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Feather Obsession

28 May 2020
The Fly Tier

Obsession is at the heart of genius, but it can sometimes over-run itself. Take the case of Edwin Rist. He grew up in the town of Claverack in the Hudson Valley north of New York. He and his brother were home schooled. Bed time stories included the Iliad.

Edwin was brilliant in every way, devouring new subjects. At the age of 10 he took Spanish classes with adults, spent time with a herpitologist at the American Museum of Natural History and learned the flute.

He somehow understood at an early age that his potential would be limited only by his ability to focus, which he had in spadefuls. The object of that focus at the age of 11, however, was unusual.

On watching a video about fly fishing, he became obsessed with trying trout and then salmon flies. With feathers, hooks, spools of fine thread and plier clamps he and his brother spent hours making beautiful objects. His intention was not to catch fish but to make ever more magnificent flies.

He and his brother entered competitions and aced them. By the age of 14 Edwin was one of the most celebrated fly tiers in the US fraternity of tiers. He didn’t neglect his flute, however, and in 2007 at the age of 18 he enrolled at the elite Royal Academy of Music in London.

That’s when he heard about the museum in the market town of Tring. In it is housed the greatest collection of birds in the world, including Charles Darwin’s finches and birds of Paradise collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, many now extinct.

Obsession bit deep. One night he broke into the museum, stuffed hundreds of irreplaceable birds in a suitcase and headed back to London. In his posession was the most magnificent collection of fly feathers ever owned by a fly tier.

He sold them by the bird and by the feather on eBay and Buyers had never seen such rare feathers and didn’t ask questions. The police had no clues and eventually closed the case. Priceless, scientific objects were lost forever.

A few years later a comment at a fly tying fair in Holland led to Edwin’s arrest and trial. A good lawyer got him off, argueing that he had Asbergers syndrome and was unable to rationally control his obsessions.

Edwin graduated and went on to play with some of the most celebrated orchestras and ensambles in Europe. It’s not known whether he still ties flies.

Read The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson (Penguin).

About the Author:


Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.

His other books include:

Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
Voices of liberation
The Brotherhoods,
Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
Natural Selections,
African Journeys,
Just add dust,
Loveletters to Africa,
Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
Wild as it Gets,
He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.

He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Wilderness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.

His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.