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Imperial Dreams

When on a quest to find the possibly-extinct imperial woodpecker, watch out for the drug lords.

Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre

Tim Gallagher

Atria Books, 306 pp., $26

I'm a sucker for animal quests. Give me a good story about following a peregrine to South America, or tracking a snow leopard into the Himalayas, and I'll gobble it up. The first line of Tim Gallagher's Imperial Dreams did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm, describing the imperial woodpecker as a giant bird with vivid black-and-white coloring "whose pounding drumbeat echoed through the forests as it bored into passive pines, hammering on them powerfully for weeks until they groaned, shuddered, and finally toppled with an impact that shook the ground." Yes! I was ready to go.

The imperial woodpecker is considered extinct, yet there have been stray sightings in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico over recent decades, and so Gallagher prepares to journey there, despite the fact that it is also the habitat of many Mexican drug lords. My first impression was that he was trying a little too hard to amp up the danger, describing the violence with a drumbeat as insistent as any woodpecker's. But then, as stories about the atrocities of the drug wars piled up, I began instead to question his judgment. Why exactly are you going?

Because the violence turns out to be very real, Gallagher's journeys proceed in fits and starts, mostly fits. The author is famous for his pursuit of the ivory-billed woodpecker, described in his earlier book, The Grail Bird, and though his claims of seeing that bird are controversial, there is no doubt the quest itself was thrilling. Here the thrill fades quickly. In the end I found this a depressing book, and not just for the obvious reason that imperial woodpeckers may in fact be extinct. Mexico turns out to be every bit as bad as Gallagher feared, and his every attempt at hiking into the bird's mountainous home terrain seems to be blocked, cut short, or colored by some sort of murder, rape, or kidnapping by the local narcotraficantes. You want to yell to him: Get the hell out of there!

The book's high point occurs after the arrival of Martjan Lammertink, a Dutch birder who seems part Audubon, part Klaus Kinski. It might have been wise to focus the narrative solely on this fascinating character, who bristles with obsession and continues to hunt for the bird long after even he admits they are unlikely to find one. Still, admirably and (to the others in his party) maddeningly, he stops periodically to set up his homemade box contraption that mimics the woodpecker's double-knock drumming, hoping to lure in an actual bird. Sadly, even the sections starring Lammertink are overlaid with both the fear of death by gun and a strange ennui. I found myself admiring Tim Gallagher the man, but thinking that sometimes quests fail, and sometimes they don't need to be written about.

The reader will understand fairly early on that we are not going to be seeing any imperial woodpeckers, known locally as pitoreales. What we see instead is a ravaged landscape, trees felled by massive logging and burned down for the growing of opium poppies and marijuana, and a ravaged people, cowering from the deadly bullies who profit from the fields. The birds knew the feeling: they too were persecuted, hunted for their feathers or just for fun. Most of the interviews with locals are simply sad retellings of how beautiful the birds once were, though Gallagher also discovers that logging companies might have sped their extinction by spreading poison on the pines the imperials favored. In the end the expedition exhausts and drains Gallagher, leaving him in a "deep funk," and ultimately the reader feels the same way. We are left depressed about the state of nature, the state of Mexico, and the state of humanity. Like the author, we just want to go home.

image of David Gessner
David Gessner is the author of eight books, including My Green Manifesto and The Tarball Chronicles, both of which grew out of reporting for OnEarth. He has won the John Burroughs award for best natural history essay, taught environmental writing at ... READ MORE >