Meet ‘The Feather Thief’ author Kirk Wallace Johnson, true crime writer

Kirk Wallace Johnson
Kirk Wallace Johnson, author of “The Feather Thief,” speaks at the Bud Werner Memorial Library’s Library Author Series on Wednesday, June 26.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On Wednesday, June 26, Bud Werner Memorial Library’s Library Author Series presents Kirk Wallace Johnson.

Johnson’s sophomore book, released in 2018, is “The Feather Thief,” a true-crime adventure that begins when 20-year-old flautist Edwin Rist quietly glass-cuts his way into the Tring Museum, an outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. In his suitcase, Rist carries away hundreds of extremely rare bird specimens and feathers to sell on the blackmarket of salmon fly-tying. The bird specimens had been gathered 150 years prior by Alfred Russel Wallace, a self-taught naturalist and colleague of Charles Darwin’s who dedicated his life to the research.

Johnson takes his readers on a journey through the night of the crime, its aftermath and, most significantly, the hundreds of years of human trends and prior behavior that created the environment for the crime’s existence.

Johnson’s talk will be followed by a Q&A and an opportunity for Johnson to sign copies of “The Feather Thief.”

Explore Steamboat: “Before “The Feather Thief,” you created “The List Project,” an organization to resettle Iraqi allies, and wrote “To Be A Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind” (2013). I imagine the mental and emotional experience of writing this book must have been pretty different from that of writing “The Feather Thief”?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: The truth is that this story was so strange and unlike anything I’d seen before — I didn’t know anything about any of this. I didn’t know about this subculture, I didn’t know about Victorian history or the value of these birds. It was so completely different to me that it almost represented an escape of sorts from the very heavy day-to-day work of my organization and my bleak memoir. In the beginning, this was kind of a secret of mine — I didn’t know I was going to be turning it into a book, not really knowing why or what I was doing; I just found it interesting.

When it became clear I was going to do it as a book, this story represented putting some of the war behind me, as much as that’s possible. I’m never going to be completely detached from the Iraq War, and I don’t want to be, but I’d spent the better part of a decade in this never-ending battle, and it was starting to take a personal toll. Without being overly dramatic, this story and book became kind of a life raft to move onto something else.

ES: “The Feather Thief” takes us through so many different fields of study — ornithology, taxidermy, ichthyology, history of wildlife trafficking, history of conservation, history of fashion and so many more. Was there one topic you found the most interesting to research?

KWJ: This story just kept yielding entirely new, really colorful threads. The hardest part about writing this book was learning to say “no” and not going too in depth. I’d heard Alfred (Russel Wallace)’s name before, and I knew some backyard birds, but they were just birds. Now, I wouldn’t call myself a hard-core birder, but I’ve gone on birding expeditions; when I see birds fly through our backyard, I know what they are — that’s been exciting. It’s difficult to pick a favorite thread.

Listen to Kirk Wallace Johnson on “This American Life”

This American Life: “The Feather Heist”
Episode 654; Aug. 10, 2018

This American Life: “Taking Names”
Episode 499; June 28, 2013

ES: “The story of this crime and how you first heard about it begins as seeming bizarre, quirky and kind of funny in ways, but as you got farther along in your investigation, it sounds like the whole story took on a more sad, complicated tone. How did you work through that?

KWJ: It really switched when I learned that Alfred Russel Wallace’s birds were among those stolen. The museum hadn’t been very forthcoming about the extent of the damage and who these birds were collected by, and when they finally gave me this spreadsheet and I started reading biographies of Wallace, that unlocked this 200-year sweep of history where not only is it explaining how these birds ended up in the museum in the first place, but why it’s important to preserve these specimen and what they represent.

The more I rooted around the past and realized how this story illuminates this incredible part of our history that largely explains the rise of the modern conservation movement, and a lot of it has to do with the obsession with beautiful feathers. The stakes of the book then jumped; it became a much more significant story. The more I learned about the birds, the more I learned about our debt to them, and how (the theft resulted in) such a devastating hole in these scientific records. I didn’t want people to read about this kid stealing pretty birds and just chuckle — I kind of chuckled when I heard about it, but when I learned about the lengths people went about, (the crime) became much more serious in my mind.

It’s such an obscure crime, but it takes us into some really fundamental questions about who we are as a species and our relationship to the natural world; arbitrary value of what we put on things, and what the pursuit of these things does to our moral compass.

ES: In investigating the story and interacting with the characters, you became part of the story yourself for example, encouraging the fly-fishing community to return any feathers to the museum that they believe were stolen. How did that change the book?

At some point, it became clear that there were still a lot of these birds missing and no one was looking for them anymore; the (fly-tying) community still had them were openly joking about the crime. There was no way of me trying to figure out the truth without wading into it myself. By nature I’m a participant; I’m trying to change the ending of the story, because the birds didn’t belong to these guys.

Some people are against (an author) getting involved in a story, but once I was getting on a plane around the world and getting secrets dislodged, there was no way around it.

ES: No one else has ever interviewed Edwin Rist, the flute player and feather thief. How did you manage to get him to talk with you?

KWJ: I still sometimes question that myself. I wrote to him maybe two weeks after hearing about it, and as I expected, he declined the interview. I was fortunate to give this story so much time — about six years. So over several years — I think four — I’d send (Rist) an email every six or nine months saying, “I really think we should talk.” At some point, I’d spoken with so many people — close to 100 fly-tyers, many of who’d been friends with him, or bought birds from him, or didn’t like what he did — and the thing that finally turned the key in the door was a note I sent him: “The book is going to happen whether or not we meet, but I think you deserve the opportunity to tell me your version of what happened.” And I was genuine in that — I didn’t want to be making assumptions. To his credit, he sat there for seven, seven and a half hours with me, and it was an incredible, incredibly tricky interview. There were things I knew he was minimizing or mischaracterizing, but others he was being very candid.

ES: I know you’ve felt angry at Edwin Rist for ruining a body of research and for essentially faking characteristics of Aspbergers to get a lighter prison sentence and also have talked him in ways that sound a bit admiring. I’m sure there’s not one single, easy emotion to label how you feel toward a complex person who you studied for years, but generally, how do you feel about him as a human now?

KWJ: In any other setting, I think we would have become good friends. I admire so much about his self discipline and his curiosity about the world, and his initiative to dive in and tackle things. I think we share traits in that. But when we met we were on the opposite sides of a ravine of sorts; he had done something bad. The head of the British Museum described this as a catastrophic theft from humanity. (Rist) had essentially gotten away with it, and he knew it. He’d taken a reputational hit, but he had a degree and he was making a living. It’s not like I think he should have been locked up forever, but a large part of my motivation with this book was the feeling that justice had been denied here. I felt for something this serious, it shouldn’t have just been some secret, hidden story, contained in this quirky subculture. The truth deserved to be nailed down as best as possible.

At the same time, (Rist) is performing under a different name, and I didn’t publish that name.

As much as we can be frustrated with how the gears of justice turn, the British courts decided the way they did. What animates me more is the response within this community of fly-tyers.

The ones who bought the missing birds know they did, and they know who they are. This community has not reformed as a result of this. Since the book’s come out, I’ve seen five or six different museum heists to get feathers for fly-tying. This is going to continue to happen as long as these guys are obsessed with fidelity with these ridiculous, 150-year-old recipes. They’re going to sustain demand in the black market, which can really only be fulfilled by theft.

Edwin is not a cause here; he’s a symptom of a broader community’s corrupting attachment to these Victorian recipes. As frustrated as I’ve been with him, I’m just as frustrated with the salmon fly-tying community.

ES: “This book gives readers a scary peek into the story of modern extinction of so many species in the 1800 and 1900s. What do you hope readers can take away from thinking about this, looking at where we are in 2019 and looking forward?”

KWJ: I think one of the lessons from the book is that we have come very close to the brink before. Through coordinated, concerted actions, we decided, 100, 120 years ago, that there were things in nature worth preserving. The birds that seem maybe boring to people now because they’re all over the place. But they were nearly eradicated, and now, they’re plentiful because we decided to pass legislation and enforced it. I think there’s a kind of dispiriting and occasionally nihilist perspective that can set in when we’re talking about climate change, and that can make us just throw our hands up and say, “What’s the point? We should just take what we can get now.” But this book recounts a point when people took the opposite approach — there was a kind of optimism, that we can create these international treaties and cut down on the trafficking with them. I think the problems are vastly more complex now, but you could walk away with this book learning that there have been times in the past that humanity has gotten it right, and because of that species have recovered.

ES: Did writing this book change how you go fly fishing? Is it still a peaceful hobby for you, even after learning about this very unpeaceful piece of fly fishing?

KWJ: I don’t fish for salmon, so I’m not really plugged into that community other than through this book. These trout flies aren’t pretty; they’re not using rare or illegal materials.

(This book) has made me appreciate at a much deeper level is that when you’re casting a fly for a fish, you’re communing with nature in a way that few people do nowadays. You have to understand the life cycles of these aquatic insects, pay attention to sun and shade and the force of current and to the depth and temperature of the water. Since writing this book, the connection to nature has intensified for me, because the story of this heist represents an attachment to greed and beauty, to prestige that rare feathers represented to these community. That wasn’t a connection to nature.

If anything I’m forever grateful to fly fishing, because without it, I wouldn’t have found this story. Fly fishing had become an escape from my Iraq work, and then my escape gave me this story that became an escape.

Fly fishing has always been colorful to me, but now after knowing this story, the colors burn that much brighter.

Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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