THE PASSING OF THE PASSENGER PIGEON: A MORALITY TALE

By Paul

Human behavior is ever fascinating, even if not entirely unpredictable.  Among its most basic, bedrock features are a marked propensity toward shortsightedness and an equally strong penchant for egocentricity.  What I mean is that we have a great tendency both not to think through what the consequences of our actions may be, and as powerful a motivation not to care, but instead to concern ourselves only with what appears to work for our own good in the immediate moment.

It could also be argued that these are traits that have served us well in the past, that they are in the main responsible for our success as a species, and also that no other species on earth has demonstrated any greater foresight than we, or any less selfishness, for that matter.  It’s just that one of the things we humans like to do is to think well of ourselves, sometimes to our own ultimate disappointment.

I was recently reading an article in The New Yorker that in part deals with a review of a book about the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It’s an amazing story.  There were not mere millions of these beautiful creatures (and by all accounts they were gorgeous birds), but billions of them.  Yes, that really is billion, with a “b.”  It was reported that one observer saw a flock that obliterated the noonday sun, and that this flock then took three days to pass by!   Such a recounting at first may sound like myth and stretches credulity for us today, until we learn that it came from no less a reliable a source than John James Audubon.   Another observer reckoned he saw a flock containing in excess of two billion birds.  They were so numerous that, when roosting, their combined weight would regularly crack the limbs off of trees upon which they landed.

And yet, within the space of a mere fifty years, this country went from a place where there were billions of passenger pigeons to one where there was zero.  How, we may well ask, could this have happened?  How could our ancestors have allowed such a tragedy to occur?  The answer, I’m afraid, harkens back to human shortsightedness and egotism.  Just as we do today, people back then did what was in front of them to do.  They ate and slept and raised their children; they worked, they made war, they made peace, they made love, and occasionally they played.  In other words, they did their best to survive, and they tried to have as good a life as possible while doing so.

And who, I suppose, could blame them?  After all, the very basis of the country is founded on the pursuit of happiness, is it not?  And of course no one set out consciously to destroy an entire species.  No one ever sat down one fine day and said: “Let’s devise a plan whereby we cause the mass extinction of this entire population of passenger pigeons.” And yet, there can be no denying that this is exactly what we wound up doing.  We even know when and where the last wild bird was killed, by a boy in Ohio, who shot it out of a tree with a twelve-gauge shotgun in the year 1900.  A few other birds languished on for a while in zoos, but these were creatures whose entire evolutionary history had prepared them to flock together in enormous groupings.  Ought it to be a surprise, then, that a few isolated pairs here and there, in a sense, lost heart and no longer reproduced?  Finally, on the 1st of September, 1914, ironically the year that also witnessed the beginning of mass massacres of hundreds of thousands of human beings in the World War I, the last passenger pigeon on earth expired.

There’s irony aplenty involved in all this.  And tragedy, as well, of course.  I can well imagine that the humans who had originally witnessed billions of these birds flocking together thought that there could never be an end to them.   And yet that end came, sooner than anyone ever could have guessed.  Just as, perhaps, we today think that there can never be an end to the human civilizations we have created, bound up as they are with and dependent on fossil fuels and ever expanding populations.  But there is no guarantee of that, either.

Another irony ought to be noted when it comes to the passenger pigeon, this time a more modern one.  There appears to be a movement on to “de-extinct” the bird.  De-extinction has actually become a useful word in today’s biological lexicon, a neologism that accompanies human over-reliance on and adulation of technology.  I suppose it’s obvious what it means: it is an effort to use DNA from long-dead pigeons which, when injected into chickens, would produce as close a replica as possible to their extinct forebears.  Whether or not these manufactured passenger pigeons could themselves reproduce is not clear, although it is highly unlikely.  And even if they could, once again, would they wish to do so?  This seems all the less likely, given the disinclination their zoo-confined ancestors demonstrated in the past in this regard.  And even if they did reproduce, would we actually want enormous flocks of hungry pigeons alighting in our fields of wheat and corn, now that so few of their original primary foods (acorns and beechnuts) are themselves available?  Would we, in fact, be creating a monster that we would have to “render extinct” all over again?

All this brings up questions regarding how we human beings relate to our environment.  The extinction of passenger pigeons is not so far removed from the continued extinction of numerous other species the world over that still continues to this day.   The passenger pigeon went extinct for two very good reasons.  One had to do with the fact that they apparently tasted good, so people hunted them and ate them, and two because humans have largely removed the favorite choice of food for the pigeons from the environment.  As noted above, they lived mainly on the nuts of hardwood trees such as beech and oak that abounded in the pre-contact (i.e., with Europeans) forests of North America.  There are far fewer of these trees today.

One of the things that we humans like to do is to fiddle with our environment.  We have never been satisfied with it the way it was, but wanted (and needed) to create housing to protect ourselves from the elements, to clear fields of pesky trees in order to plant grain, damn rivers, build roads and bridges and towns, and eventually make cities and now mega-cities.  To the point where most people today have lost touch entirely with untrammeled nature.  Is there even such a thing left in the world as a true wilderness?   Most of what we like to call wilderness consists of mere isolated parcels of what was once the endless forests and plains that stretched from coast to coast on any given continent.   We are left to “manage” our forests, a thing that hardly seems compatible with the notion of real wilderness.

In the meantime, countless other species continue to go extinct.  The passenger pigeon is but one of many, if a mega example of the process.  And we are not just talking about the dodo and (very nearly anyway) the North American bison, but also – just in the last ten years – the golden toad, China’s Baiji dolphin, the Hawaiian crow, the Pyrenean Ibex, the West African black rhino, and many other “lesser creatures” that do not even make it onto our lists.  What, we have to wonder, will make humans less shortsighted?  What will make us more concerned with “the other,” and less focused solely on our own immediate good?

I am not sure I have a very satisfactory answer to these questions, but I do think that we must ponder them.  We must in the end find a way to somehow coexist on this planet with other life forms, giving them the space they need to live, while we, too, live our lives.  Otherwise, while we concern ourselves blindly with our own day-to-day existence, we may suddenly realize that we have somehow wiped out whole legions of other creatures we thought would always be there.  And who, in the end, will one day protect us from ourselves?  Who will be there to stop us from creating our own demise?  We have, unfortunately, seen that it does not take long for billions of once successful creatures to entirely vanish.  Even if we see it only from the human point of view (and how else can we see it?), let us if nothing else remember that no law says that extinction cannot happen to human beings, too – those most powerful and most successful of creatures upon the face of the earth.

 

Introducing Kevin…

Kevin will post political cartoons and other art occasionally, along with his comments.

I’m Kevin

We “Two Old Liberals” welcome you to our blog about life, love, politics, the arts, ecology, personal habits, philosophy, humor, labor, ethics, religion, sex, our  planet and the universe, gossip, the economy, human rights, diet and exercise, and anything else that might cross our minds. Paul and I have known each other for nearly 40 years. We were roommates a lifetime ago when he was a grad student and I was an administrative assistant at the University of Michigan. We both lived in L.A. for a long time in the 70s and 80s, and we used to get together for breakfast once a week to sort out the affairs of the world and our own young lives. Since 1997 we’ve lived on opposite coasts and written long email letters to each other almost daily. Just recently we decided to open our communications, cartoons and complaints to the rest of the world.

I’m Kevin – a fat old bald old guy with the glasses, goatee, and comb-over. For 22 years I’ve made a pretty good living prostituting my talents to Fortune 500 corporations as a business consultant, creative ideation facilitator and artist. I still do that, with increasing cognitive dissonance, and it allows me to paint and create any kind of art I want to make in my free time, without requiring it to sell to support me. I photographed the masthead image and drew the “Nude Gingrich” cartoon for this 2OL blog launch. Right now Robert and I (Robert is an artist, too, and my lover of 15 years) have about 60 large paintings and installations in our art gallery downtown, as well as 30 more big paintings in the beautiful, opulent new library, and in a week we will install 18 of our canvases in a fancy restaurant in the center of the city for a two-month exhibit. In 19 months we will both have tandem one-man shows at my alma mater – a small college in the Midwest.

It sounds like Robert and I live in the city, doesn’t it? But, in fact, we live at the dead end of a remote dirt road, deep in the woods where satellite dishes are required to get TV and Internet service. It’s really quiet and beautiful out here. We used to own a big 5-bedroom, 3-bath show home in the suburbs. We poured all our creative energies into it. People came by the hundreds every year to tour our home and gardens. But we sensed that the real estate bubble was about to burst, followed by the entire economy, so we sold it for a great price just weeks before the crash. Selling that house felt like cutting off a leg. But we would have been foreclosure victims, and instead we got out of debt and bought a shabby old trailerhouse in the woods, with a collapsing ancient barn and a half-acre pond and stream on 7 acres. That was 5 years ago. Since then we’ve added four more acres with a hunting cabin that we are expanding into a nice little cottage where we intend to make our last stand together until we cannot stand any longer.

As well as being an incredible and prolific abstract expressionist painter, Robert is a phenomenal woodworker and a handsome 45-year-old postal worker. Before that, he was in the US Marine Corps for eight years. He adores animals and they love him back. We have lots of animals. But Robert isn’t a vegetarian. He’s a regular guy – a hard worker and builder. He can solve any Rubik’s Cube in two minutes flat and install entire plumbing and electrical systems in our new cottage. He knows how to fix and construct anything. And I have personally seen wild baby rabbits and frogs approach my beefy, bearded husband and climb into his hands and arms. Animals just know and trust him.

I used to be a vegetarian for 18 years. Now I eat some fish and fowl, but left to my own devices I like to eat piles of green vegetables and whole grains with a bit of cheese or spicy sauce. I’ve been interested in metaphysics and meditation for over 40 years, and in my old age, with our Cairn Terrier Scrappy by my side, I’m actually starting to practice a bit more meditation. Robert calls it “vegetation.” I used to enjoy drinking most evenings, but my old body won’t stand for that anymore, so I’m “vegetating” instead. I am a 63-year-old, totally gay, quasi-vegetarian, meditating, social-democratic liberal, environmentalist, hermit artist, who nevertheless makes a living with occasional forays to serve the corporate world of new product development and market research. How do they put up with me? I have no idea… 

“Bizarro World”

This morning, while Robert was waking up over the morning coffee I always make and serve in bed, I told him that increasingly I feel like we’re living in “Bizarro World.” Do you remember that alternative universe in the Superman comic books in which the whole world had gone cubist and backwards and weird? Well, that’s how our world is looking to me these days. Everything is so distorted and nothing makes sense anymore:

  • In Robert’s work world, the USPS promotes the most incompetent and laziest people into managerial positions where they do not have enough knowledge, expertise or work ethic to do a good job, and excellent workers are abused, enslaved and terribly mistreated. It’s the same everywhere these days… and the Republicans want to deny police, teachers, firefighters and other public servants collective bargaining rights. Indeed they want to kill all the unions and repress middle class workers.
  • Virtually all scientists and climate experts agree that our planet is racing toward the edge of the cliff called Global Climate Change and nobody will acknowledge or discuss the terminal implications of this manmade disaster. There are things we could do to save ourselves, but as a species we choose radical denial instead.
  • The Republican Party is engaged in a truly terrifying circus clown primary contest to select their creepy candidate for the US Presidency. Only in “Bizarro World” could distorted caricatures like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich be serious contenders for that profound honor. I have closely watched all US Presidential contests for over 50 years, and for the first time the list of leading characters who have topped the Republican polls in recent times simply takes my breath away: Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and now Rick Santorum! It’s a horror movie! What the hell has happened to the Republican Party? Where did all the reasonable conservatives go? Are they hiding? No. Reasonable conservatives are now called mainstream Democrats. President Obama is a right-of-center moderate conservative in my book.
  • In “Bizarro World” everything is upside-down. Billionaires and people like Mitt Romney who make millions every year pay only a 14% or 15% tax on their income, while the middle class is being squeezed and pushed out of existence and paying a 30% or 35% income tax. That’s the reverse of what it should be, isn’t it?! In Bizarro World the top 1% of the populace has more money and power than the other 99%. It’s really unbelievable, but true! They do!
  • We have a Congress that would be more productive if they adjourned and did NOTHING at all, rather than what they are doing now. The Founding Fathers weep.
  • The planet is dangerously overpopulated with 7 billion souls, but the Republican candidates for the US Presidency do not believe in birth control!… Birth control! What year is this?… 1812?!
  • Meanwhile, scores of citizens are being murdered by their own governments while the rest of the world does nothing, but just watches.
  • And, horror of horrors, governors and states are slashing and burning their public education budgets. Forget art and music programs, the Republican governors seem to want to make ALL education a privilege that only the wealthiest can afford. How do they expect the US to remain a superpower if we do not educate our populace? But they are afraid. America is turning brown, and the last thing they want is more educated brown people like President Obama aspiring to leadership and power.

There’s a reason why we live at the dead end of an isolated dirt road deep in the woods. Take a look at the masthead photo, above, of our half-acre pond. Although nature is beginning to show signs of breaking down, it still bears enough resemblance to its former glory that we do not feel like we are living in “Bizarro World” at home here in the woods. There is tremendous comfort in observing what is left of the seasons, the wild animals, and the weather in our 11 woodland acres and on our pond and in the stream that runs through it. We are so deeply fortunate to have a place to get away from “Bizarro World.” I wish everyone could experience the peace and purity of these woods. Nature may yet find a way to speak to us. What will She say?

— Kevin