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The Feather Thief

Book cover of "The Feather Thief."

I recently checked out the New York Times best-seller The Feather Thief from the Eugene Public Library, expecting to be well-entertained by what others described as a well-written thriller about a daring robbery and an obscure group of obsessive feather fanatics. Instead, I was--and still am--both shocked and deeply convicted by what I read.

The story revolves around a young American named Edwin Rist, who was both a world-class flautist (this is not a typo or misspelling--a flautist is a person who plays the flute) and salmon fly-tier (see picture at end of this blog post, or click on this link). In need of money to pay for a new flute (as well as exotic feathers for his hobby), Mr. Rist pulled off a daring robbery of the Great Britain Natural History Museum. Despite his later admission of guilt, Rist never received any jail time for his crime. Only a few of the bird skins he stole were ever returned to the museum in usable condition.

This remarkable story is disturbing on many levels. To begin with, Edwin bears a strong resemblance to me. At the time of this writing, I will soon be 22 years old--the same age Edwin was when he committed his crime. He was an American. So am I. He was a perfectionist, as am I. Rist had expensive hobbies--I do, too (read my discussion below). He had a younger brother who enjoyed the same hobbies as he did, just as in my situation.

Another reason why the story of The Feather Thief bothers me so much is that it is surprisingly recent. The theft occurred in 2009 and was not discovered until over a year later, after most of the bird skins were separated from their all-important ID tags. The book recounts several other heinous incidents of recent museum theft, which brings to light a fact that most museums work hard to keep hidden: serious crimes against science still occur quite frequently (and often undetected). This is disturbing, to say the least.

Most obviously, this story demonstrates that the justice system is broken. When criminals are caught stealing money through scams or cash theft, they receive significant penalties and jailtime--even though money is only a medium of exchange, and has no real value in of itself. However, Rist stole something that has inestimable value: history and science (this article explains why the theft was so crushing to the scientific community). In return, he received absolutely no punishment, except for a few small fines his parents helped him pay--all based on a faulty diagnosis of Asberger's syndrome. Much like the recent fire at Brazil's National Museum, Rist's crime severely damaged a collection that took centuries to accumulate.

The book's account of the fruitless search for missing bird specimens reminded me greatly of a similar story told in The Monuments Men. In that book (now a major motion picture), a team of historians, scientists, and art experts tried desperately to save and recover the thousands of paintings and other works of art that Hitler's regime had stolen from museums and Jewish families. Though many of the pieces of art were eventually returned to their rightful owners, many are still missing, their identity or location in question or under sharp disagreement. In this light, The Feather Thief is merely the latest book to record the atrocities committed by humans desperate to obtain beauty at any cost, no matter how deadly or destructive.

However, The Feather Thief struck much closer to home for me than The Monuments Men did. Since I am not particularly appreciative of fine art, I could chalk the World War II art thefts up to a cruel and crazed dictator. However, The Feather Thief told a different narrative. Here was a sincere but somewhat obsessive group of collectors and admirers that I could sympathize with. Although I did not share their deep love of colorful plumage, I could see myself in many of their stories. Just like "true" fly-tiers refused to substitute cheap dyed feathers in their work, so too "true" AFOLs (Adult Fans of LEGO such as me) refuse to use "copycat" bricks in their MOCs (My Own Creation). I realized with horror that I had spent a small fortune on genuine LEGO bricks, never once giving serious consideration to the massive environmental repercussions of producing all of that plastic (although LEGO is now producing plastic parts that use plant-based polymers). The more I considered the similarities between my situation and that of the The Feather Thief, the more I became deeply disturbed by the implications. If an obsessive 22-year-old committed the natural-history heist of the century and caused inestimable damage to the world, what might I do?

As a direct result of having read The Feather Thief, I have been in deep prayer and thought during my Sabbath rest each week. The solution to preventing my interest in LEGO bricks from ever taking hold as an obsession is simple: make the Lord my heart's desire. The actual work of "love[ing] the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind" is straightforward, but not always easy or enjoyable. I am sure there will be many more blog articles to come about this incredible journey.

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