Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre, by Tim Gallagher, is an account of the author’s travels through the Sierra Madre mountain range in Mexico in search of the imperial woodpecker. Presumed extinct since the 1950s, the imperial woodpecker–the largest of its species in the world!–is a close cousin of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which Gallagher claimed to have encountered with a birding team in Arkansas. This book represents one of his many in-depth searches for a rare, possibly extinct bird.
I’m a birder (though not on Gallagher’s level), and in addition to having birded in some cool places, I’ve also been lucky enough to have traveled throughout Mexico as a result of my father’s family still living there. So really, this book seemed as though it was tailor-written for me!
I had a very difficult time connecting with this book–and I truly enjoy travel writing! (Redmond O’Hanlon and Bill Bryson, for example, are two authors whose travel books are hilarious and heart-warming and frightening by turns.) It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Imperial Dreams failed for me, but something about Gallagher’s narrative voice felt disengaging. Humor was rarely attempted and fell flat. There was a lot of emphasis placed on what they ate (which never seemed to diverge too far from eggs, peppers, beans, and tortillas–completely fine, but why mention it each time, then?). Sometimes the writing felt like more of an itinerary than a piece of travel writing, due to the amount of back-and-forth travel going on as the group chased rumors and tried to avoid areas of drug cultivation and violence.
Perhaps it is because their search ends, sadly but probably predictably, in failure. They never see nor hear any sign of an imperial woodpecker, despite their many encounters with residents of the area who recall seeing the birds in the past. Gallagher also gets hurt, even blacking out on a mountain trail at one point, and that slows his journey immensely, causing them to cut short their explorations.
It’s much harder to write about a journey that ends without that satisfying moment, and so I’m sympathetic to the task that Gallagher undertook here.
The story itself was, by all rights, interesting. Gallagher weaves the natural and human histories of place into his narrative, giving us a tour of a harsh land that nonetheless supports farmers and ranchers. He displays a good understanding of the Mexican illegal drug economy and didn’t seem to sensationalize it–this was truly a very dangerous undertaking, and it is not romanticized, which I appreciated. The landscapes sound beautiful, and the people that they do meet–from landholding Mormon families to Mexican biologists to poverty-stricken campesinos–are uniformly friendly, generous, and helpful. If anything, the book just made me want to explore the areas of Mexico that I haven’t visited yet.
I would be remiss, though, if I did not also mention that Gallagher does not give enough weight to those who challenged the Cornell team’s previous ivory-billed woodpecker sighting. (Gallagher’s previous book, The Grail Bird, focuses on the hunt and “discovery” of another large, rare woodpecker.) In Imperial Dreams, he sneeringly calls doubters “naysayers,” but does not describe for the reader at all who these naysayers are, or how they backed up their claims that the ivory-bill is, in fact, extinct. This presents a very one-sided account, and could easily lead to a reader assuming he really and unquestionably had re-discovered living ivory-billed woodpeckers.
But. David Sibley (yes, that David Sibley) and Kenn Kaufman (yes, that Kenn Kaufaman)–both widely renowned ornithologists, professional birders, field guide authors/illustrators, and conservationists–publicly cast doubt on Gallagher’s ivory-bill sighting. Sibley even tracked through the same Arkansas marches where the sighting took place, and was unable to find any signs of an ivory-bill.
I don’t think Gallagher is lying at all, and I don’t think his rare-bird searches were about recognition or fame. (You don’t go into ornithology for the money, that’s for sure.) He’s clearly a passionate birder, and you don’t get to work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology without knowing your stuff; the book proves that he is adept at research and birding. I just think that perhaps wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true. It’s easy to make misidentifications in the field–even more so if there’s a rare bird that is constantly on your mind, and it behooves him to be straightforward about his previous experiences.
With all of this backstory nagging at me, I realized that it was going to be a struggle for me to try to enjoy the book on its own merits; then, when the journey fizzled and the writing dried, the struggle became nearly impossible . For those of you who don’t care quite as much about current controversies in the birding world, and simply want a tale about exploring Mexico in search of a dream, Imperials Dreams might be a nice read.
Imperial Dreams will be available for purchase on April 16, 2013. I received a free copy from publisher Atria Books through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Bookwanderer Rating: Three out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “Virginia nodded as we asked her about the birds and described them accurately as “pinto” (black and white) and said that the black on their plumage had a bluish sheen at times if the light struck it a certain way. But she answered most of out questions with the same refrain: ‘That was long ago, and now they are gone.'”