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For The Birds

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Dreambirds: The Strange History of the Ostrich in Fashion, Food, and Fortune, by Rob Nixon (Picador). Cloth, $23.

CHANDLER, ARIZONA, IS a center of high-technology manufacture these days, the heart of the so-called Silicon Desert. At its founding a little more than a hundred years ago, Chandler was similarly devoted to forward-looking enterprise--with its leading citizen, A.J. Chandler, certain that the future of agriculture lay with the production and consumption of ostrich meat.

Now, ostriches are curious birds, comfortably fitting into no single biological category--for which reason Carl von Linné, the taxonomist, called it Struthio camelus, the "sparrow-camel." An Arab folktale confirms Linné's choice, relating that when it was asked to choose just which camp it belonged to, the ostrich could not decide whether to be a bird or a mammal, for which reason God condemned it to live alone in one of the harshest deserts on earth, the Karoo of South Africa.

The Karoo, it happens, is Rob Nixon's native ground, and although he has spent much of his adult life in the United States teaching literature, the desert landscape haunts his dreams. (So, too, do ostriches, about which Nixon commands a phenomenal amount of information.) Nixon's narrative offers fugitive thoughts on the land of his birth, and also on the would-be empires of the Karoo's early European settlers, who sought their fortunes in gold and diamonds--and then, when that did not work, in ostrich feathers, a highly sought fashion commodity as subject to cycles of boom and bust as any other trade good.

In his literate, highly entertaining book, Nixon charts the fortunes of the Karoo's 19th-century "ostrich elite," updating their story with an appropriately curious recent development: the introduction of South African-style industrial ostrich ranching to Arizona, revisiting A. J. Chandler's dream. Today, helped along by South African entrepreneurs and wranglers, a new generation of Arizonans is hoping to make their fortunes in eggs, leather, meat, and other products from the gawky critter.

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