When Kirk Wallace Johnson heard about the theft of 299 rare birds skins, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
The investigation of his theft, from the Natural History Museum in Tring, north of London, is the central pivot of Kirk Wallace Johnson’s ripping yarn The Feather Thief. But Johnson’s research, including assistance from Sir David Attenborough, also allowed him to roam along linking paths, from examples of obsessive Victorian bird-specimen collecting through to a contemporary, slightly sinister international network of fly-tying fetishists known as “the feather underground”. They trade via eBay and websites with such names as FeathersMC.com.
Johnson, founder of the List Project, which seeks to resettle Iraqi US allies, stumbled on Rist’s story by chance. Debilitated both by an accident in Fallujah and his work with List, he was fly fishing in New Mexico when his guide told him about the court case. “The sheer weirdness of the story” took five years to uncover, turning into an obsession of his own. At one stage, he felt compelled to hire a bodyguard.
Johnson’s narrative opens in 1852 with English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, aboard a ship full of more than 10,000 dead and live “specimens” ablaze and sinking off the coast of Bermuda. Wallace survived and moved on to the Malay Archipelago and New Guinea, where his eyes were on the prize of the greater bird-of-paradise.
Many of his specimens were originally stored in the British Museum, but moved to countryside museums such as Tring after it was bombed during World War II.
Johnson draws the threads together as he details Tring museum’s connections to the wealthy Rothschild family; the extinction of species in the name of feathered fashion; and the rise of conservation movements in parallel with the eccentric “Victorian Brotherhood of Fly-Tiers”, who insisted on the exotic species recipes so revered by today’s feather fetishists.
When Johnson swings his scrutiny directly on to Rist, we meet a nerdy home-schooled kid who became a tying expert frustrated by the lack of legal access to “real” feathers.
His crime, which caused significant damage to scientific research, was carefully planned, but after its eventual unravelling, Johnson devoted a huge number of resources to try to track down unrecovered specimens and Rist himself. During his long interview with Rist, one thing sticks out: a complete lack of remorse.
The trading of Tring specimens is probably continuing. Johnson’s haunting book concludes with his deduction that there are two currents of humanity running through the Tring story: humans who fight for the preservation of species and the pursuit of knowledge. And then there are those who, over the centuries, “looted the skies and forests for wealth and status, driven by greed”. Rist is one of those people.
THE FEATHER THIEF, by Kirk Wallace Johnson (Hutchinson, $38)
This article was first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.