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The Green Life: More Than Flight: A Conversation With Thor Hanson

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June 14, 2011

More Than Flight: A Conversation With Thor Hanson

Ostrich feathers We sat down with Thor Hanson, author of Feathers: the Evolution of a Natural Miracle, a first-person natural-history book filled with anecdotes (like how he went mutton-birding in Australia) and startling characters (including Frightful, the skydiving falcon), to discuss birds, showgirls, and why scientists should write. 

Q: Why feathers?

A: What’s so neat about feathers is the diversity of structure and function — and to see the ways humans have co-opted them. They’re making feathers into biodiesel and they’re making feathers into absorbent fibers you can use in baby diapers.

Q: You divide the book into four sections, "Evolution," "Flight," "Fluff," and "Fancy." What’s your favorite "fancy" feather?

A: For the moment I’m going to choose ostrich plumes. Because ostriches don’t fly, they don’t need to have an asymmetrical wing shape to wrap around the air. They were a symbol of justice to Egyptians because of the equal division of their barbs. The most valuable cargo on the Titanic when it went down were ostrich plumes.

And this is actually the 100th anniversary of one of history’s most unlikely adventures, the trans-Saharan ostrich expedition. There was this almost mythical bird in the fashion trade, the Barbary ostrich. No one knew where it was, and the South African government launched a secret expedition. They went up to the border of what was then British Nigeria and learned that these ostriches were all coming out of French West Africa. They were able to find 150 of these birds, herd them back, and build special railroad cars and a pen on the steamship to bring them 3,000 miles to Capetown, all in secret. The French didn’t realize that they had the ostrich but they knew that whatever the South Africans were up to they didn’t want them to get.

Q: The remarkable thing about your book its breadth. It covers not only feathers but natural history, current events, technology, and personal narrative. Would you have considered writing something that didn’t straddle all these worlds?

A: I’m a biologist. I came out of the evolution side of it. But perhaps the most surprising thing for me is the breadth and depth of this cultural aspect of feathers, which has just been fascinating. If you start following one of these threads, it grabs from a range of disciplines including history, including the history of fashion. To treat the subject fairly, it had to be a broad approach.

Q: Most of the research wasn’t done from your laptop.

A: I certainly did a lot of reading but I also talked to people. This is the first time that I’ve travelled to Las Vegas on a research trip to interview showgirls about their feathered costumes.

Q: What did the showgirls say?

A: It’s interesting — whether it’s showgirls, costume designers, or a scientist who identifies feather remains, people who work with feathers have a real affection for them. You can see it in the way they handle them. The showgirls were affectionate toward them, they had names for them. The "asparagus hat" had a big green plume on it.

Q: Twenty years ago, did you ever see yourself writing a book about feathers?

A: I’ve always been interested in writing. I think scientists need to become better storytellers. There are so many fascinating ideas and discoveries that never make it beyond the very limited audience of peer review and scientific publications. If you’re a conservation biologist, you want people to care about the natural world, but how can you expect people to care about something they don’t even know about? For the first time, more than half of the human species lives in cities. So I think there is a great role for writing and other forms of communication to help keep the connection to natural world.

Q: How might a city-dweller see a feather in a new way?

A: You could find a pigeon feather lying around, take a look at it closely. Find a little hand lens. You can pull apart the barbs and then sow it back up again, just with your finger. You could also watch a pigeon fly. Take a camera and just capture just a tiny instant. And instead of turning away, as we commonly do, compare a pigeon’s flight to an airplane’s flight. Think about the complexity of what the pigeon is doing unconsciously in manipulating its wings. They take turns that would make a fighter-jet pilot pass out.

--interview by Juliana Hanle

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