University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Buzzard Heads and Feather Beds

Feathers book
photograph by Sally McCay


Buzzard heads and feather beds

One winter night in Maine, about fifteen years ago, the temperature dropped to seventeen degrees below zero. Thor Hanson g’00, then a master’s student in UVM’s Field Naturalist Program, accidentally dropped a can of Budweiser in the snow. The beer froze solid before it could all drain from the can. But Hanson, a rather slender fellow, clambered into his tent, got into his sleeping bag, and felt warm.

It was the down—tiny goose feathers—in his sleeping bag that prevented him from suffering a fate similar to the beer. Amazing feathers.

On that cold night (one of many in Bernd Heinrich’s famed winter ecology course), Thor Hanson wondered about another feathered creature also sleeping nearby: the golden-crowned kinglet. This bird weighs five grams, “about the same as a nickel or teaspoon of salt,” Hanson writes in his book, Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle.

High over his head, in the crook of a fir branch, the kinglet kept its body about 120 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the surrounding air. Without the uncanny microstructure of feathers—the most insulating material in the world—the bird would have died in a few breaths. Amazing feathers.

This is just one of dozens of feather-fascinated, perspective-altering stories that led Hanson’s book to be selected as this year’s winner of the John Burroughs Medal. Given in the past to such luminaries as Rachel Carson and Barry Lopez, it is considered the highest award for American nature writing.

Hanson credits UVM’s Field Naturalist Program, and teachers like Heinrich, for helping to shape this book. “This could have easily been a narrow ornithological textbook,” Hanson says, “and yet it’s the broad perspective that is encouraged in the FN program that allows this book to be something that touches on everything from fashion to golf history.”

Glued together intellectually by a fascination with the intricacies of evolution, the narrative in Feathers caroms back and forth over what Hanson describes as “the imaginary but very significant boundary we put between the natural world and the human world.” We can’t make feathers, which may be why we love them, collect them.

“Every culture and every home has feathers in it somewhere,” says Hanson, “and we use these for so many purposes. You start asking: why? And then you realize that the answers are the very same answers for why these things are so successful in nature,”—like supreme aerodynamics, unbeatable insulation, glittering beauty, perfect camouflage, the freedom of flight.

For this book, Hanson reports from a dusty plain in Kenya where he watches vultures, with their featherless heads, dipping into the rotting carcass of a zebra; from sober shrines to natural history, including Yale’s Peabody Museum—but also from Las Vegas, where he tours the supply house of showgirls: the Rainbow Feather Company.

Flying dinosaurs, quill pens, outrageous ostrich-plume hats, the myth of Icarus (who donned feathers and flew too close to the sun), the feather money of Santa Cruz Island, pillows at the Pacific Coast Feather Company, and electron microscope images of water droplets on the barbs of a pigeon—Hanson’s book travels gleefully on a headlong pursuit of the origin, meaning and uses of feathers for birds and people. It even tells why flamingos are pink.

Nope, we’re not going to tell you. You’ll have to read it to find out.

Joshua Brown


Straits & Narrows
Persea Books 
Sidney Wade ‘74 M.Ed. ‘78
Slate calls alumna Sidney Wade’s imagination “as powerful as any American poet’s since Wallace Stevens.” Her sixth collection, Straits & Narrows, offers a series of “luminous” poems, many set lakeside, that with an economy of words manage to simultaneously contemplate wild raspberries, longing and regret, for example. A past Fulbright Fellow at Istanbul University, Wade has also published translations of poems by Melih Cevdet Anday, Yahya Kemal, and other Turkish poets. Professor of English at the University of Florida, her poetry and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, and elsewhere.

The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message
Abingdon Press
Rebekah Simon-Peter ’83
Rev. Rebekah Simon-Peter’s new book contributes to interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians. “Jesus was Jewish—through and through,” Simon-Peter says. “Why is that important? I believe how we see, name, and claim Jesus has everything to do with how we see, name, and claim each other.” An ordained United Methodist pastor, the UVM alumna with a degree in environmental studies came to the ministry only after work as an acid rain researcher and volunteer naturalist. The Jew Named Jesus is her third book, following two other publications that make a case for the urgent need to practice faith-based environmental stewardship. Learn more about her work:

Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing
Louis Vivanco
One might expect an exercise and movement science professor to write a book about bicycling, but what does an anthropologist have to contribute on the subject? In this book, Louis Vivanco, associate professor of anthropology and director of Global and Regional Studies, examines bike culture, considering the effect of the bicycle on the way humans experience the world and interact with each other. Part of Routledge’s Creative Teaching and Learning in Anthropology Series, the book serves as an example of how ethnographic and anthropological research methods can be employed in the study of a wide variety of human activity, including transportation.

Canoe Indians of Down East Maine
The History Press
William Haviland
Founder of UVM’s Anthropology Department, Professor Emeritus William Haviland continues his research and writing in his retirement. Now a resident of Maine’s Deer Isle, Haviland tells the story of the natives of the Down East coast and how they have maintained their way of life over the past four hundred years since the French arrived. During that time, they’ve faced hardships from disease—the “Great Dying” killed as much as 90 percent of coastal populations—to discrimination, yet they’ve persisted, never leaving Ketakamigwa, their homeland.

Love Reports to Spring Training
Turning Point Books
Linda Kittell ‘74
If baseball and poetry seem like an unlikely match, alumna Linda Kittell’s latest collection may convince you otherwise. The storied sport—and one pitcher in particular—are the subject of forty poems of varying form by Kittell, a twenty-seven-year teacher of creative writing, research writing about sports, and mythology at Washington State University. Nostalgia and love of the game shine through as Kittell tells the story of a career and of a relationship.

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