Meet Kirk Wallace Johnson, author of “The Feather Thief”
By Alesha Damerville
Courtesy Marie-Josée Johnson
By Jennie Lay
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS- Kirk Wallace Johnson went to Baghdad with the U.S. Agency for International Development, then he came home and spent the better part of a decade fighting on behalf of thousands of Iraqis who had become refugees as a result of their work alongside America during the war. Fly-fishing became his escape from the harrowing stress of these real-life realities. And that’s when he stumbled upon the tale that led him to write “The Feather Thief.” Johnson shares some of the back story behind his nonfiction bestseller as he prepares to visit Steamboat on June 26.
Steamboat Magazine:I’ve read about your work in Iraq. How did you get from rebuilding Falluja to telling the true-crime story of a strange feather obsession?
Kirk Wallace Johnson:Yes, it’s a bit of a leap, isn’t it? As I mention in the book, following my time in Iraq…I founded a nonprofit (The List Project), testified before Congress, and wrestled with the government to get as many out as I could, but it seemed as the work was never-ending.
One of the only ways I had of containing the stress was to go fly-fishing. Trout live in the most beautiful parts of the country, where there are no cell phone signals, and where the only thing that matters is how attentive you are to what’s happening in the natural world. What insects are hatching? What color are they? How big? How cold or quick is the water?
It was during one of these fishing trips that a guide started talking about a recent heist, in which a young American had broken into the British Museum to steal hundreds of exotic birds for their feathers. It was such a strange start to a story that I felt I had to figure out how it ended up.
SM:Are you a birder, too?
KWJ: I’m only recently getting into birding.
SM:Do you tie your own flies? And do you have a favorite?
KWJ:I do tie my own flies, but an important distinction: I’m going for trout, which require drab-colored flies that actually resemble aquatic insects. Salmon flies, which are at the heart of the book, are wildly different: they are beautiful, glimmering, brightly-colored things that have no connection to nature. Salmon aren’t feeding when they spawn – if you catch one, it’s because they’re striking out of aggression to protect their eggs. A tuft of dog fur is just as likely to catch a salmon as one of these elaborately-tied things.
For trout, I tend to use the elk-hair caddis fly as my go-to if I’m fishing a new river and haven’t yet keyed in on what’s going on, bug-wise.
SM:What was the most surprising fact you learned about birds or feathers during your investigation?
KWJ: I started this book with very little knowledge about the world of salmon flies, or about the frankly insane history of the “feather fever,” in which 19th century women were in a kind of arms race over who could wear the most rare or exotic birds in their hair or on their hats. This was the Gucci bag of the Victorian era – and historians have suggested that it constituted the largest direct extermination of wildlife in the history of the planet. As I write in the book, it also directly led to the modern conservation movement, as women’s organizations fought to end the practice.
SM:Did learning about this heist and its impacts change your perspective on the environment or scientific study?
KWJ:I had no clue about the immense scientific debt that humanity owes to the specimen collections at natural history museums throughout the world: these birds, collected over the centuries, have been probed by each new generation of scientists, contributing to the march of knowledge. They hold answers to questions that scientists haven’t even thought of yet, which is why I was so determined to find the missing birds.
SM:Where did you do most of your research?
KWJ:This book took me all over the world. I never anticipated that I’d end up in Düsseldorf confronting the feather thief, or in a small town outside of Oslo grilling a possible accomplice. But many of the key moments also happened online, when I was frantically taking screenshots of transactions or conversations about the heist or illicit bird sales before they were deleted.
SM:The brilliant success of “The Feather Thief” has undoubtedly taken most of your time in the past year. But the important work of The List Project is surely still at hand. Are you still involved in it?
KWJ:I am still involved in a number of cases, but my day-to-day involvement is only a fraction of what it once was. I gave it as much as I could for as long as I could, but knew that I needed to start tackling something new.
SM:What is the most important message you share with people about the Iraqis and Afghans who worked for the U.S. and are still seeking safe refuge?
KWJ:This is and will always be a feature of America’s wars: we are hugely dependent on the local population for help. Until Marines and soldiers start mastering Arabic, they’re going to need interpreters. And, unfortunately, we have a nasty habit of abandoning those who risked their lives to help us. There are plenty of Syrians who stuck their necks out, who will have little to no chance of ever finding refuge in our country.
SM:What are you currently reading?
KWJ:“Bring the War Home: the White Power Movement and Paramilitary America” by Kathleen Belew; “Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II” by Susan Williams; “These Truths” by Jill Leopard; and “The King Never Smiles: a Biography of Thailan’day Bhumibol Adulyadej” by Paul Handley. I should probably read more fiction!
SM:And what book do you think everyone should read, in addition to your own?
Meet the author! Kirk Wallace Johnson talks about “The Feather Thief” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 26 at the Bud Werner Memorial Library.www.steamboatlibrary.org/events
KWJ:If people tumble into “The Feather Thief” and want to learn more, the first book I always recommend is Alfred Russel Wallace’s “Malay Archipelago.” It’s such an important, thrilling, and lasting work by an author whose specimens are at the heart of the heist.