The Last Passenger Pigeon

I was recently reading a short literary work by Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924) entitled "The Last Passenger Pigeon" and it, of course, took my mind to so many deep and horrifying places of thought that  I woke in the middle of the night with the need to write.  The piece examines the world she grew up in, where people were still settling this country, burning down old growth forest here and there, everyday, cutting their paths through the endless woods.  She remembers when water was abundant and quail were so many that her parents would often let them collect quail eggs and eat them as a treat.  She remembered the Passenger Pigeons, sometimes in such incredible flocks that their sheer numbers had been known to break limbs from trees when roosting at night.  The New World was still so pristine that only those who truly knew the landscape and felt the symptoms of the forest could tell that it was starting to change.  Even then her father had noted that natural waterways were drying up and quail numbers had begun to diminish and there were people concerned for the imbalance human progress was starting to create.

Gene Stratton-Porter saw two of the last Passenger Pigeons in 1910 in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens (the last Passenger Pigeon known to exist died in 1914.)  I could feel through her words what it must have felt like to look into their eyes knowing that they were the last and we were solely to blame.  The birds, a male and a female, never took to mating in captivity and both died shortly before their 30th year on Earth.  They probably did not "know" they were the last, in the way that humans with their analytical minds "know" things, but I do believe it is possible that their instincts instilled in them a sense of urgency that was at least uncomfortable.  Being an animal myself, it always bothers me when other humans state that animals cannot think.  While they may not be able to think in the same way our own brains function, it does not preclude their thinking at all.  We all evolved from the same soup and nerves firing, reaction to stimuli, need for the consumption of energy, and the desire for social interaction are things that much of us here, who are left on this planet, share.

It unfortunately makes a lot of sense that the Passenger Pigeon has gone extinct along with a long list of other creatures who lived in competition with the human species.  Their numbers were so great that one stop at a farmer's house and the entirety of the crop was diminished to stalks and bird droppings.  This being devastating when you were growing more of one crop than another and maybe not just for yourself but for others who intended on purchasing or trading for the good.  People on Earth during the time of the Passenger Pigeon outlived it, they found balance in the masses of birds and adjusted their practices to ensure their own survival.  As the human population has broadened and inhabited most every region on the planet, we have brought about a bottleneck of extinction.  Creatures are not only killed by our methods on the ground, in their own habitats, they are killed by the by products of our development which go on to affect biological communities far from the source of  the disturbance.  In the early 1900's this was just a whisper of a problem, not acknowledged and not directly affecting the human species itself, thereby making it invisible.

Our over specialization and relinquishment of survival skills has not only made us incredibly vulnerable as a species on this planet to the failure of our own creations, it has enabled us to better manipulate our environment for our own needs.  There are people in our society given the time and resources to study subjects to their very core and determine how we can use more, crudely eliminate competition with nature, and manufacture products with and without true purpose.  These products, the vastness of our population, and the institutions of management we have created over them, have us all tied up with little time to evaluate the condition of the ground we stand on.  With almost no one personally growing food for themselves or their communities, our food system has reached such a grandiose scale that our only methods of controlling it have started to corrode the very soils and waterways we need to grow the food we eat.  Our reliance on human manufactured foodstuffs not in tune with nature has brought about a host of illnesses and diseases trying to fight off the imbalance of our species, but we have adapted in turn to stave them off.

This is not simply about me being a free-loving "hippie" or simply about my sorrow over the loss of  beauty of the creatures that inhabit this complex planet.  The fact that Europe no longer has a Wolf or that Iran, Turkey, Tajikistan, China, and Afghanistan no longer live in fear and respect of the Caspian Tiger means nothing today in comparison to the faulty educational systems, the poor communities suffering injustices, and the over all modern human condition that is as complex and difficult as the environmental one.  But at what point does it become imperative that we pay attention?  Maybe losing the Polar Bears, the Blue Whales, migrating birds, the fisheries of the oceans, and the amphibians of the rain forest and your own backyard are not that important in a crude sense, but every being on this planet has been manifested from the energy transfers that have taken place here for millions of years.  This fabric of life has created all of the current environmental conditions that have enabled us to thrive.  As our chemicals and concrete spread their withering fingertips into the last existing natural spaces, we stand to lose the balancing forces that have been holding it all together.  Without trees, bees, bats, and heirloom vegetation, we also stand to lose even the crudest of necessities we get from our natural world to continue our own survival.

Our ambition to recognize our biological community, to work within the cycles of the sun and moon and all forces that have sculpted all else here on planet Earth, and our respect and admiration of the commonplace bird or snake here at Sun Dog Farm does not simply come from a whimsical desire to "love freely."  While I do know that my personal affections for the wilderness may root deep within me as love, it is that instinctual urgency I believe I feel.  We here at the farm are not free from blame; much of our day to day action contributes to the continued elimination of the world around us.  We are slaves to the economic and political systems of our species and we all must do what we can with the time we have to free ourselves and the planet from the clutches of waste.  I write these words today not because I do not recognize how incredibly consuming the stresses and problems of our modern world present to all of us each day.  I write these words because the situation is not at last out of our hands.

Instead of watching television at night, go outside, even in the winter, and examine this world around you.  There are still plenty of organisms who can thrive within human disturbance and gracefully inhabit urban spaces.  Buy local, naturally grown foods not only because you have been taught they are healthier for you, but because you can acknowledge that they are healthier for all life.  Do not write off even the most meaningless or irritating living being as it has its place here on Earth and giving it the respect it deserves would lead you down a path more rewarding than knowing the coolest new band or the latest gossip about some wasteful celebrity.  Show animals to your children.  Teach them about how mosquitoes feed so many different species and that worms complete the incredible task of transforming life back into usable nutrients.  Try and create systems in your day to day that eliminate the need for over consumption.  Cultivate a sense of community and love those in your life as they are because love, understanding, personal action and patience are the only useful tools of change.

"In all civilizations man has cut down and consumed, but seldom restored or replanted, the forests.  In biblical times Palestine was lovely in foliage of palm, and the purpling grapes hung upon her lovely hillsides and gleamed in her fertile valleys like gems in the diadems of her princes.  But man, thoughtless of the future, careless of posterity, destroyed and replaced not; so, where the olive and the pomegranate and the vine once held up their luscious fruit for the sun to kiss, all now is infertility, desolation, desert, and solitude.  The orient is dead to civilization, dead to commerce, dead to intellectual development.  The orient died of treelessness."

- J Sterling Morton (Founder of Arbor Day)