two majestic peaks—Volcán de Nieve and the still dramatically active Volcán de Fuego. We camped and birded on Volcán de Fuego for a couple of days. To reach the forest we drove through orchard after orchard of avocados ominously marching up the slopes with new fields being cleared for more. There is nothing like seeing exactly where your food comes from. The equation is simple: more guacamole = less forest.

According to Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum, American consumers are gobbling up more avocados every year, with per-capita consumption growing from two pounds per person in 2001 to seven pounds per person in 2016. (Source: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/06/usda-avocado-consumption-has-skyrocketed-21st-century). This surge pretty much tracks the shift in U.S. trade policy regarding the importation of Mexican avocados. Here is the timeline:

1914: U.S. prohibits importation of Mexican avocados on grounds that the fruits are infested by agricultural pests.

1997: U.S. allows avocados from Michoacán to be imported to 13 states and gradually lifts barriers in the next decade (much to the chagrin of California avocado producers).

2005: U.S. allows importation of all Mexican avocados to every state except California, Hawaii, and Florida.

2007: U.S. avocado market completely opens up, allowing importation to California, Hawaii, and Florida.

Source: http://www.sddt.com/News/article.cfm?SourceCode=20070202fbq#.WGv6_8tHahA

And the forests in western Mexico started falling. Here is a 2010 summary from the web site Geo-Mexico, the Geography and Dynamics of Modern Mexico: “This extraordinarily rapid increase in land area devoted to avocados, known locally as ‘green gold,’ has come at the expense of natural forest. The rate of deforestation has prompted environmentalists to demand that state and federal environmental authorities regulate further land clearance. Environmental agencies have now agreed that is essential to regulate deforestation for avocado production in order to avoid further environmental damage.” (http://geo-mexico.com/?p=2302)

Hmm, the Monarch’s current situation would imply overly optimistic expectations by the writers of Geo-Mexico.

As of January 3, 2017, the day of my posting this piece, I have not purchased an avocado in 38 days. I have nibbled on a few slices at restaurants. But the joy of guacamole is gone, at least for now. The avocado has become my current nemesis, the dark, warty fist punching me in the gut. Not just because of Monarchs and birds. The avocado is a messenger about the bliss of ignorance, the consequences of choice, eco-despair and eco-guilt, and the blunt force of global markets in altering—obliterating—the natural world around us. You can exchange the word avocado for countless other food items and material goods and the personal choices we make in their regard—red meat, fossil fuel, fish from the sea, water from the faucet, electricity flowing from a socket, the size and number of homes one owns, components in computers and other electronic devices, the unbelievable amount of stuff made of plastic.

I am not such a dark and despairing person as this post might imply. On Day 3 of 2017, I am now going to go watch birds bathing in our backyard water trough, because nothing is quite so hilarious and joyous to behold as birds taking baths.


*The stickers only referenced the wholesale supplier, not where the avocados I bought were grown. One sticker says Frutilandia, SON. MX and the other sticker reads Producto de Mexico, Sanchez Aguacates Hass, with a website URL and telephone number. I must say, I do love the term Frutilandia!




Posted in Conservation