May 28, 2009
If one could guess the species of bird that fatally crashed through the kitchen window at the moment of T.S. Spivet’s birth, it would be the Baird’s sparrow, Ammodramus bairdii.
The spirit of Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, the brainy 12-year-old protagonist of the new novel, “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet” by Reif Larsen, seems loosely inspired by the second secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Spencer Baird, (1823-1887).
More than a dozen species, including the sparrow, are named for Baird, who was a passionate scholar of natural history, especially ornithology. Not only did he increase the Smithsonian’s collection from 6,000 to 2.5 million specimens, he founded the Megatherium Society, a group of young explorers who lived in the towers and basement of Smithsonian Castle when not venturing across the United States acquiring specimens.
In this story, fact meets fiction. When the fictional T. S. Spivet hears the true story of the society, he goes silent for three days, “perhaps out of jealousy that time’s insistence on linearity prevented me from ever joining,” he writes. Spivet then asks his mother to start one in his home state of Montana. To which she replies, “The Megatheriums are extinct.”
But luck finds Spivet when a Mr. G. H. Jibsen, Undersecretary of Illustration and Design at the Smithsonian, informs the preteen that he’s won the Institution’s prestigious Baird Award for the popular advancement of science. Though only 12, Spivet already made a name for himself in the field of scientific illustration. He could map, for instance, how a female Australian dung beetle Onthophagus sagittarius uses its horns during copulation. The catch is that nobody knows he’s 12.
This is how “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet” begins. The gifted young artist, who loves mapping the world as much as Spencer Baird loved collecting it, sets off from Montana to Washington D.C. to meet Mr. Jibsen and claim his prize.
The author, Reif Larsen, began writing “T. S. Spivet” while an MFA student at Columbia University. He later decided to incorporate scientific illustrations in the margins (drawn by the author) to add an extra dimension to the read. In an era where the Internet and Kindle rules all, Larsen’s unique hybrid of literature, art and science, offers a rare moment when you can sit and truly experience what you are reading. A possible exception to 19th-century scientist Louis Agassiz’s remark, “Study nature, not books.”
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