Remembering a Pigeon
via Retort & Iain Boal:
[Geoffrey Sea sends us this dispatch from Ohio on the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Martha was reputedly the ‘endling’, the last of her species, as most certainly Benjamin was the relict Tasmanian tiger, dying in Hobart Zoo on September 7th, 1936. John James Audubon, in 1813, describes his encounter with a flock of passenger pigeons, whose roosts were staggering in scale, often covering hundreds of square miles: “As I traveled on, the air was literally filled with pigeons. The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses. Before sunset I reached Louisville, Kentucky. The pigeons passed in undiminished number, and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys, incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which flew lower as they passed over the river. Multitudes were thus destroyed.” The notion that this of all birds in North America might be exterminated was hard to conceive; its passing prompted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and – together with the writings of the philologist George Perkins Marsh on the effects of deforestation – helped to usher in modern ecological consciousness and the idea of profound anthropogenic impact. IB]
A Passenger Pigeon Centennial Meditation
1 ix 14
Today, September 1, 2014, marks one hundred years since Martha died. Martha is said to have been the last passenger pigeon on earth, but the truth is a bit more complicated, because “Martha”, in symbol and substance, continues to be naught but a projection of ourselves. This was especially evident at “Martinis for Martha”, part of a passenger pigeon commemorative weekend I have just attended at the Cincinnati Zoo, where Martha expired.
This was a coming full circle for me personally, because it’s been thirty-one years since I first saw “the Sargents Pigeon” mounted in a glass case at the Cincinnati Zoo. That bird, long said to be the last passenger pigeon seen in the wild, was vandalized and grotesquely battered soon after I saw it. So she has been transferred to the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus, where she has become known by the cutesy name “Buttons” – the name that her assassin gave the specimen, which had been outfitted with black shoe-buttons in place of the living pigeon’s brilliant red eyes.
Much of this drama occurred in the house that I now own and occupy in Sargents Station, Pike County, Ohio, a place to which I was led by sleuthing out the story of the Sargents Pigeon. It was in this house that Blanche Barnes, a twenty-three year old then six months pregnant, stuffed and mounted the bird and sewed shoe-buttons into the eyes. Both Blanche and her son, Isaac Newton Barnes II, died soon after childbirth, probably from arsenic poisoning, since arsenic was then the common taxidermist’s tool.
Joel Greenberg, who organized and spoke at the commemoration, has dethroned the Sargents Pigeon as the “last wild specimen” – or thinks he has – by finding two other members of the species that seem to have also been shot in the Ohio Valley at slightly later dates, one in Indiana and one in Illinois. And Joel calls me a “purist” in his new book, A Feathered River In the Sky, for insisting that the Sargents Pigeon be called by its rightful name.
But the real truth is that none of these “facts” has meaning outside of the human tendency to project our own anxieties and neuroses upon the Passenger Pigeon – especially evident as complicated national alliances veer toward world war in southeastern Europe, exactly as they did just one hundred years ago. And that may be the real reason that “Martha” was dubbed “the last one” – that is, the inauspicious date on which she passed.
Sorry to get technical, but Martha was probably not a full-blooded passenger pigeon. As authorities have pointed out, she lacked the prominent cranium of the super-smart female passenger pigeon, so she likely was a half-breed result of last-ditch efforts to save the species by cross-breeding with other pigeon species that did not require gargantuan flocks to reproduce.
The actual date of extinction is better placed around the turn of the century, when the last survivors in the wild were exterminated with lead shot, or even more than a decade earlier, when the last breeding colonies were recorded in the wild.
My intent is not to defrock Martha as “the last”, rather it is to emphasize that the importance of Martha and the Sargents Pigeon does not lie in technical details, but in the symbolic roles that both birds have played for conservation efforts and for grappling with the whole issue of anthropogenic extinction. Both birds have become characters in a whole genre of ecology books for children, and the Sargents Pigeon was featured as the speaking host in probably the first-ever ecological radio program, broadcast out of Columbus in the 1940s.
And both these specimens, which now reside in Columbus and Washington DC, represent pride of place. The Cincinnati Zoo lies near the confluence of the two Miami Rivers with the Ohio, “Miami” being the name, in the indigenous Miami language, for the Passenger Pigeon. The Sargents Pigeon was shot by a boy less than a mile from the Barnes Works earthwork complex of Sargents Station, a complex that was, according to our best understanding, built to guide the pigeons in migration as the carriers of human souls. When the Bureau of Ethnology surveyed these earthworks in the 1880s, their chief informant was Isaac Newton Barnes, the grandfather and namesake of the baby who died as a result of the stuffing and mounting of the Sargents Pigeon.
There was a time when religious folk would refer to such pigeon happenings as “signs”.
The last event on the schedule of the Martha commemorative weekend was a talk given at the Fernald Preserve, on the banks of the Great Miami River. Fernald is the remnant of the former federal nuclear fuels facility that became infamous for spewing uranium dust all over southwestern Ohio.
Now dominating the site, taking up a large segment of the horizon outside the presentation venue, is a 70-acre rectangular mound containing the radioactive remnants of the uranium factory. Jason Krupar of the University of Cincinnati has likened this mound to the area’s ancient Indian earthworks, and hypothesizes that, as part of our legacy, archaeologists of the future may dig into one of these mounds expecting to find Adena artifacts, but uncovering radwaste instead. As fate would have it, the US government would now like to build a second similar waste mound, this one even larger, outside the massive former uranium enrichment complex that was built on part of the former Barnes estate in Sargents Station.
Much was said at the Passenger Pigeon commemoration about learning the lesson of that extinction. I dare to suggest that the unlearned lesson is staring us Ohioans in the face.
And so I remain a “purist” about the name of the Sargents Pigeon, and suggest this appropriate brief meditation on this centennial day: Go to a quiet place outdoors, where you can see the clear-blue pigeonless sky, hear the sound of running water, and feel the late summer breeze on your skin. Then focus your thoughts for one full hour on this single question: Do you want to be known for all eternity by the cute nickname bestowed on you by the boy who blows out your brains?
[Note the distinct difference in the shape of the cranium, first pointed out to me by Stephanie Canzanella. GS]