Conservation biologist Thor Hanson has crafted an ambitious work of natural history in Feathers (Basic Books, 336 pages, $25.99). "Ambitious" is often book reviewer shorthand for "an overly long book that tries to achieve too much."
Feathers, however, is a bantamweight read, only 270-odd pages when you pluck away the appendices, index and notes. Hanson's ambition lies in the fact that he stuffs this Cornish game hen like a Christmas goose.
It's all here: the anatomy of the feather from calumus to rachis to vane, its probable five-stage evolution from barbless quill to asymmetrical flight feather, and competing theories on the origins of flight (ground up or tree down?), along with a new, probably more accurate theory that combines the two: "wing-assisted incline running." And since feathers aren't just about flight, Hanson also probes the evolutionary pressures that might have led them to function so well (much better than fur) as insulation, waterproofing and sometimes iridescent display to discourage would-be predators or attract potential mates.
Along the way, Hanson traces the contributions feathers have made to human civilization, from the quill pen to down-filled sportswear to biomimicry in commercial aviation, including the development of "fuzzy jets" to reduce aircraft noise and increase fuel efficiency. Then there's the effect of feathers on the world of fashion, from tribal costumes in Papua New Guinea to the rise and fall of ladies' hats in the 19th century to the exotic plumage of showgirls on the Las Vegas Strip.
Hanson lives on Washington's San Juan Island with his wife, Eliza, and their toddler son, Noah. This remote woodland setting, rich in wildlife, allows the author to take a homemade, hands-on approach to science that readers will find either resourceful or crankish. Some guys work on cars; Hanson keeps roadkill in the freezer that he can dissect and pluck as part of improvised experiments in biology that rarely end well. The result of this madcap, scattershot approach to so vast a subject is a bit like the aftermath of a pillow fight: goose feathers everywhere and no one exactly sure what's been settled.
SEE IT: Thor Hanson visits Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 228-4651. 7 pm Monday, June 13. Free.