Posts Tagged 'books'

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.

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.

Swallows and Swifts

Dr. Johnson, in his 59th year, 1768 (per wee Jaimie Boswell):

“He seemed pleased to talk of natural philosophy. ‘That woodcocks, (said he,) fly over the northern countries, is proved, because they have been observed at sea. Swallows certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.’ He told us, one of his first essays was a Latin poem upon the glow-worm. I am sorry I did not ask where it was to be found.”

Note here that Sam. Johnson calls upon eye-witness evidence for the woodcocks (Scolopax rusticola) but has nothing to cite for the swallows (Hirundo rustica) except, presumably, common sense. Well, let that be a lesson to us all.

The notion that swallows sleep through the winter goes back quite a way. Aristotle thought they went into holes in the ground. fishingforswallowsSomehow this got translated as meaning underwater. A Swedish woodblock print from 1555 shows fishermen pulling up a net full of swallows from a lake. One of the English language’s earliest naturalists, Gilbert White, who was a contemporary of Johnson’s, believed this.

The pioneering ornithologist Edward Jenner, who revered White, wrote one of the first papers on migration (published posthumously in 1824). He thought it rather improbable that song birds would winter underwater. Indeed, after having drowned a swallow or two, he suggest that it was impossible. He was also one of the first to mark birds, by clipping off claws, showing that swallows returned to the same place year after year. From…somewhere.

Somewhere south of here, that’s for sure. In his case, Africa. In ours, Central and South America.

Well, by now the swallows should have returned to all the Capistranos of the land. Here in NYC, the nesting members of the Hirundinidae are the Barn, Tree, Northern Rough-wing, Bank, and Purple Martin.

I almost never see swallows from my windows on the Harbor Hill Moraine, but most evenings of spring and summer the Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are overhead. Their chittering anticipates twilight. I saw my first of the year last weekend both in Upper Manhattan and locally, and heard my first on May Day.

Thoreau Thursday

Yesterday in Prospect, the rites of spring were springing. An astonishing twenty-six Wood Ducks were to be found on the Pools. Chipmunks and turtles were out and about in the unseasonable warmth. Behold, two European Goldfinches, far from home. The first Mourning Cloak of the year, velvet over the sere leaves. A pair of male Hairy Woodpeckers jostled for territory. A female American Kestrel on an antenna, right outside the park, was grooming. The frequency-jamming of Red-winged Blackbirds: first time I’ve heard them this year, the avant garde of spring. There were a dozen and a half by and above the Terrace Bridge. Heard a Kingfisher on the other side of the bridge, too.

And now over to a special guest appearance by Helen MacDonald:

“I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing — not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?”

Hm. This is going swimmingly until that last sentence.

Another way of looking at this to think that those who fought like hell to rescue California Condors, and Peregrines, Bald Eagles, etc., from the wretchedness of human society did so precisely to prevent the loss, and to suggest that there was something more than humans in the world that mattered. That was a dog-damned good fight! The Condors are still a touch-and-go situation, bedeviled by death-worshipping hunters, and so richly coddled that they’re only half wild. But what a half!

Books of a Feather

I grew up with Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide in the house. I was not a bird watcher then (“birder” with its exciting, action-orientated flavor, had not yet taken over the lingo). My mother was. I didn’t get it. I could definitely identify a Northern Cardinal.

When I started to watch birds I decided to go with D.A.Sibley. Why? I don’t remember my reasoning. Anyway, here it is, my original copy, 15 years later, bashed a bit, slightly foxed (aren’t we all?) but with the signatures still holding. In general I don’t carry a book out into the field anymore — unless there’s a vehicle involved.By now, I have copies of both Sibley and Peterson. One of my two Peterson’s is this lichen-green clothbound 1956 version of the 2nd revised & enlarged edition. (The bust, which may be a 19th century European Tour fake, is just parked on it for fun.) An unknown Harry gave this book to the equally unknown Helen for a birthday present in 1958. The endpapers of this one have roadside and flight silhouettes, an excellent learning tool considering the spectrum of lighting conditions one encounters in the real world. Attention Houghton Mifflin: these would make a great tote bag!

Glancing over my shelves, I see I have more than a dozen field guides for birds, some by location, some for complicated categories like shorebirds and raptors. Sure, I have a couple of ID apps, but I still consult these books with some frequency.

*
After years of studying the issue and thinking hard about it, ha-ha-ha, the House GOP came out with a cobbled together piece of ACA-“replacement” garbage that rewards the wealthy and healthy and punishes the poor, sick, and old. And by old, they mean those over 40, but really 50 and 60-somethings. (AARP is already running ads against the “age tax.”) Better win the lottery to be able to afford health care. (Or Darwin forbid, mad Dr. Ben Carson drilling a hole in your brain so you can recite a book you didn’t read 60 years ago about slaves being immigrants.) Republicans gotta Republican, of course, serving their billionaire masters and shafting the nimrods who continue to vote for them. It’s not Trumpcare, it’s Trumpneglect. 2018 can’t come fast enough to start flushing these nasty bastards down the drain.

Earth in Mind

img_2650David W. Orr’s Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment & the Human Prospect has been turning my mind over and fertilizing it with good compost.

“My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measure against the standards of decency and human survival — the issues now looming so large before us in the twenty-first century. It is not education, but education of a certain kind, that will save us.”

(And pee-yew, it sure isn’t the fundamentalist poison Betsy Devos is selling — or buying, when it comes to her servant Senators.)

Someone who turns up several times in Orr’s book is Vaclav Havel. We should remember his conception of people power.  “Many more people realize, as Havel did, that arbitrary and inhuman power cannot deprive them of the inner freedom to make moral choices, and to make human community meaningful. They are shaping a redemptive politics of dissidence in the free world, nearly three decades after the fall of Communism. To measure the American dissidents’ success in electoral or any other quantifiable terms would be beside the point. For they are creating a “parallel polis”: the vital space where many, over the next four years, will find refuge from our age of anger, and learn to live in truth.”

And yes, that picture above was taken in the Bronx.

Thoreau Thursday

All biographies end. And, of course, the ending is always the same. Nearing the literal and figurative end of Laura Dassow Walls’s magisterial life of Henry David Thoreau, I suddenly found myself not wanting to go on. I didn’t want him to die. Not right now. Not during our political upheaval. I started reading “Wild Apples” to delay the inevitable, even though I’ve another new Thoreau biography, Expect Great Things, by my friend Kevin Dann, lined up and ready to go, as if it were a reincarnation. img_2462Concord, Massachusetts was never completely abolitionist, even after the travesty of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But it was a bastion of anti-slavery, so when, in April 1860, federal marshals attempted to arrest Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, one of the so-called Secret Six funders of John Brown, the town erupted in demonstration. Citizens blocked the marshals and “Annie Whiting immortalized herself by getting into the kidnapper’s carriage so that they could not put the long legged martyr in,” wrote the young Louisa May Alcott in a letter. Thoreau, another supporter of Brown, called the fire alarm, rung that night to rouse the citizenry, a sign of “the hottest fire he ever witnessed in Concord.” The marshals ignored a hand-scribbled writ of habeas corpus, but when the country’s deputy sheriff said he wouldn’t hold back the hundred demonstrators, they gave Sanborn up. Thoreau stood watch over Sanborn’s house that night. The next day, a federal judge voided the warrant (the Congressional investigation into Sanborn was made moot by the war a year later). Concord’s subsequent “indignation meeting” against tyranny was addressed by Sanborn and others, including “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau, who insisted that it was precisely because Concordians hadn’t obeyed the law that Sanborn was free. img_2461


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