'Feathers' earns local author coveted Burroughs award

Author Thor Hanson, winner of the 2013 John Burroughs Medal Award.  - Kathleen Ballard Photography
Author Thor Hanson, winner of the 2013 John Burroughs Medal Award.
— image credit: Kathleen Ballard Photography

San Juan Island author Thor Hanson is busy on a new book.

More on that in a moment -- because his last one, "Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle", published in 2011, is still making waves.

In another triumph for Feathers, Hanson was selected the 2013 recipient of the John Burroughs Medal Award. He is the first Northwest writer to be honored in 20 years with the award, considered the most prestigious nature-writing honor in the U.S.

It's a special blend of scientific accuracy, first-hand fieldwork and excellence in natural history writing that Burroughs' judges look for in the winner.

"It certainly was a nice surprise," Hanson said several days before the April 1 Burroughs' award ceremony in New York City, hosted by the American Museum of Natural History. "In the little world of nature writing it's a pretty big award."

Pretty big? As winner of the Burroughs medal, Hanson joins a long list of nature-science writing luminaries, such as Rachel Carson, Barry Lopez and Aldo Leopold, to name a few.

That's pretty good company for a field biologist-turned-author whose first book, "The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda", 2008, was self-published as a "print on demand" book. It's grass-roots popularity persuaded a publishing company, Basic Books/Perseus Books Group, to purchase the rights and then publish and distribute it in hard copy. It wound up winning the 2008 USA Book News Award for nature writing.

Still, the Burroughs medal is just another in a string of awards for Feathers, an appealing, detailed exploration of the scientific, cultural and evolutionary significance of feathers. Earlier recognition include the A.A.A./Subaru SB & F Prize for science writing, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and a finalist for The Washington State Book Award.

Acclaim and popularity have created new demands, the latest being radio talk show circuit, like KPLU's "Fresh Air" and Canada's CBC, but Hanson strives to keep in touch with other pursuits, such as music. In fact, following the award ceremony he returned home to join the San Juan Jazz Quintet -- he plays standup bass -- for an April 7 benefit for the Friday Harbor Food.

Jazz Quintet drummer Dennis Willows, former director of U.W. Friday Harbor Laboratories, sees a connection between Hanson's accomplishments in science, writing and in music.

"Thor Hanson is a splendid bass player, and contributes a lot of his musicality to the San Juan Jazz Quintet…," Willows said in an email. "Science and music are closely related… one sees it all the time in the best students. And his writing in the award-winning book Feathers is recognized by many national and international critics as world class…"

As father of a 3 1/2 year-old son, Hanson has parental responsibilities as well. And there's also scientific field work to be done. Hanson plans to delve into the world of butterflies in the field this summer.

"I keep telling my editor that if they don't let me do a little field surveys now and then that I won't have anything to write about," he said.

Oh yeah, the new book? It's about seeds, and why they are so successful. About 90 percent of the Earth's plant life reproduce from seeds, Hanson said.

"People have a very deep connection to seeds," he said. "It's a fascinating topic to explore. So many civilizations have sprung up around the domesticating of a grain."

The book is due out sometime in 2014. Hanson will work with the same publisher and same editor as he did with Feathers.

"It sort of the same team tackling a new topic," he said.

For more information about Hanson and his books visit,



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