Is it true that “man is seldom content to witness nature…he must posess it?” What is it about beautiful feathers that so obsesses some of us? Truth is truly stranger than fiction, and some stories you couldn’t contrive in a lifetime’s worth of imagination. Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief is prime example–a child prodigy flutist becomes a world-champion salmon fly tier, breaks into British Natural History Museum, stealing hundreds of rare bird skins worth millions of dollars in the fly-tying underworld but irreplacably priceless to the scientific community.  Anything for those beautiful feathers! For fame? For money? Told masterfully, Johnson’s investigative story explores man’s obsessive instinct to harvest–and to collect–nature’s beauty. It’s a story as old as time.

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Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to MOJO’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast. Today’s topic has to do with obsession, human obsession and this is going to be one of the most amazing stories you may never have heard of. But I think it’s going to be entirely relatable to everybody listening because we duck hunters are absolutely, positively obsessed with feathers. I’ve got clients that won’t travel halfway across the world or outside of the country to hunt and to experience unless they can bring the birds back. Today’s guest is Kirk Wallace Johnson, who wrote an amazing book entitled The Feather Thief. You all listen up, this is going to be a great story, but one of the opening passages, it starts like this, “Man is seldom content to witness beauty, he must possess it”. That’s a quote from Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, prime minister of Papua New Guinea, 1979. But I think it speaks a lot to, who a lot of us modern duck hunters are, whether we’re collecting actual feathers or we’re obsessed with collecting experiences. Kirk, how the heck are you today? Thanks for joining us.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Oh, I’m doing well. I’m honored to be on your show. Thanks for having me.

Ramsey Russell: No, I’m great. Will you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background, where you’re from, how you grew up?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Sure. Well, I live in Los Angeles now, but I’m from the Midwest. I grew up about an hour outside of Chicago in the western suburbs, unusual situation. I kind of grew up on a farm in the suburbs of Chicago and boy, how do I tell you all who I am? Nowadays I’m a nonfiction author, so The Feather Thief was my second book. I had another book that came out more recently, about a year ago. Prior to that, I had a very different life. I was in charge of the reconstruction of Fallujah in Iraq for the US government during the war. I speak Arabic, I spent most of my 20s in the Middle East and one of the sort of consequences of that work during the war was that I became close to many of the Iraqis that were risking their lives to help us as interpreters, as drivers, they would cook our food, they do everything for us. And shortly after I got back to the States, after my time there, some of my colleagues were assassinated because they’re seen as traitors for helping the Americans and I was all of 25 years old, but I was pissed off about how our government was basically letting them flap in the window. And so I started gathering their names into a list and writing and speaking out on their behalf. I didn’t have much of a game plan other than that I knew it was wrong to abandon these people when they needed us after they had, many of them have done more for our country than your average American have done. These guys have dragged Americans out of firefights, in translated intelligence that has saved lives and that, I guess, act of conscience, basically then commanded the next decade of my life and in a very long battle with the US government on behalf of these Iraqis. By the end of it, I got, 1000s out and had a direct role in creating a special visa for Iraqis and Afghans that have helped us. But the truth was that I was just utterly burnt out. My dream in life was not to be a refugee advocate, it was fulfilling. But I wanted to do other things with my life, I wanted to do something that had nothing to do with the war. And about now, I guess it was about 12 years ago, a little bit longer, I started fly fishing and from the Midwest, I don’t know how it is down south but, I grew up casting night crawlers on a spinner to, like, carp and things and my dad raised us to view fly fishermen as sort of these insufferable elitists and they’re not real anglers.

Ramsey Russell: Same here, yeah.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Yeah, we don’t touch fly fishing, Kirk. And so I kind of carried that for the first 2 and a half decades of my life of, like, me fly fishing. But I was living up around Boston at this time of my life and I had pretty legit post-traumatic stress. I wasn’t really able to sleep much at night and the work was overwhelming, the refugee work. And I went out fly fishing once, just kind of on a lark and it was within 10 minutes of wading into the water and like, it was some new part of my brain that I’d never sensed before being activated or being woken up. And I mean, it sounds like I’m romanticizing it, but I knew right away that my dad was wrong. Always a fun thing for a son to come across and also that I’d be doing this for the rest of my life. I wasn’t a natural at it. It’s tough to get it right and I still feel like I’m amateurish, but I do it every chance I get. But the other thing was that every time I went fishing, everything else in the world just receded. Trout tend to live where there are no cell signals, they tend to live in beautiful places that require some real hiking to get to and I felt like there was this more primal part of my brain being activated, where I was suddenly leaning on my senses again or for the first time, to pay attention to the temperature of the water, the flow of the current, where the sun was, where my shadows were being cast. I sit at the bank of the river and shake the wet – the plant life around there to see what bugs came out so that I could try to match the hatch. These were all things that, you could sit if you’re lucky, I mean, I’ve had this several times in my life but where you a trout will have a feeding pattern and so sometimes they’ll come up, they’ll sip a fly on the surface, they’ll go down and they’ll wait 2 minutes, they’ll move over a few feet and come up and sip and they’ll just keep doing it. And if you pay attention long enough, you start finding these little signals and the noise and you can catch that guy. And there was something that just was so, I guess, divorced from the normal pressures of my modern life or all of our modern life that I mean, I truly became addicted to it and it was during one of these outings, I happened to be in Northern New Mexico, in Taos, north of Taos and I was fly fishing and the guide that I had hired that day, I mean, I didn’t know him, I just found him on Google. But he’s trying to get me onto some trout and at some point, like, I didn’t have a fly I needed. So he opened up his fly box and I catch this glint of something just kind of otherworldly in it. I mean, for your listeners, I imagine plenty of your listeners fish for trout and might do fly fishing, but trout flies are not, no one would say they’re beautiful things. They’re buggy looking things that are supposed to look like bugs and they’re made out of elk hair and rabbit and some chicken feathers and things like that. What I saw in this guy’s fly box was this just burst of color. It was, like, 10 times the size of a normal trout fly. It was crimson and bright yellow and had iridescent green on it and I’d never seen anything like it and I start peppering him with questions and it was a salmon fly, a Victorian salmon fly. I’ve never heard of it, I’d never gone fishing for salmon at that point and I keep probing them for questions. Does salmon even, do they care about this? He’s like, no, they’re colorblind when they’re spawning, they can’t tell the difference with any of this, but he could tell that there was something just captivating me about the beauty of all of this and then he says, well if you think this is all interesting, you should hear about this kid, this American kid that just broke into the British Museum of Natural History and he stole a million dollars worth of dead birds so that he could pluck the feathers and sell them to this cultish underground community of Victorian salmon fly tyers who were all kind of addicted to these rare feathers and that he did this in part so that he could buy himself a golden flute because the feather thief was a flautist. It was such a strange 2 sentences that he told me or a single sentence that I like, I’ll never forget it. It was just like everything froze and I was like, well, that’s a book. Like, there’s a story there and so what proceeded from that was –

Ramsey Russell: Wait a minute, because I got a couple of questions and boy, you’re an amazing storyteller. But how did you go from your experiences in Iraq and saving refugees to true nonfiction? Investigative reporter, what was the breakthrough on that?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Well, it’s funny because I didn’t think of myself as an author. I was just doing anything I could to get Iraqis on my list out. But I guess I had received a certain amount of, I don’t know, notoriety as a refugee advocate. There had been a bunch of, there’d been a documentary made about me and I’d been on TV a lot and so I got a book deal to write a memoir about this battle with the US government. And so that book, which is called To Be A Friend Is Fatal, which comes from something that Henry Kissinger said as South Vietnam was being overrun. He said that to be an enemy of the United States is dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal because we did the same thing to the South Vietnamese that were standing with us. But that book, so I wrote that book and I kind of thought it would be a one off. I wasn’t planning on becoming an author for the rest of my life, I still don’t know what I’ll be for the rest of my life. But in the process of doing it, I really, I mean, I liked it. I liked writing. This is a great big challenge, but that was not an investigative journalism piece, that was a memoir. When I first heard the story of The Feather Thief that day in New Mexico and realized that it was this incredible story, that it was a crime, that there were a bunch of unsolved aspects to the crime. You bet, I had a ton of self doubt about my own ability to figure it out and to write this book or how to get a book deal or anything like that, I wasn’t an investigative journalist. I’d never done anything like this, but because the story was so different and unusual and had nothing to do with the war and I was at that point desperate to move on with my life and to try something new and to become something new. In some ways, I kind of clung to it like a life raft. I was like, I’m going to figure it out and so the first the first day I heard it, I got myself into some of these private forums and I didn’t know what I was doing. I like went to the grocery store to buy a blank notebook and some pencils and something like taking notes, trying to figure out if I’m even doing it right. I was pretty anxious before doing my first ever interviews, wondering whether I was going to blow something or if this was all just kind of a joke. And then everything just kind of snowballed. It turned out that I guess I, at least for this story, have pretty good instincts and in some ways, this became like a 5 or 6 year long chess match with this community and with the feather thief himself and it was a bunch of guys that did not want this story getting out. And I had to figure out how to pry the truth out of them and flip them against each other and each new revelation bringing me closer and closer to the chance of talking to the feather thief himself.

Ramsey Russell: See, your description of fly fishing and I grew up, like yourself, throwing maybe woolly boogers and popping bugs to catch bluegills, but it was all about the oil popping. I like to eat fish. I’m not that Archie Farchy, but to hear you describe how you connected and what fly fishing did with you, as different as fly fishing is from conventional waterfowl hunting, it’s a lot the same. It’s an artistic approach to connecting with nature, very immersive experience and I can see exactly, even though I’m not doing a lot of the fly fishing that you’ve done and how you described it, I can put it in waterfowl hunting terms and I think everybody else listening can understand exactly how you felt and how you were removed from the everyday distractions and it’s why even on a day that we know is not going to be particularly good or productive for duck hunting, we go anyway. Because it’s a lot about that artistic approach.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Sometimes, my wife has learned now that when we’re on a vacation where I have a chance to fish and I’m like, I’ll be back in a couple hours, she doesn’t make any plans. But the other part is that sometimes I’ll come back after, if I’m fishing at a new river or something where I’ve got, I’m not, I don’t know what’s working. She’ll ask you to like, if I caught anything and maybe I’ll have a hit or 2, but I don’t hook anything and she’ll be like, oh, I’m sorry and the truth, I genuinely, it doesn’t matter, I’m fine. But there is this kind of, I don’t know, I think about it quite a bit, though. We’ve been doing this, what you’re talking about hunting for waterfowl or for fish? We’ve been doing that for hundreds of thousands of years as a creature and we’ve been doing Twitter and email for about 20 years.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: So, if that, so our brain is much more sort of predisposed to the former and it’s becoming harder and harder to get those opportunities to do it. But whenever I get a chance to, I mean, I sleep like a baby whenever I’m completely – Everything is just reset in my mind. I can tell there’s a lot of times now where my wife will say, I think it’s time to get you back out on a river somewhere, because she can tell when I’m getting a little worn out and stressed out and I need a recharge.

Ramsey Russell: My buddy Steve Comus with Safari Club International, he describes the experience of hunting and being in nature and doing what we do as being our truest selves. And I think that’s kind of how I sum it, just to sum up what you just said and the topic that we’re fixing to get into, The Feather’s Thief. What I found so fascinating about this story is it proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction. It’s unbelievable, I mean, I can’t imagine in a million years having just formulated this out of pure imagination, but it’s true and you went way down that rabbit hole.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Yeah, I sure did. And there’s times now, I mean, I wrote the thing and there’s times where I’m like, I cannot believe this happened. And it’s still unfolding, the book’s been out for 5 years and it’s had a very pretty charmed life. It’s out in maybe 15 different languages now. It keeps coming out in new languages. I’m adapting it now into a TV series, into a mini series, but I still get emails every other day from sources or from new people that have read the book that think they might know where some of the missing birds are or there’s something incriminating. I mean, we can get into it, but it’s, no, I don’t think any – If I had tried to write this as a novel, as something fictional, no one would have bought it or bought into it.

Ramsey Russell: Who was or is Edwin Rist?

Challenges in Tying Victorian Salmon Flies.

But you tether a hackle feather to the shank of the hook with a bit of thread and then when you wind and wrap that feather around the shank, every little fiber splays out.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: So Edwin Rist is the feather thief was born in 1988 in New York, raised in Hudson Valley, homeschooled like, remarkably intelligent, possibly gifted kid and he was a virtuoso flautist growing up. And so he had a kind of future unfurling before him as a musician, as a concert musician. But when he was 10, 10 or 11, his dad, who was a journalist, was working on an article, I think, for either popular mechanics or popular science. But his dad was researching something about the physics of how to cast a fly and as part of his research, he was watching one of these Orvis videos, like a 101 on fly fishing. And young Edwin is walking through the living room and he sees something kind of extraordinary happen, which is, there’s a demonstration of tying a simple trout fly, where we call it, like, palmering hackle. But you tether a hackle feather to the shank of the hook with a bit of thread and then when you wind and wrap that feather around the shank, every little fiber splays out. And so, you transform the feather right in front of you and it has a couple functions. One, it gives the fly some body, but it also helps it sit on the surface of the water. But for Edwin, there was something kind of transfixing and seeing this normal ordinary thing, like a chicken feather transform into something else and he runs into his parents room and he plucks some feathers from his mom’s pillow, runs into the garage of the basement looking for hooks and he’s like, I got to try this, I want to see if I can do it and he starts tying trout flies. And soon he’s getting lessons at the local fly shop. Soon he’s now competing in fly tying tournaments at these conventions all throughout New England and as a 10, 11, 12 year old, he’s dominating. I mean, he’s just some of these are like, how many of these flies? The judge will hold up a fly pattern and then they’ll say, how many? Tie as many of these flawlessly as you can in an hour and Edwin would tie, like 5 times, whatever the number 2 or the runner up and he was at one of these fly tying conventions, I think, when he was about 14 or so. And he saw one of those salmon flies, just like I saw when I was out on the river that day in New Mexico and immediately, he was so grabbed by the beauty of this fly that he was like, okay, I’m not trying trout flies anymore. I want to do these salmon flies, but there’s something, there’s an immediate obstacle, especially if you’re a 14 year old boy, to tie these Victorian salmon flies right. If you want to do it according to these recipes, as they’re called in these 19th century books, they all demand some of them demand a dozen species of feathers from exotic birds all over the world, many of which are endangered or protected by cites.

Ramsey Russell: Extinct.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Or extinct. And so you could, there was a way to tie them using dyed turkey and chicken and pheasant feathers, but there was a status, there was prestige in being able to say that you tied an authentic one according to the 19th century recipes and so Edwin starts tying these things, but it’s like his whole life becomes reordered by this new pursuit. So he starts he’s chopping logs in his neighbor’s yard to earn $5 an hour so that he can save up enough to maybe buy one inch of an Argus pheasant feather that he can very sparingly use to try this and he became so good at this that Fly Tyre Magazine hailed him as the future of fly tying. I mean, he was completely dominating these men that have been tying flies for decades. But the problem was that he was tying subs. He was tying using dyed feathers, substitute feathers and the old guard, these grown men that had some disposable income, they were the ones that were able to afford the rare feathers whenever they came up and so some of this comes back to, like, this earlier history that I get into in the book, but that a lot of this comes back to this period in the Victorian era where women were wearing 20 or 30 birds in their hats. And it was back then that was, like, the way that women showed off their status was by how many exotic birds they could afford to wear in a hat. And so by the time of the early 2000s, when Edwin’s getting really into fly tying and eBay is coming online, every now and then, one of these Victorian hats is popping up, but all these older fly tyers are beating them in the auction. So I’m only getting into all this to say that, like, he was the future of fly tying, he was a master fly tyer at 16. But his mastery of this was sort of defined by a longing for the real stuff, like he always felt, he told me in this interview that no one else could tell that he was using dyed feathers, but to him that the, quote, the knowledge of the falsity ate away at him, that he just, he would do anything he could to get the real feathers if he had a chance. I don’t know if that’s a good enough intro for you.

Ramsey Russell: No, it’s a great intro about who he was as a person and his fixation, his obsession on this topic. I had to look up a lot of the – I had to pull over on the side of road and I was doing audiobook and look up some of these species I’d never heard of. What are some of those species? And where were they from?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Yeah. So they’re largely clustered in 2 parts of the world in Papua New Guinea and so there were a lot of birds of paradise, which they got that term because when Europeans first laid eyes on them in the 1500s, they thought that these birds were so extraordinary and so beautiful that they couldn’t possibly be of earth, that they were, they believed that these birds just always were flying up in the heavens and they were feeding on ambrosia, this nectar in the heavens and that they only fell to earth when they died. That’s how sort of otherworldly some of these birds are and I could try to describe them to you for an hour, but your listeners should just look up the birds of paradise or watch any of the David Attenborough clips on them to see why they have such a kind of grip on humans when they first lay eyes on them. So that’s about maybe half the species were from that part of the world and the other half were from Central and South America. And so these were caatingas, they were red ruffed fruitcrows, trying to think, resplendent quetzals, which, if any of your listeners have been down to Costa Rica, I mean, that bird can be almost 4ft long from beak to tail, so, but also extraordinary looking. And remember, these are to cast for salmon. This is really important for people to understand if they’ve never done this, when a salmon has just laid its eggs or buried its eggs in the red, in the gravel of a riverbed, they’re not feeding at that point. They are striking anything that comes nearby out of aggression, to protect the red. And so these British and Scottish and Irish anglers that would go cast for salmon, they’re not doing what a trout angler is doing, which is if you’re casting the wrong. You might get lucky if you cast the wrong fly. But like you’re not, it’s not going to happen that often. You’ve got to fit yourself into the life cycle of whatever aquatic insect is hatching and at what stage it’s hatching at. If you’re going to have much luck catching a trout, throwing a big, honking, shiny, brilliant, 20 colored fly into a murky river for a salmon that’s not even feeding, there’s no connection to nature there. There’s no earthly reason why a salmon in Scotland should be naturally drawn towards the feather of a bird of paradise from the highlands of New Guinea like those, you don’t have to be a biologist to understand those creatures are never going to meet. There’s no evolutionary sort of symbiosis there or attraction. And so this is largely, the dudes that were tying these flies back then, this was all about prestige, it was about status, it was about saying, I’ve got this fly, don’t you? Or I tied this pattern in it and now I’m going to name it after me or I’m going to name it after my wife or whatever. And you talk to any Irish angler and they’ll say, well, it was about status, but it was also about us pulling one over on the Brits to basically charge, say, like, oh, if you’re going to fish this river, you got to use this very expensive fly and sure, I’ll sell it to you. But there’s an artifice to it that’s really important to understand and that extends to the modern day in that I would say the overwhelming majority of the guys who tie Victorian or classic salmon flies, they have no idea how to fish. They don’t ever cast with them. Some of these flies have $5,000 of feathers on them. You’d have to be an idiot to cast that into the river. Most of them don’t own rods or reels. This is just a kind of aesthetic obsession for them and it’s for bragging rights. And so that’s sort of – it’s a crucial thing, so like, for example, a lot of the fly tyers, the classic fly tyers, they profess to hate my book and they profess never to have read it, even though they can tell you what page they pop up on in it. But trout anglers and other fishermen and outdoorsmen, like, they all love the book because they can see this for what it is, which is a kind of, I don’t know how to put it, but a subculture kind of run amok.

Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot going on back in that Victorian era. You had, it was all about the status and feathers were all the rage whether we’re talking about the guys that wrote these prestigious recipe books for the flies or we talk about the ladies fashions, I’ve heard back during that era, somebody over in the UK had a enviably beautiful dress made of 5000 hummingbirds and you see these old pictures of people walking around with that, with those quetzals and those full birds of paradise on their hat, like a piece of taxidermy on their hat. But then you also had, in the same time period, you had some pretty amazing obsessions going on, completely different than fashion world. You had guys like Alfred Russel Wallace out there cataloging nature. And for those listening, I learned he likely, it was likely his theory of the evolution of species, the origin of the species that he shared with Darwin, who published it while he was off in the boondock somewhere collecting stuff. But can you expound a little bit on who Alfred Russell Wallace and then by connection, Lionel Rothschild was. Cause I’m building up what this guy ripped off later.

World War Efforts to Protect Priceless Specimens.

In World War II, the Natural History Museum in London, which is where the birds used to be, that museum was hit 28 times directly, which prompted this sort of army of unmarked trucks to come.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Yeah, so Wallace, Alfred Russell Wallace is, I think a lot of Americans respond to him because he’s kind of the classic underdog. He wasn’t born into like a posh family in England and his family always has had real kind of financial problems. He was born in the 1820s and when he’s about 18, he reads Charles Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle. This kind of incredible, I mean, in some ways it’s like an adventure book, while it’s wrestling with this central question of which was what every naturalist and biologist was struggling with. How do you explain the origin of species? Why did some species die off? They kept uncovering fossils of creatures that didn’t exist anymore. And there was this – this was the question of the century and the thinking was in those days that in order to possibly answer it, you need to go out and collect specimens, you need to build up your collection so that by studying, if you know that this bird is related to this bird, then maybe you can tease out some kind of answer. But you can’t figure out the theory of evolution through just looking at one bird. And so Wallace was inspired to follow in Darwin’s footsteps. He goes to the British Museum of Natural History and he identifies where there are parts of the world where no one’s collected birds from or where they suspect that there’s a lot of species that no one’s seen before and he saves up all of his money and he books passage down to Brazil and he spends 4 years of his life and all of these nearly dying I don’t know how many times over, contracting malaria all of this deep in the jungle and he gathers up 10,000 birds. He’s got stacks of notebooks, he’s got fish skeletons, he’s pressed plants. He went down to Brazil a complete nobody. But as he loads all of this stuff back up on the ship back to London, he’s set to return to England almost like a conqueror. This is a career establishing set of specimens for him, enough that he could spend arguably the rest of his life just studying them for insights. 2 weeks into the return back to England, remember, this is like 1840s at this point, he’s woken up by a panicked crewmate telling him that the ship is on fire and he runs up and there’s smoke curling through the planks of the deck, and everyone’s frantically lowering the lifeboats. And in his kind of panic, he, like, races down, he grabbed maybe a couple notebooks, a pocket watch and a sextant that he had used for navigation and barely escaped with his life and then basically drifted off in a lifeboat and watched the ship burn down to the waterline and disappear, with 4 years of his collection gone or going to the bottom of the ocean, he makes it back to London, he’s threadbare, he’s like kind of crushed. But astonishingly, this guy is not beaten down by it. He sort of like knocks the dust off and he starts writing, what he can recall, he starts publishing scientific papers. He’s a nobody prior to this, but he basically writes his way into the scientific establishment. And as soon as he gets enough prominence, he writes a couple books. He’s like, I’m doing it again, I’m going back out. And he goes to, this time to the Malay Archipelago, which is modern day Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and he spends about, I think, 6, 7 years down there. This time he learns his lesson. He sends his specimens back regularly, rather than in one big hall and while he’s there you kind of hint at it, but he contracts malaria and in the middle of this kind of fever dream, he has this eureka moment and he pieces together a theory for natural selection to explain why new species form and others die off. And he’s like desperately waiting for his fever to pass and he sits down, writes a paper and he sends it off to Charles Darwin to say, hey, what do you think about this? Darwin had already been writing secretly the origin of species and had been kind of cultivating this for a long time, but he was worried about the social blowback, the consequences of publishing the book. But Darwin realized as soon as he got that letter from Wallace, Darwin was like, oh, my God, if I don’t hurry up, Wallace is going to beat me to it. So he hurries up and because Darwin was kind of posh and had old friends in high places, it’s known as Darwin’s theory of evolution. It’s one of the great moments in the history of science that these 2 men independently figured it out at roughly the same time. But Wallace is sort of he’s not credited for it because Darwin got all the credit. But Wallace wasn’t bitter about it. But one of the things he did and this is what brings us to the meat of the story is that, he gets back to London and at this point, he’s a kind of towering figure in the world of biology for his own research. And he implores the British Museum to protect these specimens, to protect the bird skins and all of the other things, the eggs, everything that we’re doing and he said that these are the individual letters that make up the words of the deep history of the earth, because you got to remember and Wallace was sort of the pioneer of this. But these birds are – you collect a bird, but you tie a tag to its foot and on the tag. You write the altitude, the date that you gathered it, the exact latitude and longitude the gender, any other kind of relevant details, sort of biometric details for that specimen. And through the kind of painstaking work of gathering this huge collection, a museum, if it’s protecting it, right. Well, it can allow researchers to come in and they can say, okay, let me see a bird from this island in 1820 and let me compare it to the same species of that bird from the same island in 1920 or in 2020 and let’s compare them. Let’s see what’s different about these birds and in that comparison, we can make some inferences about how the world’s changing. So Wallace kind of understood that these were, there was a kind of magic to these specimens that they held answers to questions that scientists hadn’t even thought of yet. And so he begs the British Museum to take care of them. He bequeaths his collection to the British Museum at his death. And right away, the collection is at risk. This is where Darwin’s birds are also being preserved. During World War I, the German Zeppelins are dropping thermite bombs all over London during the Blitz. In World War II, the Natural History Museum in London, which is where the birds used to be, that museum was hit 28 times directly, which prompted this sort of army of unmarked trucks to come. And they would, they secreted these birds out in the middle of the night, in the middle of the blitz, to this countryside museum up in Tring, which is about an hour northwest of London, which had been given to the British Museum to preserve these things and it was to basically protect them from Hitler. That museum in Tring was the kind of plaything of Walter Rothschild, of the famous Rothschild arguably the wealthiest family ever to live in the history of our planet. And young Walter Rothschild was not a banker. He didn’t like banking, he couldn’t stand the family business. He just wanted to collect birds. And so his dad, when he was 18, built him a museum in Tring to house all of his collection and Rothschild had private hunters going all over the world to gather these things and he had a massive collection. And so when Rothschild died, he gave his museum. He gave it to the British Museum of Natural History, which is why they used it as the site to protect Wallace’s birds and Darwin’s birds during World War II. And it was there that they stayed for I don’t know, 60, 70 more years, until the day that Edwin Rist came knocking on their front door.

Ramsey Russell: Talk about the heist. So young Edwin Rist went over to Europe to be a flutist. I know I’m saying that word wrong, but that’s the way I understand it. So he goes over there to play the flute and he can’t bring his tie, he can’t bring his obsession. He can’t bring the feathers with him because of international wildlife import type laws. But he’s got a better idea.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Yeah, it’s like, it’s as soon as he gets there, he’s sort of he’s 18, he’s starting college. Anyone who’s been to college knows that first year can be a rough transition to try to figure out who you are and how you fit in and one of the central things that kind of gave him confidence, that gave him meaning, was fly tying. And as you said, he didn’t bring all of his gear over with him because he knew it was too risky, that it might be seized at customs and one of his mentors said, well, you’ve got to, you’re in England now. You’ve got to get into the British Museum of Natural History up in Tring, you got to just go see these birds. It’ll make you weak in the knees, you won’t believe it. Edwin was smart enough to know that, because this is not just your listeners understand. This is not like the public display part of a museum where you see a bunch of birds with outstretched wings behind a glass case. This is a controlled part of the museum that’s not open to the public. There are 800,000 bird specimens, bird skins, where their wings are drawn tight to the body and they’re stored in 1500 cabinets, each of which have maybe 20 drawers in them, over 3 floors. This part of the museum has 2 and a half miles just of shelving for birds that are preserved in jars of spirit. They have 500,000 eggs, it’s a massive collection, but it’s there for scientific research. So, the only way to really get in there is to have a valid reason, the only way to be given access and so Edwin writes to the museum under false pretenses, he says, I am helping a friend who’s doing a PhD on the birds of paradise, the same birds that Wallace studied and gathered. And I’m a photographer and my friend needs me to come in there to photograph these birds. So the museum says, okay, well, can we verify this with your friend? What’s a good email? So Edwin creates an email that looks like his friend’s name or whatever the museum emails that fake email and Edwin says, yes, I need him to do this. So there’s already a little bit of duplicity going on here. And he gets, he’s granted access to the museum and he gets to see Wallace’s birds of paradise, gets to hold him in his hand to see the tags that Wallace wrote on. And he’s it’s a kind of – I don’t know how to describe it, other than it’s almost kind of like a religious experience for him in that he was kind of trembling to be, his whole life he’d been trying to get just a few feathers and here now there are 50 full, flawless specimens in a drawer in front of him and then there’s another drawer with 20 more below that. He told me, he’s like it’s one thing in life to see a gold brick on a table before you. You see a gold brick and you’re like, wow, that’s, I mean, that is something that’s worth a lot of money. It’s an entirely different thing to walk into Fort Knox and to see whatever it is, a million gold bricks. So something different part of your brain gets woken up. And so almost as soon as he is in there, I don’t know at what point the switch gets flipped, but he starts casing the place. So he’s taking pictures, like he said he would, of the birds of paradise and other birds. But while he’s there, he also starts taking pictures of the hallways and the locations of each species and this sort of labyrinth of cabinets. Takes pictures of the windows, of the entries and exits and he’s sort of building a visual map of the museum. And then over the course of the next, I think, roughly 7 months, he starts plotting the heist. He buys himself a diamond blade glass cutter to cut through one of the windows, he buys wire cutters, he steals a pair of rubber gloves from his doctor during a doctor’s appointment, he gets a little xenon flashlight. He builds a website that has, like, kind of an e commerce function in it so that he can sell these things. He buys 1000s of various sized ziplock baggies so that 5 feathers will fit in this one. A severed breastplate of that bird will fit in that one, so he’s getting ready. And then I think it’s the night of the 23rd June 2009. He performs in a concert in London, playing the flute, gets on the train up to train with a wheeling suitcase. He walks a couple miles from the train station in the middle of like maybe 10 or 11 at night or so. And he climbs this, he goes down this alleyway, climbs a wall, about a 7 foot wall. He snips away the barbed wire atop the wall and this wall is running directly behind a second story window at this part of the museum. He tries carving the hole out or an opening in the window, but he drops the glass cutter. It’s a tough kind of angle to do and it’s pretty hard to cut glass and so he’s about to give up and he sees a rock on the ground and he goes back down, gathers up the rock and he just bashes the window out. The guard was distracted, didn’t notice this was going on. And basically, Edwin had, was in there in the museum for several hours, just loading up his suitcase, filled it up with 299 bird skins and got out of there before the guard realized what was happening. And over the course of the next 15 months, I mean, I’m fast forwarding a little bit, but the museum basically, when they found the broken glass the next morning, they freaked out because they thought somebody had stolen, come to steal Darwin’s birds, his finches and things. But when they couldn’t find anything missing, as I said, it’s a massive collection. So the museum says, well, boy, we lucked out there. Maybe it’s just somebody kicking a window out and looking for a TV to steal and they changed their mind or whatever. So the museum didn’t even realize it had been robbed for about a little over a month, which was a heck of a head start for Edwin to get going and start selling these things. He basically made it about 15 months selling what British authorities think was about several hundred thousand dollars worth of birds and chopped up feathers before he was caught. And for those who haven’t read the book, I won’t give it all away, but it’s a heck of a thing what proceeded from there. But by the time I found out about the story that day in New Mexico, he had basically been caught, arrested and then lawyered up and threw some very quirky loopholes in the British judicial system. Basically, he never spent a night behind bars. He received a suspended sentence, so they let him walk and he got a kind of slap on the wrist with a financial penalty and the case was closed. He was even granted a degree from the Royal Academy of Music after all of this. The British Museum, because I think because they were so obsessed with their own reputation and they were embarrassed by this. They were quite happy to just call it closed, but when I started digging into it, I was like, wait, there’s still roughly half of these birds are still missing.

Ramsey Russell: He stole 299 birds, supposedly, right?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And how many were still missing when you entered the equation?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: So the numbers are such a fascinating, so they found, they break roughly into thirds. So they found, when they arrested him, they found about 100 birds still were intact and they had those tags still tied to their feet. There were about 70 birds or so that were mostly intact, but they didn’t have the tags on their feet anymore and without those tags, they’re basically worthless to science at this point because they look identical. And even to the most experienced researcher, you can’t tell which one was gathered in 1820 versus 1840 at this point. And then the last third were basically at large and so when I started digging around and seeing some pretty shady looking stuff on these private forums and private Facebook groups and at fly time conventions and stuff, I thought, well, okay, if not, no one’s looking for these things now. I might as well see if I can find some.

Ramsey Russell: And you know there’s got to be some of those guys that had some of those feathers that the last thing they want to do is give them up.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Yes.

Ramsey Russell: They’re irreplaceable.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: That’s right. And they are, I mean and I had the first flight time convention I went to, I was like still kind of play acting as an investigative journalist. But there was one guy I been looking through – I got him to show me a collection of exotic feathers. Many of the species were the same as those missing from the museum and after he had just shown me these feathers for sale, I told him that I was thinking about writing about Edwin Rist and the Tring heist, the natural history museum heist and his tone changed immediately because all of a sudden, I’m not a customer anymore. And he’s like, I don’t think you want to write that, Kirk and I was like, no, why is that? And he goes, because we are a small, tight knit community and you do not want to mess with us.

Ramsey Russell: All right, that leads me right up to my question, though now, Kirk. Talk about this tight knit underground community. How did you pierce it? And what are they like? They’re not fishermen, they’re collectors. Feather collectors.

Legal and Ethical Challenges in Feather Acquisition.

There’s a ton of these feathers you just cannot possess, you cannot buy or sell right now.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Yeah, they’re collectors. A few of them are anglers, but the overwhelming majority are not fishermen and it’s they approach this like an art form. They approach it, to me, they seemed almost like monks, that there were these sacred texts that they had, that this is the only true way to tie a Green Highlander or a Jock Scott or an Evangeline or whatever. And there were in that kind of minutiae and the kind of, there were battles over tiny differences and so, like, I had one of these guys sit down with me because these flies can take 10 hours to tie a single fly. And they’ll be, there are fierce debates about whether or not, when you get to this step of the process, does it require 5 wraps of gold silk or gold tinsel or does it require 6 wraps? And there’s one school that says 5 and one school that says 6. They have that they just reprinted or republished one of the kind of bibles. And I think it’s $700 or something to buy a single book. These are beautiful – for whatever sort of troubles, I’ve had with this community, because they’re upset that the book just exists. I can admire the art form, I admire it a whole lot. And I mean, I can tie some trout flies that work, but I can’t do anything like this, it’s unbelievable. But I still was never able to get past the basic absurdity of it all, that this doesn’t help you catch salmon any better. I have friends that have caught salmon with a candy bar wrapper tied to a hook. Salmon aren’t easy to catch, but they’re not like, they’re not doing these very discerning glances. People write to me from all over the world, showing me the flies that they’ve caught salmon on. Here’s a tuft of dog fur that I caught a fly salmon with. So to me, I was sort of, I can admire the art form. But the kicker here is that the demand, I can’t think of any other hobby or pursuit that so quickly pushes its enthusiasts into violating international law. There’s a ton of these feathers you just cannot possess, you cannot buy or sell right now. Now, a lot of these guys think that they can –

Ramsey Russell: But they are being bought and sold, aren’t they?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Yes.

Ramsey Russell: Because of the Internet, yeah. I mean, so a lot of those feathers that Rist presumably took were never recovered and you still see those species feathers for sale today on eBay.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Right. They’ll use code words and things now to try to slip past the authorities. But the authorities are Fish & Wildlife Service. Like, I know a lot of these agents, their mandates are more for, like, elephant and rhino other than it is for seizing some feathers here and there. But a lot of these guys think that it, I mean and I, hopefully, the book has disabused them of this notion, but they think, if you just say this magic phrase, it’s a pre cites bird, that you’re in the clear, that you just have to say that and then you’re allowed to sell it. Oh, I found it in my grandma’s attic. My grandma had some of these Victorian hats. Even if you found it in grandma’s attic, that you might lawfully – and you can prove that it was a pre cites bird, that you still can’t sell it. You can keep it to yourself, you can keep it from being seized, but you can’t sell it. And so these guys have kind of their obsession with being faithful to this 19th century nonsense is making them sort of warping their moral compass.

Ramsey Russell: Wait a minute, Kirk, is that the only break in that you’re aware of that involves feathers for this kind of hobby?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Astonishingly, no, it’s not. And I am now at 5 separate museum heists that have been carried out ostensibly in the name of fly tying and stealing these birds. It’s crazy. There were 2 heists in Europe where an American fly tyer who was living there got a contract as a pest control guy and he would go into the museum after hours and spray for bugs and then he would tape tens of thousands of dollars of birds inside his coveralls. When I launched the book at the Los Angeles, Natural History Museum, the head of their bird collection brought me over to a display case and showed me the crowbar marks where somebody had pried open the case and stolen the exact same species that were stolen by the feather thief. There’s one institution that I can’t publicly name yet because they’re trying to figure out how to proceed, but it involves an American university that a lot of these collections are housed within research institutions like universities and it seems as though there’s a grad student who’s been stealing birds from their collection and selling them into the fly tying community. So this is not, I mean, what Edwin did and the Tring heist, that was the kind of most egregious, but it was not an isolated incident and I don’t think the – for all of the kind of publicity that the book has, negative publicity, that the book has sort of given to this community, I don’t think there’s been some great big reform or people are coming to see the light. They want this stuff as much as they ever have coveted it. And since the book has come out, I mean, I think we, I might have said this, but I mean, the value of the birds has shot up because the black market is going even deeper underground now.

Ramsey Russell: So, well, it’s like all commodities, as there’s less available, the price is going to skyrocket. Therefore, there’s going to be even more interest in it.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: That’s right. They call it scarcity value. That’s exactly what’s going on and so I have museums all over the world that write to me with some regularity where they’re like, hey, this guy just asked to see this species of bird. Do you know him? Like, is he a good guy or a bad guy? And so it’s one of these it’s an unpaid, unofficial security consultant gig that I’ve kind of walked myself into now through writing this book. But it’s an interesting thing because these museums are, they’re not supposed to be bunkers. They’re not supposed to be Fort Knox. They exist for the public, they exist for humans to pursue knowledge. And so they can’t just as a result of all of this, build big castle walls and then say, nobody’s allowed to see these things again or else they’re going against their core function, which is to make these things available for research.

Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s what’s so wild about this topic, Kirk, is we’re talking feathers. We’re not talking the hope diamond or the Mona Lisa like some major art heist. We’re talking feathers and somebody was telling me, like, a single little piece of feather, like, you’re talking about as long as my finger could go for a hundred or more dollars and a bird could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: I mean, some of these flies require so many exotic feathers that, I mean, you’re well over $5,000, if not more at this point. So, yeah, it is not what you would traditionally think of as being something worth stealing from a museum. But I think with any subculture, with any community of obsessed types, you just need that community and you need that obsession for the value to start skyrocketing. You’ve got a bunch of decoys behind you and I don’t know hardly anything about the decoy world, but I know that there’s some that are rarer than others and some that are, like, shockingly valuable. I don’t know if people are stealing antique decoys or things, but it’s like we can create value around anything if there’s a prestige in owning it and I think that’s really what’s at the heart of all of this.

Ramsey Russell: And that leads right into my next question, because we’ve talked about the value, we’ve talked about this passion for a purity, an absurdity of, gosh, almost a lunacy for it being exactly per the recipe that it was written 150 years ago. But in the instance of The Feather Thief or people like him that you’re talking about, are we really talking money? Are we talking prestige? Are we talking art or are we talking money?

Unanswered Questions and Reflections

Why would somebody with their whole future in front of them and a bright future, I mean, he was destined for the Berlin Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: It’s a really great question. It’s one of the kind of central questions that I set out to answer in writing the book. Why would somebody with their whole future in front of them and a bright future, I mean, he was destined for the Berlin Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony. How could they just trade that all in for some feathers? And I think, being honest, I could make the case that I’ve spent more time trying to answer this question than anyone else. But I still can’t profess to know exactly what was motivating him or going through his mind when he climbed the wall that night, but I do know that there were, it wasn’t just one thing. So I know that he had, his family had some financial issues and I think he was in a very foolish and misguided way, hoping to somehow resolve those. I know that he coveted a golden flute and there are, I mean, these things can go for $50,000, these golden flutes and so there’s – And when you’re in this world kind of like with fly tyers, but musicians, there are things you can possess that will grant you more status and prestige. So I know part of it was that he wanted it in order to earn enough money by selling these things so that he could buy himself a golden flute. I know that there was a prestige component to it that we talked about these recipes and I can’t remember if I’m repeating myself, but there are some of these series of flies that require such an insane amount of hard to get feathers that there’s only like a tiny number of people on the planet that have tied them.

Ramsey Russell: What would be an example? For example, just if you know the name of the pattern, that would be the rarest or most elusive or more expensive component in terms of these endangered birds, what would the name of that pattern be?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: If you look up, there’s something called the Traherne series, Major John Traherne. And this is a 19th century sort of British aristocrat who, I think there are 20 flies in that series and there’s one fly, for example, that’s called the chatterer and that’s almost the entire fly is just hard to get blue chatterer or caatinga feathers. And that’s one that’s thousands of dollars and now take that and multiply it by 20, 19 other flies. And so I think that series, I mean, Edwin told me himself, like, he always wanted to finish the Traherne series because there’s, like, there’s maybe 5 people alive right now that have been able to tie all of them. So it’s incredible bragging rights in order to do that. I think there’s also a kind of, there’s a component to this of – Edwin’s an incredibly bright guy and I think there’s some component to this of like, I did it. I got away with it. Like, I’m smarter than everybody else. So I never reduce something down to just a single motive, but I also don’t profess to, I don’t know that I’ll ever fully understand, like, I feel like I’m capable of empathizing with a whole range of human actions and mistakes and things like that and I can put myself in someone else’s shoes. Even with all of that, I still can’t imagine climbing a wall, snipping away barbed wire, bashing a window out like knowing that there are guards there. I mean, it’s the incredible risks that he took to do this. It’s really hard for me to say, like, yeah, no, I could see myself doing that, I just can’t. And so at some point like a – there’s a point where I can really only kind of make an educated guess as to what it was in the end that led him to do this.

Ramsey Russell: Where are the missing birds? If there are any. And it sounds like there’s missing birds and I’m sitting there thinking he was a college kid. The detective went through his stuff. I mean, where could it be hidden? Where could it possibly be hidden that they didn’t find? I guess it could be a lot of different places, but where do you think they are? Are those the feathers we’re now seeing advertised on places like eBay?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Well, I can’t know for sure, but there are still, I mean, my last calculation is that there’s still potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of birds and feathers circulating in this community. Now, I know that there were people that got on planes and flew to London to buy not just feathers, but entire birds from Edwin. I know that there were not just packets of feathers, but entire specimens sold through eBay and through these private forums. The crazy thing, which I think I have made clear, but these guys understand that even if there’s 20 Fish & Wildlife agents approaching their front door with a search warrant and everything, if these guys snip the tag off of the specimens, if there’s some that still have tags, if they snip them off and burn them, then there arguably, there’s no way that the museum will ever be able to prove that this was one of their birds.

Ramsey Russell: Wow.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Unless they were dumb enough to have some kind of digital money trail tying them to Edwin. So there’s people all over the world that have, because of the book, sort of tried to solve this and have they’re digging around and I get tips all the time about possible who might have them. There might be some guy with a suitcase full of them and he’s just waiting for all the dust to settle from this story and he’s just got them for himself. It may be that they’re all chopped up and they’ve been kind of sold off into the bloodstream of this community and they’re tied in little bits here and there around hooks and we’ll never be able to know. But it is not, one thing is very clear. When this all went down, the community of Victorian salmon fly tyers try to just say, oh, well, I mean, Edwin was just a bad apple. Don’t tar us with the same brush. We didn’t go steal from the museum, but there are a lot of people who bought from this kid, probably knowing that they were buying stolen goods that have not returned them. And I don’t know why the – it’s hard for me to take in good faith, their complaints about the book when they’ve reacted to it and to my reporting with such hostility, but they haven’t found any factual, they can’t point to any factual reporting errors and anytime there’s any discussion of it within these private forums, there’s a general rule to just delete any discussion of it.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: So they’re trying to just sort of bury this themselves.

Ramsey Russell: Well, getting kicked in the shin kind of hurts. And I mean, sometimes when you see people get offended or react offensively, it’s because you, I myself included, Kirk, it’s because something said that hits real close to the bone. The truth hurts.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Well, at some point, I always feel the need to say this, especially when I’m in front of an audience. But it’s not like I got bullied by a fly tyer when I was little and I’ve just been biting my time to get revenge. I’m not like, I don’t have, I love tying trout flies and I don’t have anything against salmon fly tying if people are using properly sourced feathers and materials. I just still have, I guess, some clarity of vision to say, all right, but you guys have gone into something else here with this addiction to illegal stuff and as much as I can appreciate what you do with it. I mean, I don’t care. You’re not allowed to have it. It’s not yours, belongs to the museum. It’s part of a felony heist. Give it back or else accept the kind of moral discomfort of knowing that you’re holding on to this stuff. But don’t whine to me, just that I wrote about it. I mean, the fly fishing guide who’s a close friend of mine who first told me this story, has had to go to local law enforcement twice because of death threats he’s received from this community for the sin of telling me about this story.

Ramsey Russell: Wow.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: He’s been blacklisted by some of these conventions and not being welcome to tie because he only wants to tie using substitute feathers now. So I’m biting my tongue here because I’m trying to be a magnanimous, but I could care less if they’re pissed off about the book. If I get a call from the museum saying that there’s been a huge shipment of birds returned, even if I even arranged it with the museum, that they could return these things anonymously, no questions asked, but still nothing. I know if I got a call saying that they were sending things back, my stance would change. But no, they’re not, they’re too in for a dime, in for a dollar, as they say.

Ramsey Russell: You talk about them, maybe some of these skins or feathers sitting in suitcases or shoe boxes or however you store stuff in a basement, some anonymous person’s houses remind me, there was a famous decoy carver named Elmer Cromwell. And his pieces go for a fortune and I heard the story once that his house, his shop, everything had sold after his death. And I just, the way the story was told to me, I just imagined a new homeowner, housewife went there and saw all this junk, all these sketches, all these drawings, all these tools, all this stuff in this little workshop began to throw it away, but before somebody became aware of it. But by then, all this cultural antiquity had already hit the trash, rubbish pile. It was gone. And I just imagine some of these priceless feathers and skins, somebody passing because I’m imagining, even though Mr. Rist may have been a young man, a lot of these guys are probably older. And one day their heirs go into it and say, what the heck is this? And throw it out on the curb with all the other trash they’re getting rid of or have it at a garage sale and nobody values it for the cultural and scientific antiquity that it truly is. And that’s sad. It could be in a museum forever.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: It could be and it should be. And just to your point, one of these guys in this community, his nickname is the undertaker, because he’s always on a lookout for when one of these older fly tyers die and he’s usually the first one to show up on the widow’s doorstep to offer to buy this guy’s feathers or birds before she makes that mistake. And he’s trying to kind of buy off the feathers and birds before anyone else, before it hits the market.

Ramsey Russell: That’s a big deal because, like, I’ve heard the same thing in the collectible decoy world of well to do people putting on a Sears and Roebuck suit and tie and drive, going and buy them an old $600 car beater and coming to a funeral and just snooping around with old widow to see if there’s anything valuable in this guy’s collection and don’t want to look like money but comes across like, well, I’ll take it off your hands for $50 and that might be a $10,000 decoy.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Dude, are there stories of decoy heists or thefts?

Ramsey Russell: None that I know of. But I have heard in some of those old clubs where lockers full of old decoys that have become collectible just on the death of the camp member, just when whoever cracked open his locker next, the decoys were gone, I’ve heard of stuff like that before. You better believe it and maybe some fraud, maybe some knockoffs or reproduction knockoffs made to look like something else. I had an old friend, changing the subject, I had an old friend one time, Kirk. He described picking up a species of sea duck, a harlequin duck he described as everyone he ever picked up as feeling like new money. And as an avid duck hunter myself, that has been around the world and put hands on a lot of species, there’s a lot of times that a Cape Barren goose, a red crested pochard, a garganey, something new, something I’ve never laid hands on before, it’s hard to articulate. This was a duck and I went all the way across the world and I shot it. But then I pick it up and I hold it and those feathers. But it doesn’t have to be an exotic species, it could be the mallard duck and you pick this bird up, you called him in, you decoy him, your dog fetches him, you hold him and just the glimmering blues in the speculums, the curls of the feather, the shimmering green head, it’s something about holding those feathers. And nearly everybody in my world that duck hunts can relate to that magic feeling of just something about those feathers. And I think that’s what resonated so strongly with this salmon fly heist book of yours. The parallels between your world and mine are just overwhelming because I feel that magic, I feel that something when I hold these feathers.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: There’s a line in the book that I’ll butcher the quote, but it’s, I quote a kind of hardcore fly tyer as, I mean, he’s saying almost exactly what you’re saying that when you hold these things in your hand, it’s like you’re making contact with an earth that doesn’t exist anymore or that barely exists, that it’s like it’s connecting you to the sort of pre-industrial era age when there was a bounty of everything and that it seemed that like everything was pure and the earth was untouched and so there is this great kind of romance that these things trigger and I mean on a deeper human species level, we’ve been using feathers to attract and adorn each other or like to adorn ourselves and to attract each other for 10,000 years probably. I mean, women and men both have been wearing feathers as it was a way to show status. They still do in certain cultures around the world. So there is something unique and it’s also what is more fantasy like to a human than the idea of flight. What, like makes us more kind of look up to the heavens and dreamlike and childlike than the idea of flying like a bird. And you can only do that with feathers. Feathers are what enable all of that and the wing shape and all of that. And so I think it hits these deep parts of our brain so I can understand the similarities between the fly tying community and the duck hunting community.

Ramsey Russell: Have you got any insight or? We’re talking about feathers, but why? What is it about human nature that compels us to just collect? I collect birds, I collect experiences. Some of these people we’re talking about collect certain feathers to build ornate flies, which are then a part of a collection. But there’s people that collect baseball cards and Indian stones. What is it about human nature, Kirk, that compels us to collect nature?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: I think there’s, I can only make decent guesses, but I think about this all the time because I think there are, I mean, arguably, it’s the original human imperative is to go out and hunt and go out and get something and bring it back to your tribe and to gather and to not just be on the brink of having nothing all the time. But then when you fast forward to, like, the modern era, I mean, sometimes where I feel like there’s a genetic switch that either you have it or you don’t. I don’t view myself as like a – if I don’t collect them all, it doesn’t bother me. You know what I mean? Like, when I grew up, I bought a lot of basketball cards I just wanted Michael Jordan cards. I didn’t care about like having every card issued that season or whatever. But then my wife kind of prods me where she’s like, well, you do. You collect stories, it’s a different thing. They’re not a tangible thing, but they’re, I’m constantly going out and looking for stories that are shiny and interesting and that kind of are attractive. But it is a kind of core human impulse that, I mean, what are all of us waking up and working jobs we don’t want to work at? What are we all doing if not, we’re going out to collect dollars for our bank account? It’s like some things just have to be more entertaining and gratifying to collect than other things. So I don’t know, we’re like, we’re ants in a way. We’re just, we’re teaming all over the surface of the planet trying to just grab shiny resources or things that are good for us. And in this case, they’re like, we’ve evolved to a point where there’s prestige and status and certain things. But it’s not, not everyone feels it the same way. I mean, I remember when I was little, this will sound silly, but there was like, there was, I mean, I was a hardcore basketball fan. I grew up outside of Chicago in the peak era of the Bulls in the 90s. And there was like, I remember McDonald’s had some campaign once, but where there’s like, they had these cups with like NBA players on them and there were 10 cups and I was collecting them and I got 9 and it was driving a couple of my friends nuts because I never got the Reggie Miller one. And I was just, but I didn’t care. I was just like, alright, I got 9. And I think back to that sometimes where I’m just like, I don’t think I have the switch that would lead me into like, I don’t, I would never care about tying all 20 of those Traherne series, you know what I mean? When I tie try, there’s probably, I don’t know, 500 a thousand trout fly patterns. I can tie like, 5 because I’m tying them in order to catch trout with them. And they’re not perfect and I’m just sort of like, all right, that works, that’s fun. So, I don’t know if that answers your question, but it’s a great riddle and it’s one that I think about all the time.

Ramsey Russell: What next for Kirk Wallace? Where is, what next for The Feather Thief? Your project, The Feather Thief? Because throughout the podcast interview, it’s not something you research that just went away. It’s an ongoing interaction with you. It’s a part of your life and it has been for years now and probably will continue be forever, but what next?

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Yeah, I think so. I think there’s – when I was younger, I used to think you do this and then you move on with your life and do something next. But I mean I’m still helping refugees out. I’m still, I mean, there’s things I can’t talk about now, but, I mean, I have some pretty shocking tips that have come in about the whereabouts of where some birds might be and I’m talking with authorities about it. And so I don’t know what’s going to come of that, but, so if there’s any fly tyers out there, they should be shitting a brick right now. I don’t know if I can swear on you. But, yeah, I mean I think if the, I mean, we’ll see what happens with the adaptation of it into a TV series, but it’s looking likely. But I’m very much, I’m still in that world and my publisher is pushing me for the next book, but I’m usually pretty quiet about what the next book idea is until I feel like I’ve got it cornered. So, yeah, I’m not punting on the answer, but it’s what’s next is always kind of an unfolding thing for me.

Ramsey Russell: I understand. Thank you very much for your time. I have so much enjoyed this topic and this conversation because even though there are some parallels with my world, it really goes deeper than that. It goes into a whole unexplored world of something else entirely different. It’s hard to believe that people out there tying these ornate flies have so much in common with us duck hunters, but it’s a fascinating topic and it was a very good read. It’s also hands down the best audio book I’ve ever heard. It was absolutely delivered with perfection. I would encourage everybody to go out and get a copy of The Feather Thief. Kirk, thank you very much.

Kirk Wallace Johnson: Thank you so much for having me on, Ramsey. It’s been a real thrill talking with you.

Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank you all for listening this episode of MOJO’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast, we’ll see you next time.

[End of Audio]

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