“I don’t think you want to write that story… Because we’re a tight-knit community, fly-tiers, and you do not want to piss us off.” — Roger Plourde, quoted in The Feather Thief
“…The Feather Thief proves that the most obscure, “candy-ass” activities can be made interesting for the general reader.” — The Times of London review of The Feather Thief
Kirk Wallace Johnson served with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Iraq, first in Baghdad and then in Fallujah, where he was the agency’s first coordinator for reconstruction. He has also worked extensively on behalf of Iraqi refugees and is the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. If anyone ever could benefit from fly fishing, it was him, and it was while fishing that he heard a story that made him want to know more. The Feather Thief is the result of his investigation, which took more than six years.
Risking the wrath of fly-tiers and their tiny scissors, Mr. Johnson has taken a deep dive into the “feather underground” which, in this true story, consists mostly of people who tie Victorian salmon flies using authentic materials called for in the original recipes. Unfortunately, many of the feathers in those recipes are rare and expensive, heavily regulated by international treaties and acts intended to protect the endangered birds who possessed those feathers in the first place.
The Tring Museum, a part of the British Museum of Natural History, was the repository for one of the world’s largest ornithological collections, including specimens collected in the 1800s by Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin. In June of 2009, Edwin Rist, an American flautist and champion fly-tier, broke into the museum and stole hundreds of bird skins, including many from the expeditions of Alfred Wallace. As if stealing material for flies that would never be fished wasn’t strange enough, Mr. Rist hoped to sell some of the feathers he’d stolen in order to raise money to buy a golden flute he’d had his eye on.
How those feathers found their way to the cabinets at Tring is just one component of the story told in The Feather Thief. Men like Alfred Wallace explored the Amazon Basin, increasing human knowledge and documenting new species, suffering disease, hostile natives, ship wrecks, and more as they did so. Kirk Wallace Johnson tells their harrowing stories well and explains the significance of even old museum specimens as new technologies help us unlock more information than ever before.
As valuable as old feathers may be for research purposes, there is no denying that feathers are inherently beautiful and The Feather Thief also examines the mania over feathers in fashion, including the wholesale slaughter of birds like egrets to satisfy the need to have hats, dresses, capes, etc. adorned with a plume or two (or, where appropriate, even entire birds). The history of wildlife refuges in the U.S. is directly tied to the feather trade and it was useful to be reminded of the role of feathers in the creation of international treaties to protect wildlife.
Once a museum tag has been removed, there is no way to know where a rare bird skin may have come from, and a feather plucked from that skin would be virtually impossible to trace. It is not strictly illegal to possess the feathers of birds such as quetzals, blue chatterers, or Indian fruitcrows and a lack of provenance works in favor of the possessor. While a good number of skins and feathers were recovered after Edwin Rist confessed to the theft, Mr. Johnson adds one more dimension to The Feather Thief with his quest to discover what became of the remainder.
Through it all, the story of Edwin Rist is wound like gold tinsel. From his first Durham Ranger fly to the golden flute he desired, from his confession to his historic defense, his story is interesting enough, even without the resultant international intrigue.
Fly fishing is riddled with rabbit holes to fall down, including the tying of flies which is one of the deepest. The Feather Thief gives a glimpse into that dark tunnel, beyond the light, where the most obsessed reside. Well-tied “full dress” flies can sell for hundreds of dollars, destined to hang on a wall and never fulfill their original purpose, works of art despite their lowly origins and the fact that the tier may be the only one who gives a fig whether the tiny turquoise feathers are authentic blue chatterer.
The Feather Thief is much more than the story of an interesting man who committed an interesting museum theft. The story of what he stole and why he stole it is just as intriguing. With its many themes assembled so masterfully, if The Feather Thief was a fly it would catch fish. As a book, it hooked me (I’ve read it twice) and I suggest it as a good winter read.
The Feather Thief is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound for less than four blue chatterer feathers.
ISBN: 9781101981610 (hardcover)