He Transformed Us into a World of Watchers

Conservation Hall of Fame® Inductee: Roger Tory Peterson

02-01-2002 // Les Line

"WHAT IF THERE had been no Roger Tory Peterson?" The issue was raised a few years ago by S. Dillon Ripley, secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, in the foreword to a handsome book celebrating Peterson's art and photography. "This question," Ripley wrote, "brings to mind imponderables such as whether we would all still be struggling to identify birds using unwieldy tomes, or whether birds would have become the best-known animals in the world. Peterson entered a world in which identification and study of birds was the exclusive realm of the specialist with a shotgun, and he transformed us into a world of watchers."

He transformed us into a world of watchers. I can't conceive of a more fitting epitaph to the life of an extraordinary man, who died in his Connecticut home in 1996, a few weeks short of his eighty-eighth birthday.

Because of Peterson, we became watchers not just of birds, his greatest love. Through the magic of The Peterson Field Guide Series, which grew to more than 30 volumes under his editorship, we became watchers--and, more importantly, protectors--of almost every form of life on our planet. There was an American conservation movement before him, of course, but its strength came from the community of sportsmen, which was concerned primarily with game species. The Peterson guides created a powerful constituency not only for woodpeckers and warblers but also for butterflies and beetles, tree frogs and turtles, shiners and sea anemones, oaks and orchids.

The Peterson era began in 1934 with A Field Guide to the Birds, a thin little book no one wanted to publish until the Houghton Mifflin Company gambled, in the endless dusk of the Depression, on a printing of 2,000 copies. Illustrated with Peterson drawings and billed on the dust jacket as "a bird book on a new plan" (the plan being the use of arrows on the drawings to call attention to a species' distinguishing characteristics), the first edition, which covered birds found east of the Rocky Mountains, sold out in a couple of weeks. (Subsequent revisions by Peterson, together with a later guide to western birds, have sold millions of copies.)

"I shudder every time I look at that first edition," Peterson said years later. "The drawings are horrible--crowded, hunched-up little figures. I spent a full year revising the guide after the war, but I was never really satisfied." In 1980, an all-new fourth edition of the flagship eastern guide was published. It was the book, he said at the time, by which he wanted to be remembered. But this sensitive and competitive man was wounded by two or three hostile reviewers, and in 1994, when I spent an afternoon in his studio, he was busy painting new plates--many of them to satisfy those critics--for yet another revision. I asked him why he didn't rest on his well-deserved laurels. He said, "Laurels are something you have to defend."

The field guides, however, were only the best known of Peterson's achievements. Among other things, he also served as art director of NWF's conservation stamp program.

Most of all, though, Roger Tory Peterson wanted to be appreciated as a fine artist rather than one who drew what he called "decoylike" illustrations. In the 1970s, he produced a number of stunning paintings that, I believe, equal the best works of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, his early influence. But then he became trapped by demands for bird-guide plates. I asked him that day eight years ago if the new eastern field guide would be his last. "I hope so," he said. "I want to get back to more interpretive painting." For Peterson, however, there was not enough time.

The NWF Conservation Hall of Fame was established in 1963 to honor people who have made major contributions to protecting natural resources and the environment. Roger Tory Peterson, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this March, will join the 26 conservationists who were previously honored. New York writer Les Line is a field editor of this magazine.

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