Book City: A bird in the hand is the perfect book subject

Tony Angell is an award-winning author, illustrator and naturalist. He can't get enough of birds or the books written about them.
Crosscut archive image.

Tony Angell

Tony Angell is an award-winning author, illustrator and naturalist. He can't get enough of birds or the books written about them.

Tony Angell is a sculptor, naturalist, author, illustrator and environmental educator. For thirty years, he was the Supervisor of Environmental Education for our state. He’s won several Washington State Book Awards and the Victoria and Albert grand prize for his illustrations. Angell shows his lithographs, drawings and sculptures at the Foster/White Gallery and many are in private and museum collections around the country and in Europe. He maintains working studios at his home in Lake Forest Park, and on Lopez Island. Angell’s latest book, co-authored with John Marzluff, is “The Gifts of the Crow.”

Valerie Easton: What book is open on your nightstand?

Tony Angell: “Feathers,” by biologist Thor Hanson. Through my work with birds I’ve been immersed in feathers, but this book made me appreciate them more. It’s about how feathers have evolved and their diverse importance to our past and present lives.
Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

I find myself recommending books I’m re-reading. Francis Herrick’s “Audubon the Naturalist” is about the artist’s wild and fascinating places and times, and the Herculean effort that went into publishing his “Birds of America.” Also the “Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini,” the Renaissance gold smith and sculptor, who lived through turbulent and creative times. The narrative is rambunctious.

Any more current books?

“Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History” by Robert Hughes,  David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey” and Ivan Doig’s “The Bartender’s Tale.” Doig has a unique way of turning a phrase, whether about character or landscape.

If you could assign us all a couple of nature/conservation books to read, what might they be?

Art Kruckeberg’s “The Natural History of Puget Sound Country” and Eugene Kozloff’s “Seashore Life of Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia, and the San Juan Archipelago” are excellent primers for understanding the diversity and complexity of our living world. “Pacific Seashores” by Thomas Carefoot is a fine book on the basic ecology of our Greater Puget Sound and Salish Sea.

Is there a natural history book or two that have changed how you see the world?

“The Forest and the Sea” by Marston Bates and “Silent Spring” by Rachael Carson both influenced my thinking. The many books by Paul and Anne Ehrlich have influenced my understanding of how natural systems function. E.O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology” is controversial, but I find it intriguing.

You study, sculpt and draw birds, especially crows…what is it about the avian world that so captures you?

As my good friend and artist Fen Lansdowne once said; “They can fly and we cannot.” Each of our gravity-laden steps seems defined by what birds can do. But it’s more profound than this. Crows and ravens’ remarkable behavior is not unlike our own; it’s been finely tuned over a long history of co-evolving with people. Over hundreds of thousands of years these birds have learned to exploit human enterprises and activities to their advantage. Because of their association with us, evolution has selected for smart and insightful birds.

What book or two would you recommend to a new Northwest birder?

I’m not a birder, I’m a naturalist interested in the whole fabric of the landscape. I’ve found the “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America” convenient to take along for easy reference. It’s not just about plumage, but about the heart and soul of the birds; it shows their personalities.

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name one that influenced you?

As a kid I spent every minute outside prowling about the tributaries of the Los Angeles River, collecting this and that. When I took a taxidermy class by correspondence at age nine or ten, I discovered the great benefits of understanding the written word. The class cost $10 for 10 lessons, and by your final lesson you could prepare a buffalo if you’d really leaned into the lessons. I stuck with small mammals.

By twelve I was keeping hawks and owls in my home. In middle school, I picked up a library book, “Rufous Redtail” by Helen Garrett, illustrated by Francis Lee Jaques. I found fundamental principals of science conveyed in a romantic accounting of a young hawk’s life. The black and white drawings were bold and accurate, increasing many times over how dramatic and informative the story was. That children’s book set into motion my future direction as a writer and artist.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to?

Thoreau’s description of his life at Walden is a powerful reminder of the source of my work and my motivation to pursue it: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

Zoologist Marston Bates once responded to the dismissively toned question, “What good is a mosquito?” by suggesting the questioner wonder what good he himself was in the larger ecological context. The description of that exchange has always made me ponder matters related to our place on the planet.

Have you read a well-reviewed or popular book lately that didn’t live up to the hype?

"The Highest Tide" by Jim Lynch came highly recommended. I read it hoping for fresh information about the breadth and depth of Puget Sound biology. Turns out it’s a novel, and I found a few inaccuracies about species I know well in these waters. Perhaps I put the book aside because of my own expectations more than because of the story itself.

When and where do you settle down to read? To write?

Here in Seattle, I like to write in longhand, sitting at a desk my grandfather made for my father when he and my mother were married. I imagine connecting with the familial spirits when doing so. My studio on Lopez Island is an ideal retreat. No phone, and well off a main road… I can get a lot of work done with no interruption.

What book do you plan to read next?

“A Glorious Enterprise,” which is about the making of the Academy of Natural Sciences, written by a good friend of mine, Robert Peck, along with Patricia Tyson Stroud.

Are you working on a new book?

I have a book in the works with Yale University Press. It’s about the empathy that can exist between humans and owls. The title is “The House of Owls;” I already have a hundred drawings ready for it.

What Val’s Reading This Week: In the new novel “Frances and Bernard” by Carlene Bauer, a romance between two young writers unfolds in an exchange of letters that both reveal and conceal. It’s beautifully written, surprisingly suspenseful and a reminder of the rhythm of life and letters in the pre-email age.

What are you reading? Share thoughts and suggestions of books that drive you crazy, keep you up at night and change the way you look at the world in the comments section.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.