The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson

Is this book autobiography?  Memoir?  Is it the story of a quest for the answers to an absorbing crime story with an uncertain ending?  Is it scientific history?  Answer: All of the above!  In weaving together these several strands, this non-fiction tale led to provocative discussion. 

Kirk Wallace Johnson opens his tale autobiographically:  He’s suffering from PTSD in the aftermath of the war in Iraq.  His current work, seeking to resettle Iraqi interpreters in the US, meets with limited success and constant frustration.  To relieve his depression, he takes up fly-fishing.  From his guide, he learns about fly-tying, the creation of beautiful works of art that are ostensibly for use as hooks to attract salmon.  In reality, these salmon flies are almost never actually used to fish.  They are bought and sold and hoarded as the works of art they are.  Trouble is, however, that the “best” require the use of rare and expensive bird feathers, many from extinct or near-extinct birds. 

As the author enters the world of the fly-tiers, he starts to hear of a theft from the British Museum’s ornithological collection held at the Tring Museum outside London.  This theft was accomplished by a young man, barely out of his teens, named Edwin Rist.  To explain not only the lure of the beautiful bird feathers that drew Rist to the heist, but also the scientific value of the birds taken, the author discovers the work of naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, who in the middle years of the 19th century, traversed the Malay Archipelago where he gathered and catalogued over 125,000 specimens of rare birds.  His meticulous efforts to tag the date and location of each skin, as the bird carcasses are called, led him independently from Charles Darwin to arrive at the theory of evolution via natural selection.  

But what of Edwin Rist?  Rist is an American young man studying flute at the Royal Conservatory in London, hoping to be selected to play with a major European orchestra when his studies are completed.  He is also an up-and-coming expert fly-tier, featured in the fly-tying world’s website as “the future of fly-tying.”  He needs money to purchase the exotic bird feathers to use in tying his flies.  His visit to the Tring museum awakens him to the possibilities of securing a supply of rare feathers for his own fly-tying and of a steady source of income from feather sales to other fly-tiers.  

The subtitle speaks of obsession and there are many to examine in this book.  There is, first, the scientific obsession of Alfred Russell Wallace, the collector of the specimens, who from his lower-class origins sought academic recognition that was at the time only granted to upper class Britons.  There is Edwin Rist’s obsession with tying classic fishing flies that motivates the theft.  And there is the author’s own obsession with the crime and with recovering feathers for the museum, an obsession that has therapeutic value in alleviating his PTSD symptoms.   

Fly-tying with exotic feathers has exerted an obsessive pull on anglers and on pure hobbyists, with an upsurge of interest in the late 20th century.  With that enthusiasm comes the obsessions that fuel an underground market in rare and often illegal feathers.  Edwin Rist fell into this obsession as a young teenager.  He was later arrested and tried for the theft, was found guilty but lightly punished with a short period of probation after pleading incapacity due to Asperger’s syndrome.  

Many of our discussions were prompted by the judicial treatment of the case.  Could the system do justice to all the interests of society?  The police were essentially done when Rist was identified and tried.  The prosecutor and judge felt limited by prior decisions on the Asperger defense.  The museum’s interest waned when the specimens that were recovered were missing their sourcing tags or had been cut into marketable parts.  The general silence of the “feather underground” made it more difficult to track the fate of the specimens.  What do we think should have been a just punishment or a restorative action imposed on Edwin Rist?  And could he have pulled this off alone?  

Where does the value of the specimens to the scientific community collide with the value of the birds as objects of true beauty that the public might want to see?  Fly-tiers ask:  “Why does the Museum need so many examples of the same bird anyway?”

The Feather Thief is a good read, provocatively posing questions to which different readers might well derive different answers.

Jeanie and Bill Smith


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