Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996)

A tribute to the author of the Peterson Field Guide

  • Les Line
  • Oct 01, 1996
"What if there had been no Roger Tory Peterson?" The issue was raised not long 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 on July 28, 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 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 butterflies and beetles, treefrogs 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 spe-cies' 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 7 million 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 two years ago 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." Though he suffered a mild stroke last winter, Peterson prior to his death was still working two or three hours a day on drawings for the latest revision.

The field guides, however, were only the best known of Peterson's achievements. For years, he served as art director of NWF's conservation stamp program and, long before nature TV shows were prevalent, he traveled the country on National Audubon Society's film lecture circuit.

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 two 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.

This tribute was written by Les Line, editor of Audubon magazine from 1966 to 1991.

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