Journal of Writing & Environment

Book Review: Tim Gallagher’s Imperial Dreams

Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre
by Tim Gallagher

Atria Books (April 16, 2013)
Hardcover, $26

Review by Corrina Carter

The Imperial Woodpecker was—or is—the world’s most impressive bird. A century ago, the twenty-inch beauty with the ferocious yellow eyes and the crest that curled forward with Seussian whimsy drilled pines in the high altitude forests of the Sierra Madre until they split and fell. Now the species is either extinct or so scarce that a confirmed sighting has not been made since 1956. Enter American ornithologist and science writer Tim Gallagher. In 2009 and again in 2010, he searched the wilds of Mexico for the elusive woodpecker only to be stymied by perilous terrain and drug traffickers deeply suspicious of foreigners. Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre chronicles those travels. Part adventure story, part history of a violence-haunted land, and all reverence for a one-of-a-kind organism, the book deserves to be considered a conservation classic.

From the opening pages, Gallagher locates his work of nonfiction in the tradition of the adventure novel. The result is a piece that maintains tension even though readers already know the author’s quest will be unsuccessful. Gallagher’s ability to generate interest in the face of a journey guaranteed to fail is especially apparent in the early chapters of Dreams, in which he casts himself in the mold of explorers drawn to the Sierra Madre by promises of riches. A list of the locations of potential woodpecker strongholds becomes a “treasure map,” the Imperial itself a “buried hoard of stolen gold.” Add a comfortable amount of danger—narcotraficantes abound but do not pose an immediate threat to Gallagher—and the book takes on the entertainment value of an action flick.

Critically, Dreams sheds its blockbuster status by the halfway point. This mood swing is necessary given that at least 50,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related conflicts since 2006. Gallagher not only confronts tragedy of the highest order (during one excursion, he encounters the scorched foundations of a house, the sole reminder of a family that crossed a cartel) but also provides a history of the strife that has been a staple of life in the Sierra Madre since the 1800s. In discussing battles both contemporary and historical, the author does not pick sides. Instead, he comments on the nature of war, on its ability to color the earth. Memorably, Gallagher visits the bluff where Geronimo’s lieutenant Victorio and his band of warriors were ambushed by Mexican troops in 1880. Few survived. The site of the slaughter appears as it did over a hundred years ago; shells rust on the ground and the rock wall Victorio and his men hastily built to protect themselves still stands, “a silent witness to a long-forgotten massacre.” Death, it seems, has stopped time.

Though both the book’s high-spirited beginning and descent into the blood-drenched past contribute to its power, Gallagher’s respect for the Imperial Woodpecker ultimately proves most forceful. Throughout Dreams, he emphasizes the inherent worth of all life forms and that of the vanished bird in particular. Several anecdotes best illustrate the tragic nature of the species’ demise. An elderly resident of Chihuahua tells Gallagher the story of an unnamed American naturalist who, in 1948, hired locals to guide him to a roosting site.  When they arrived, they found an Imperial shot dead for no discernible reason. Worse, the animal’s offspring had been left to starve: crouched in a hole in a nearby pine, the nestlings were dead but not yet cold. The American sat down and wept.

On another occasion, Gallagher learns that logging interests paid civilians to swab with poison the trees the woodpeckers favored. This discovery is significant because up until now ornithologists have assumed that the Imperial was collateral damage, a casualty of habitat loss rather than a direct target. It is also maddening: the birds habitually spurned valuable timber for decaying, grub-ridden wood. They endangered no one’s livelihood. (In fact, they were more than harmless. They were good. Those old enough to remember Imperials report that the healthy rarely abandoned the sick or injured.)

In the end, Imperial Dreams becomes an epitaph as well as a call to action. Roger Tory Peterson, of field guide fame, once said in response to the loss of the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet: “I predict that hunters, photographers, and just plain people who love to watch and who love the sound of wings are going to have to stand up and be counted.” The alpine forests of Mexico are quieter by a unique set of wingbeats, and the hush left behind should make us all rise to be numbered among the people who still care about wildness.

Tim Gallagher concludes that the Imperial Woodpecker is either extinct or on the threshold of extinction. If he is right, the Sierra Madre, for all its color, is a less vivid place.