On a recent trip, we visited a small private library. The library’s shelves were stocked with a rich blend of titles from pulp to philosophy. Of much interest to us were a range of older naturalists’ guide books: regional trees species, bird-life, cacti … filled with illustrations and off-register colour photos.
Our time was brief so I took a few photos of spines to capture some of the enticing titles. Standing out to me was a cobalt-bound volume titled, “The Human Side of Birds” by Royal Dixon, 1917. Everything about the book’s spine resonated. I had to know more.
It turns out that “The Human Side of Birds” was a follow-up to Royal Dixon’s previous books, “The Human Side of Plants” and “The Human Side of Trees”. All three volumes veer surprisingly and happily away from purest botany and towards an emotional, spiritual, and highly anthropomorphized examination of the hidden life of nature’s ‘lesser’ species.
“In the examination of some aspects and forms of life it is often best to cast aside the complex machinery of cold and calculating analysis, and to look only with the eye of love and sympathy. In this work it is my purpose to reject the limitations of unsympathetic research, and to endeavour to see beyond formal classifications, and to understand the spirit, emotions and impulses in the lives of our feathered friends of the air.” — Royal Dixon, “The Human Side of Birds”
Dixon evokes the virtues of birds in human terms as artists, policemen, dancers, athletes, musicians, actors of the skies. His goal is to highlight the complexity of bird life — to embue them with “soul”. It’s often a tinge too quaint for its own good but it was still likely a vastly challenging notion in its time. In my own experience, it can be hard not to think of the animals around us in our own terms but they are also uniquely, unquestionably not human in their biology and behaviour. We might more interestingly ask ourselves about the Bird Side of Humans.