In The Bald Eagle (Liveright, Mar.), Davis examines the natural and cultural histories of America’s unofficial national bird.
What inspired this book?
Environmental books tend to tell grim stories. That’s understandable. But I think dire and apocalyptic narratives are overwhelming readers and the general public, even repulsing them. I wanted to change the tone, and leave readers feeling uplifted. Much of the bald eagle’s history with America is unpleasant and heartbreaking, but Americans redeemed themselves in their relationship with the bird and helped write a story that can be a model for other successes.
How did the finished book differ from your original conception?
I tend to start with very loose and general outlines, because I prefer to have the history show me how it wants to be written, as fiction writers like to have their characters show them the way through the plot. I also like to have surprises pop up as I’m writing. The wholesale assault perpetrated by the American people against the species in the 19th century and the early reluctance of the leadership in National Audubon to oppose the bloodshed were such surprises.
Is it surprising that a bird became America’s national symbol?
Indigenous peoples across North America had for thousands of years revered the bald eagle and golden eagle, so to choose a bird as a national symbol was not unusual. And I appreciate your term “national symbol” rather than “national bird.” What most Americans don’t realize is that no president or Congress has ever confirmed any avian species as our national bird, not as a federal law confirmed the bison as national mammal in 2016. The bald eagle’s appearance on the Great Seal is not a recognition of national bird status any more than the existence of the pyramid on the back of the seal makes it our national building.
What can those concerned with conservation take away from the bald eagle’s history?
That Americans have the capacity to correct mistakes of the past and that when we live agreeably with nature, we live agreeably with ourselves. When the bald eagle flies freely, we fly freely. The bald eagle’s habitat is our habitat. When its quality of life is good, so is ours. It has agreed to live beside us, and we have shown that we can, and want to, live with it. It’s hard to believe we are not better for it. Those are lessons to take with us when we confront mounting environmental challenges in the decades ahead—nature takes better care of us when we respect its integrity.