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Binocular Vision

The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides

Spencer Schaffner

Publication Year: 2011

From meadows to marshlands, seashores to suburbs, field guides help us identify many of the things we find outdoors: plants, insects, mammals, birds. In these texts, nature is typically represented, both in words and images, as ordered, clean, and untouched by human technology and development. This preoccupation with species identification, however, has produced an increasingly narrow view of nature, a “binocular vision,” that separates the study of individual elements from a range of larger, interconnected environmental issues. In this book, Spencer Schaffner reconsiders this approach to nature study by focusing on how birds are presented in field guides. Starting with popular books from the late nineteenth century and moving ultimately to the electronic guides of the current day, Binocular Vision contextualizes birdwatching field guides historically, culturally, and in terms of a wide range of important environmental issues. Schaffner questions the assumptions found in field guides to tease out their ideological workings. He argues that the sanitized world represented in these guides misleads readers by omitting industrial landscapes and so-called nuisance birds, leaving users of the guides disconnected from environmental degradation and its impact on bird populations. By putting field guides into direct conversation with concerns about species conservation, environmental management, the human alteration of the environment, and the problem of toxic pollution, Binocular Vision is a field guide to field guides that takes a novel perspective on how we think about and interact with the world around us.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

This book could not have been written without the support of family, friends, colleagues, and institutions. I am particularly thankful for the support from my friends and colleagues in the English department and Center for Writing Studies at the...

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pp. 1-13

Field guides are enchanting, visual texts. With brilliant illustrations, careful design, and terse scientific descriptions, field guides help answer a fundamental question: What am I looking at? With the help of a field guide, an unknown tree can become a Sugar Maple...

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Chapter 1. Field Guides and the New Hobby of Birdwatching

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pp. 14-50

In the 1880s and ’90s, someone interested in reading about the birds of New England would have been able to cobble together an array of resources and learn a good deal. There were two comprehensive ornithological manuals in print at the time: Elliot...

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Chapter 2. Nuisance Birds, Field Guides, and Environmental Management

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pp. 51-82

The Bald Eagle is currently known as a patriotic symbol within the United States, but the bird was once despised for its work habits and killed by the thousands as a bounty bird in Alaska. Crows still have a bad reputation. Today they are hunted with few regulations across North America even as research shows...

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Chapter 3. Picturing Birds in Altered Landscapes

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pp. 83-104

The main purpose of field guides is to help birdwatchers identify birds. As I have been arguing all along, though, these books have always done much more than that. The authors of the first birdwatching field guides used extended narratives to create new...

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Chapter 4. Technojumping into Electronic Field Guides

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pp. 105-124

Thus far, I have made the case that field guides are based on a range of environmental assumptions with environmental implications. Field guides, though, are changing. Birdwatchers can now buy field-guide applications for personal digital assistants...

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Chapter 5. Birding on Toxic Land

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pp. 125-150

Some of the natural areas where birders watch birds are toxic. The competitive birding event called the World Series of Birding, North America’s most publicized big-day birding event, takes place in New Jersey, the state with the highest density and number of EPA Superfund sites in the...

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Conclusion: The Birdwatchers of the Montlake Landfill

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pp. 151-164

In 2003 and 2004, I spent a sequence of Sundays at Seattle’s Montlake Landfill—the covered-over landscape described in chapter 5—in an effort to observe and talk with birdwatchers there. I have said a lot in this book about birdwatchers, their politics, and their attitudes; this field work was my attempt to study them in...


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pp. 165-173

Works Cited

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pp. 175-189


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pp. 191-201

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760024
E-ISBN-10: 1613760027
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498853
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498850

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 23
Publication Year: 2011