Ancient forests, ghost birds, and intrepid scientists. This might sound like a blurb for Rollins’ sci-fi Amazonia, but instead it describes the non-fiction content of Michael Steinberg’s “Stalking the Ghost Bird: The Elusive, Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in Louisiana” (Louisiana State University Press, 2008).
“I was always interested in birds growing up in Missouri. I would read Peterson’s Field Guide every night before bed. Then, once on vacation in Florida, I thought I spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker. Ever since then, I followed the news of sightings.” This love of birds and the environment led Mike into the field of Geography and eventually into a teaching position at the University of Southern Maine. There his academic writing focused on Mayans in Belize who were adapting their indigenous agricultural traditions to a drug economy. Steinberg and his family were then lured out of state by other opportunities that allowed him to write and publish Stalking the Ghost Bird – a culmination of his lifelong interest in this bird.
The book recounts how scientists cautiously refused to disclose their rediscovery of the supposedly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker until, finally, they captured a short video and sound clip of the bird. Publication of their findings in Science triggered frenzied media coverage and controversy among birders and scientists who disagree – and continue to disagree – about whether the bird really exists. Mike’s writing explores the public fascination with this mysterious species.
These days, Mike migrates a fair amount himself, living part-time on Peaks and part-time in Tuscaloosa where he teaches at the University of Alabama. He brings his research and writing to Maine in summer where he enjoys time with his wife and two sons. “We wanted to move back, to move our boys to where lots of families pursue outdoor adventure for themselves and their kids. Maine is that place for us. Definitely.”
Maine’s literary community has led Mike on a different kind of journey; he enrolled in and graduated from the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing, a two-year low residency program based out of the historic Stone House – a waterfront property designed by John Calvin Stevens in 1918. He now appreciates the skills entailed in writing narrative non-fiction.
We won’t need to wait long to read another of his books. I pulled him away from editing his latest manuscript so that we could traverse together the cattails surrounding Peaks Island’s Trout Pond. In between pulling me out of the mud and pointing out a cedar waxwing, he balanced on a jagged boardwalk and described how “A Brook Trout Pilgrimage” (under contract with University of North Carolina Press) recounts his pilgrimage through brook trout habitats from northern Georgia to Labrador. “I’ve gone from the ivory-billed woodpecker to brook trout.” The connection? “They’re both indicator species – one for bottomland forests and the other for cold water habitats.”
Mike and his family join many who have left Peaks, only to return once again. I’d like to think the island’s literary habitat drew him back. Whatever the reason, we’re glad for it.