Martha, the Last of the Passenger Pigeons
“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”
— Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” 1947
A lone passenger pigeon, stuffed, in 2010 returned to Waukesha, Wisconsin, a town where I once went to high school. Stuffer and stuffee, were they an analog for the buffalo hunters with their stacks of skulls set to bleach on the prairies? Also—a brief from Aldo Leopold. Let’s see how they come together with John Herald, angular and introspective, a singer and guitarist, and Martha, another wild bird, likewise gone extinct.
“Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of Passenger pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?
“It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of the species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.
“Above all we should, in the century since Darwin, have come to know that man, while captain of the adventuring ship, is hardly the sole object of its quest, and that his prior assumptions to this effect arose from the simple necessity of whistling in the dark.
“These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.
“For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last Passenger pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. DuPont’ s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’ s bombs 1, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.”
— Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, 1948, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, pp. 109-110.
“A handsome, rail-thin fellow with a beak of a nose and an infectious grin steps up to the microphone, eyes flashing under a broad-brimmed, rakishly tilted hat, dreadnought at the ready. “Hey-eeee,” he yodels. “Hey-eee,” the crowd yodels back, and an instant connection is established between performer and audience. From that point on the crowd is swept into John Herald’ s world,” wrote Happy Traum in Acoustic Guitar.
When John Herald and I first met I was in my early 20s, married and with a freshly minted baby boy to augment my draft status. Remember the Selective Service System? 123 Washington Street in downtown Manhattan was my draft board. Sunshine Philadelphia Beer was on tap at a saloon up the street. I showed up there a lot pleading my draft status.
John’s ebullient way with a high tenor bluegrass lament, his boundless energy, amazed me. I was a banjo player of the tight-lipped, stand-and-deliver persuasion. When John died fifty-plus years had evaporated beneath our feet. We would meet, even play music together over the years. Then in 2005, Mike Speer, a Brooklyn friend, told me John was dead.
“New York lost one of its finest folk singers when John Herald, a resident of West Hurley, N.Y., took his own life on July 19, 2005. The folk music community, his many friends, admirers and fans all over the world mourn the loss of a beautiful, troubled soul.” (in the September 22, 2005 issue of Sing Out!)
“Born in Manhattan, Mr. Herald grew up in Greenwich Village, the son of Leon Serabian Herald, an Armenian immigrant who was a published poet. He was inspired to play music when he was at summer camp and saw Pete Seeger perform. Mr. Herald performed solo and with the John Herald Band through the 70’ s. He also performed with the Woodstock Mountain Revue. He recorded an album, ‘Roll On John,’ released in 2000, and was working on a new CD at the time of his death.” (From the New York Times obituary July 23, 2005)
mp3 — play, download (right click, then save as)
Oh high above the trees and the reeds like rainbows
they landed soft as moonglow
in greens and reds they fluttered past the windows
ah but nobody cared or saw
til the hungry came in crowds
with their guns and dozers
and soon the peace was over
God what were they thinking of?
Oh on and on til dreams come true
you know a piece of us all goes with you
Oh the birds went down
they fell and they faded to the dozens
Til in a Cincinnati Zoo was the last one
Yes all that remained was the last
with a name of Martha
Very proud, very sad, but very wise
Oh as the lines filed by there were few who cared
or could be bothered
how could anyone have treated you harder
and it was all for a dollar or more
Oh on and on til dreams come true
you know a piece of us all goes with you
Oh and surrounded there by some of whom wept around her
in a corner of the cage they found her
she went as soft as she came so shy til the last song
oh the passenger pigeon was gone...
It might be difficult to imagine how the loss of a particular bird species can cause an outbreak of human disease, but the Stanford University research team behind the study offered an equally compelling and convincing yet disturbing example. Team researcher Gretchen Daily cited the example of the oft-discussed passenger pigeon, revealing that its extinction is believed to have exacerbated the proliferation of Lyme disease. When the birds existed in large numbers, the acorns on which they subsisted would have been too scarce to support the large populations of deer mice that flourish today. These rodents are the main reservoir of Lyme disease, and the acorns make up a significant part of their diet.
— Empty of People, Overrun by Pigeons Tina Butler writing in “Monga Bay” 14-November-2005
E. H. Forbush writing in Bird Lore March-April 1913
The Passenger Pigeon undoubtedly was one of the greatest zoological wonders of the world. Formerly the most abundant gregarious species ever known in any land, ranging over the greater part of North America in innumerable hosts, apparently it has disappeared to the last bird. Many people now living have seen its vast and apparently illimitable hordes marshaled in the sky, have viewed great forest roosting-places broken by its clustering millions as by a hurricane, and have seen markets overcrowded to the sidewalks with barrels of dead birds.
Shall we awake in time to save any of these birds, or the many others that are still menaced with extinction by this great market demand? No hope can be held out for the future of these birds until our markets are closed to the sale of native wild game. read more »
“On June 12, 1940, [Vannevar] Bush met with President Roosevelt and detailed his plan for mobilizing military research. He proposed a new organization he called the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). The committee would bring together government, military, business, and scientific leaders to coordinate military research. Roosevelt quickly agreed and thus the NDRC was created. Bush was made chairman and given a direct line to the White House. In mid-1941, The Office of Scientific Research and Development was set up. The NDRC had been funded by presidential emergency funds and was often short on money. The OSRD was congressionally funded. The NDRC was subsumed under the OSRD as its chief operating unit. Bush became director of the OSRD. Colliers magazine hailed him as ‘the man who may win or lose the war.’”
copyright 2020 Rob Hunter