Brooks Atkinson’s words

“Critic at Large” was the title of a regular column in the New York Times by Brooks Atkinson. Atkinson devoted some of these columns to the California condor. He also wrote about condors in magazines and books. Here is an appreciative look.

Atkinson’s career included work as a war correspondent and theater critic. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his journalism. He also cared deeply about our environment.

The New York Times “Critic at Large” columns for 28 and 31 January 1964 describe an adventure in search of California condors. Here’s how Atkinson describes his first sighting:

A couple thousand feet above us a huge, dark bird sailed on the wind with no visible movement of his long, flat wings. For a few moments we watched him swinging slowly in great circles – no doubt scanning us as well as other details in the landscape through his telescopic eyes.

No more condors were seen that first day. But I was struck by how Atkinson describes the scene in the adventurers’ mountain camp at day’s end:

We lounged around [our campfire] gratefully, discussing with contempt and indignation the villainies of the world below us.

The next day was a good one for the condor seekers. But Atkinson’s mood was still somber:

From our tiny perch on the quick slopes of the mountain we looked down on the largest land birds in North America … birds of a wary, withdrawn personality. For the few condors that are left to the 20th century are living artifacts out of the dawn of history. They are detached in time as well as space. No doubt they saw us as clearly as we saw them, but it is likely that they were the less excited….

As the smog and the population increase, the race of the California condor may die.

A few months later (19 June 1964), “Critic at Large” focused on the controversy over plans to build a highway through prime condor habitat. Atkinson noted that “a lot of able people have been working to save the condor”. He specifically mentions the work of Ian and Eben McMillan, Dick Smith, Robert Easton, and Ken Millar.

A fourth “Critic at Large” (4 December 1964) is a call to save the condor. Here are excerpts:

But one part of prehistoric America exists, not as a museum relic but as a continuing form of life in the dark, massive bulk of the California condor …

… many Americans want to live in an America that has not jettisoned all its grandeur and feel an obligation to pass on to future generations something finer than subdivisions, shopping centers, express highways and industrial plants….

[Condors] take no life in an era that takes life on an appalling scale.

Atkinson wrote substantial articles about the California condor for Audubon Magazine (July-August 1966) and Smithsonian (March 1972). The titles of both these articles included the phrase “40 dirty birds”, a descriptor employed by those frustrated that the condor was blocking development. (I can only wonder at people who could be so contemptuous of the last 40 individuals of a species.)

Atkinson - Cover

Atkinson’s This Bright Land: A Personal View (Doubleday 1972) includes chapters about California’s redwood trees, the Florida Everglades, the Grand Canyon, and California condors. Here’s the closing paragraph from the condor chapter:

But the California condor has a simpler value. He is a breath-taking part of the American heritage, like the Grand Canyon and the coastal redwoods. To people aware of the wonders of the universe, the condor is one of the ancient mysteries – huge, aloof, a ponderous shape out of the remote past. As long as he survives, he is a natural resource that will help prevent America from degenerating into a stupendous parking lot or a colossal slum. When Emerson gazed at the winter sky he imagined that the stars asked him: “Why so hot, little man?” The condors ask us similar questions: Why so impatient, why so sure, why so omniscient, why so callous?

Brooks Atkinson is an important figure in the history of the California condor and humans. He should be remembered by those who care about condors. (I also appreciate the editors of the New York Times for allowing their theater critic to devote some of his widely-read columns to matters far from Broadway.)

Some of the artwork that accompanies Brooks Atkinson’s words may be seen in the posts Black & white illustrations from books: 1958-1988 and Illustrations from magazines: 1950-2000.