There are many things I admire about my mother, who turned 85 last month. Among them is her insatiable curiosity about the world around her, and her desire to be learning new things on a daily basis. When I stopped by her place the other day, she related how she’d recently gone to a concert that featured a Bach cantata, written in 3/8 time, for solo bass voice. That had sparked a memory of a particular chapter in a book that she owns written by Franz Welser-Möst, the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. The book, which is in German, was on the kitchen counter, and she’d been in the midst of translating passages that addressed the interpretation and performance of 3/8 time in works by Bach.
Every visit to my mother’s concludes with her passing on to me a handled paper bag brimming with reading material that’s struck her fancy: sections of the Wall Street Journal, issues of various and sundry health and nutrition newsletters, articles from the University of Wisconsin or Brown University alumni magazines, concert programs, etc. Very often I find the items spangled with fluorescent Post-It Notes exclaiming “Save for Jeanne!”, or filled with marginal scribblings like “Interesting!” or “Thoughts?”
My recent visit was no exception in this regard. The stash included, among other things, an item she’d clipped out of a recent issue of National Geographic. It was an ad for two books of photography by Joel Sartore, who has set out to photograph every animal species in captivity, a project he calls the Photo Ark. As of today, he’s documented 7,885 of an expected final total of around 12,000. One of the books, published last March, is called The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals; the other, just published, is called Birds of the Photo Ark, and the cover photo immediately seized my attention: “What IS that?”
It courts hyperbole to say that this is one of the most spectacularly beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen, but there it is. I had to know what kind of bird this was, with its vivid rainbow of colors and shimmering crest that looks like a tuft of vegetation.
My first stop was Amazon.com, where I consulted its “Look Inside” feature to see if I could find an “About The Cover” blurb in the front matter pages. No luck. So I went to the actual Photo Ark website, with its 25,616 images, filtered for ‘bird’ + ‘color’ + ‘closeup’ + ‘black background’ and then patiently made my way through the resulting 46 pages of avian fabulousness. The fact that the Himalayan monal pheasant didn’t turn up until page 40 or 41 was a good thing, because it afforded me the opportunity to see so many other eye-popping specimens. Here are two favorites:
Sartore was inspired to begin the Photo Ark project after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, an experience that, he said, gave him a new perspective on the fragility of life. “How can I get people to care that we could lose half of all species by the turn of the next century? Perhaps a series of portraits, made as simply and cleanly as possible, would give us all a chance to look animals directly in the eye and see that there’s beauty, grace, and intelligence in the other creatures we share the planet with.”
I’m certainly happy to know about the project, and am grateful to my mother for steering me in its direction.
Trivia tidbit: Among the many fun facts gleaned on this ornithological odyssey is the fact that lyrebirds are insanely capable mimics, not only of other birds, but camera shutters, car alarms and chainsaws.