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Torrey 150

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Torrey Botanical Society, the oldest botanical organization in America. Namesake John Torrey was a Columbia College physician, chemist, and botanist. His 1819 Catalogue of Plants Growing Spontaneously Within Thirty Miles of the City of New York and his A Flora of New York State (1843), among other works, put him on the botanical map.

Next month, there will be a day-long symposium to celebrate the Society’s anniversary at the NYBG. And check out the field trips…

Wild Pigeons

“When an individual is seen gliding through the woods, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone,” so wrote John James Audubon on the Passenger Pigeon, which is of course now long gone. Audubon — who cribbed from Alexander Wilson more than once, including in his famous account of the three days passage of the birds overhead — was spot-on about this. Passenger Pigeons were rarely seen as individuals. They were an aggregate, a swarm. Ornithologists, for instance, hardly paid any attention to the bird until it was too late. There aren’t even that many skins of the birds in collections today.

Rather unexpectedly in the catalog of Notting Hill Editions, an English publisher of handsome editions of the art of the essay, I found John Wilson Foster’s excellent history of and meditation upon the Passenger Pigeon: Pilgrims of the Air. The book was originally published in 2014, the centenary of the very last pigeon to die, and is now being distributed here in the U.S. I strongly recommend it.

By now you probably know the tale: incomprehensible numbers of Passenger Pigeons flocking across the landscape of North America well into the 19th century. Then, in mere decades, literally just about twenty years, dwindling to near nothing. And now, for more than a century, nothing… not a single human-damned one.

Foster’s slim book gives us a very fine pocket history of ornithology in America, with some surprising appearances, such as the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather, FRS. Audubon you probably know, but how about Peter Kalm, who described the pigeons in 1759, and Nicolas Denys, who wrote about them in his 1672 memoir?

Not every year was a “Pigeon Year,” mind you, but they came sporadically, tremendous booms that crushed woodlands with their weight. Of course, they also seeded forests out the other end…. They terrorized farmers and thrilled hunters and overjoyed the hungry, including the pigs that would be set loose on the killing fields and woods. There were, for instance, a dozen years between visitations of the pigeon horde in the Massachusetts colony (1631, 1643), “soe many that they obscured the lighte, that it passeth credit, if but they truth should bee written.” After the Civil War, the slaughter became industrial, aided by railroad, telegraphy, and bottomless urban markets. And when the birds stopped coming to be killed, the pigeoneers made all sorts of delusional excuses to point the blame elsewhere: the birds had all flown to South America; they had all drowned; and so on. Indeed, Foster notes that this nonsense echoed Cotton Mather’s old notion that the birds came from outer space.

Foster writes “early reports betrayed a similar ambivalence about the abundance of wildlife that both stretched credulity and in a disturbing way threatened preconceptions of an orderly world.” Even within the rich context of the New World’s flora and fauna, especially as seen by Old Worlders who came from lands already scoured of species, the Passenger stood out. Foster’s chapter on the overwhelming abundance of life in North America is hard to read, for now, verily, ’tis like we live in the aftermath of a plague… of ourselves: the two-legged locusts.

These birds were wanderers, nomads, opportunists, chasing down food (acorns, beechnuts, maple samaras, fruits, grains), not north-south migratory in the standard sense. Thoreau wrote in September, 1854 about their most famous food, acorns: “These are found whole in their crops. They swallow them whole. I should think from the droppings that they had been eating berries. I hear that Wetherbee caught ninety-two dozen last week.”

Thomas W. Neumann’s thesis was that these enormous flocks were freakish, the post-Columbian result of the removal of competition for mast. That competition had included humans, turkeys, deer, squirrels, etc, all tremendously reduced by the Europeans. Foster introduces this idea on page 108, after approximately 100 pages of evidence of enormous flocks dating almost from the first European contact. In 1634, for instance, when there were an estimated 6,000 Europeans in the colonies, the “Ayerie regiment” of these birds were flying in the “Millions of Millions.”

Benedict Revoil, otherwise quite unreliable, did have this distressingly accurate forecast in 1859: the Passengers “will eventually disappear from this continent; and if the world endure a century longer, I will wager that the amateur of ornithology will find no pigeons except in select Museums of Natural History.”

Well, precisely. I’ve seen ’em stuffed at the American Museum of Natural History. That is all.

Beasts of Mesopotamia

The Morgan Library and Museum also has a marvelous exhibition entitled Noah’s Beasts: Sculpted Animals From Ancient Mesopotamia. In the nookish Thaw Gallery until August 27th, the exhibition is gem-like. Like Thoreau, so well represented nearby, the unknown sculptors were profound observers of animals.

The lion’s gaze meets yours. (Not much bigger than a baseball, the weathered silver face hardly seems nearly 5000 years old.)

And then you recall that these first great human civilizations, between the life-giving and -taking rivers Tigris and Euphrates, were also the first to go. Recall that Gilgamesh slew the guardian of the cedar forest, and soon the cedars were no more. Yes, just push the dawn of the Anthropocene back to that first sin.

Certainly I’m a pessimist (well, come on, history!), but just as certainly I’m sustained by the beauty we can make.

 

Inexhaustible Thoreau

Forty-seven manuscript volumes, seven thousand pages, two million words: the journals of Henry David Thoreau have been edited, extracted, and analyzed over and over again. Beginning with himself, since he used his journals for notes and drafts of articles, books, and speeches. It was his practice to write every day (life, of course, made exceptions); it could be a fine practice to read from him everyday, because he is quite inexhaustible. Let’s admit his published books sometimes make for hard reading; but not so the journals.

These voluminous writings serve as the basis of the exhibit at The Morgan Library and Museum, running until September 10th, entitled This Ever New Self. It’s moving to the Concord Museum, source of more than a few of the items on display, in late September and staying there until 1/21/18. See it!

The words are the things here, but you can also see such stuff as his walking stick, incised by the inch as a handy reference; his desk, pictured above, of Shaker-like simplicity; his ruler, inscribed D.H.T.; samples of the famous Thoreau & Co. pencils, and a lovely blue display box they would have been sold from; and two of his herbarium sheets. Above all, the flowing hand of his writing across pages of notebooks. This liquid scrawl is really quite difficult to read now. But judging from the finely-chiseled clarity of a letter sent to him, it was probably difficult to read Thoreau’s handwriting in his own time. Yet the words make an admirable pattern, a trace of vitality. It scootles across the page.
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156 years after his death, we are still reading. Some people don’t get this; wowza, are they missing out!

Mouse of Walden


“Someone memorialized Thoreau’s small friend by drawing a mouse on the the back of his door,” writes Laura Dassow Walls in her magnificent new biography. In honor of the Thoreau bicentennial and the mouse at Walden Pond, I asked my friend Marion to draw one on the door to my apartment.

Meanwhile, in Antarctica: Larsen A’s gone, Larsen B collapsed, and yesterday a big chunk of Larsen C broke off. But you know what? It’s really the West Antarctic ice sheet you should be worried about….

HDT200

Born two hundred years ago today, David Henry Thoreau entered the world some 182 years after Concord was settled by English colonialists. What a half-way point for America! Concord’s establishment was, by the way, half a dozen years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: the Puritans were reluctant to move inland. At first.

In The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years, Robert M. Thorson points out that HDT (who changed the order of his given names after college; some Concordians continued to call him David) spent far more time on the waters of the Sudbury and Assabet and Concord rivers and their sprawling, sometimes flooded meadowlands than in the more famous woods. But more importantly, he argues that the Anthropocene had already commenced! In 182 years, the landscape had already been radically transformed, disrupted, deforested, depopulated (of its original inhabitants, two legged and otherwise). A local battle between farmers and early industrialists over control of the river waters, something Henry was a part of as surveyor, was a piece of this human transformation of the planet, at local and global levels.

In her new biography of Thoreau, Laura Dassow Walls, distilling her own lifetime as a scholar of Thoreau and his times, gives us a majestic life in the round. Her stated aim is a reading of “Thoreau as a writer — for remarkably he made of his life itself an extended form of composition, a kind of open, living book.” And she notes that the two Thoreaus we’ve invented for our own time (the nature writer; the social justice figure) really are one.* “His social activism and his defense of nature sprang from the same roots.” Indeed, a “knot of roots” (the description is Emerson’s).

A knot of roots! Aren’t we all, out here on our little twig on the great shrub of life? And sometimes we’re all a little prickly, too. (That was a tangle of plant metaphors, wasn’t it?) Thoreau was no saint. Who is? The testimony of his longevity and continued relevance, particularly at this moment of crisis in the Republic — indeed, the planet as we know it — is more than enough.Kevin Dann, in his wonderfully quirky Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of HDT wants to co-opt Emerson’s disappointed comment about his one-time protege as nothing more than a leader of a huckleberry party. (Emerson, meanwhile, wends his way to the nihilistic individualism of libertarianism….) Dann says this is precisely the point: get out there and gather huckleberries, real or imagined, and make it a party. (Lately, I’ve been cooking with sour cherries and making peach ice-cream, so I think I’m on the right track.)

*”Saving the world requires saving democracy,” echoes Carl Safina (quoted in Patrick Lynch’s A Field Guide to Long Island Sound, a book impossible to imagine without Thoreau), “That requires well-informed citizens. Conservation, environment, poverty, community, education, family, health, economy — these combine to make one quest: liberty and justice for all. Whether one’s special emphasis is global warming or child welfare, the cause is the same cause. And justice comes from the same place being human comes from: compassion.”

All the Thoreau here at B&B.

Birthday Boy

Tomorrow is Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday. This was his journal entry of March 23, 1856:

“I spend a considerable portion of my time observing the habits of the wild animals, my brute neighbors. By their various movements and migrations they fetch the year about to me. Very significant are the flight of geese and the migration of suckers, etc. But when I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here, the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverene, wolf, bear, moose, deer, beaver, turkey, etc., etc., I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country. Would not the motions of those larger and wilder animals have been more significant still? Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with? As if I were to study a tribe of Indians that had lost all its warriors. Do not the forest and the meadow now lack expression? Now that I never see nor think of the moose with a lesser forest on his head in the one, nor of the beaver in the other? When I think what were the various sounds and notes, the migrations and works, and changes of fur and plumage which ushered in the spring, and marked the other seasons of the year, I am reminded that this my life in nature, this particular round of natural phenomena which I call a year, is lamentably incomplete. I listen to a concert in which so many parts are wanting. The whole civilized country is, to some extent, turned into a city, and I am that citizen whom I pity. Many of those animal migrations and other phenomena by which the Indians marked the season are no longer to be observed. I seek acquaintance with nature to know her moods and manners. Primitive nature is the most interesting to me. I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I learn that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth. All the great trees and beasts, fishes and fowl are gone; the streams perchance are somewhat shrunk.”

We have shrunk, diminished, and simplified the world. And, seeing just what we see, we are mostly unaware of it. For the imagination, too, has been hamstrung. At a recent Torrey Society lecture on lichens, I was reminded that our woodlands are now mostly denuded of these symbiotic fungi/algi combinations. Being very sensitive to air pollution, most of these canaries-in-a-open-air-coalmine are gone. There should be a profusion of splotching, hanging, dripping, lichens enriching the woods. Turkeys, at least, have come back.


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