Imagine a sunny day, suddenly turned dark. But it is no cloud that is blocking the sun, and the drops that have started to fall are not rain. There is a hum vibrating the air. You look up to see that the sky is positively filled with birds. A tremendous flock of passenger pigeons is passing overhead, and the flock stretches as far as the eye can see. There are literally millions of birds and it will take hours for the entire flock to pass.
Such was the experience of those who witnessed the passenger pigeon. These birds were possibly the most numerous in the world, yet ingenious men were able to hunt them out of existence. It was the most spectacular human-caused extinction… so far.
Flocks of passenger pigeons were so dense and low flying that they provided obscenely easy hunting. Hunting, of course, is hardly the right word for the wholesale slaughter of the passenger pigeon. Native Americans would bring down birds by simply hurling sticks and rocks into the passing flock. At places, the flocks would fly low enough for long poles to strike birds right out of the air.
The introduction of firearms made the harvesting of pigeons even easier. A single shotgun blast into a thick flock could bring down a great number of the birds. Huge nets were also introduced, capable of catching hundreds or even thousands at a time. These readily killed and captured birds became an important and affordable food source for a great number of people, and commercial operations continually ramped up “production”, taking tens of thousands of birds a day.
Over time, of course, this proved unsustainable. The large-scale hunting of pigeons, particularly when they gathered to breed, caused the population to dwindle from the billions to the millions. Legislation was eventually introduced to try to prevent the eradication of the entire species, but it was ineffective.
The last large nesting happened in 1878, and the hunters were ready. Over the next five months, commercial hunters killed over seven million birds. The few survivors scattered, and breeding all but stopped. The last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon was in 1901. It was shot.
Although there were several pigeons at various zoos, captive breeding was unsuccessful. In 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. The most prolific bird in the world had gone extinct in a remarkably short time.
So what is to be made of this disturbing tale?
A pessimist may look on the demise of the passenger pigeons as a sign of man’s cruel and destructive nature. The practice of blinding captive birds to act as live decoys (aka “stool pigeons”) to draw in other birds, sure seems to make men seem downright evil. And although the pigeon is a spectacular example, there are all sorts of other ways in which we see man wreaking unchecked havoc on our natural world.
An optimist, however, may look at how far we have come in a century. Today, hunters are leaders in conservation efforts. There are several species of animals that are slowly making a comeback from the brink of extinction. Now more than ever, we are beginning to understand the vast power we have to impact nature. As a result, we have the ability to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
A detached economic thinker may view passenger pigeon presents a remarkable real-world example of the tragedy of the commons. Each hunter personally benefited from each bird that he killed, but the whole society shared the loss. This imbalance created the incentive for hunters to take as many birds as they could, even if that meant unsustainable depletion of the entire flock.
Additionally, the demise of the passenger pigeon allows for reflection on seen and unseen economic results. We see that there are no more birds, but what we do not see is the effects that the extinction has on other groups. Farmers, presumably, are not overly upset at the loss of the passenger pigeon. The birds were tremendous agricultural pests. In fact, it has been suggested that the pigeons only reached the height of their population with the introduction of European-style agriculture. Although we have lost a valuable resource in the form of the birds, it is worth considering the positive results for the farmers who are rid of such a numerous menace.
And a maniac may think of the passenger pigeon as a wonderful opportunity to do morally questionable things with science. See, Martha and a number of other specimens have been stuffed or otherwise preserved. Given the state of cloning technology, it is not impossible that the passenger pigeon should be de-extincted. That seems like an awfully expensive project. Perhaps that money should be spent on trying to conserve other species. Maybe that would show that we have learned something from the demise of the passenger pigeon.
Beer of the week: Coopers Original Pale Ale – Thomas Cooper founded Coopers Brewery in Australia in the 1860’s. There is no reason to think that Thomas is any relation to James Fenimore Cooper. But who knows? This bottle conditioned ale is pale and cloudy. (Although the neon lighting in this picture makes it look a bit odd.) The aroma and flavor are somewhat floral. Overall, it is a delicious and eminently drinkable beer. As something of a bonus, it comes in 12.7 oz bottles. It seems that when Australia went metric, they decided to go up to 375 mL bottles rather than down to .3 L bottles like some countries.
Reading for the week: The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper, Volume 2, Chapter III – This novel was published in 1823, many years before any significant decline in the pigeon population was noted. The pigeon hunt described in this chapter is thoroughly impressive. In the end, a few of the characters come to see how disturbing and unsustainable the practice is. “It’s much better to kill only such as you want, without wasting your powder and lead, than to be firing into God’s creatures in this wicked manner,” says one of the main characters.
Question for the week: If the passenger pigeon could be revived through cloning, should it be done?
Last autumn, I got on a ship and sailed from Korea to the east coast of Russia, the first leg of a 2+ month journey on which I was embarking. Naturally, I was very anxious about the whole trip. I also already missed the friends I’d left behind in Seoul, many of whom I had no realistic expectation of ever seeing again. I was lonely and ill at ease. But in the evening, I found a bench on deck to lie on. I looked up into the immense, dark sky and saw stars that I’d not seen in months. See, the night sky in Seoul is so badly polluted with light that often only the moon and the planets are visible. But out at sea, miles from shore, I saw so many stars that I became positively giddy.
Cities are amazing. They provide marketplaces where any taste can be satisfied, cultural exchanges of all sorts, and innumerable diversions. But they have their down-sides as well. They have everything, but precious little space to put it all; all of the sights, but none of the skies. I consider myself extremely lucky to have spent nights in cities where neon bar signs burn until the metro re-opens in the morning. I am equally lucky to have spent nights where there is no cellphone reception and no lights to spoil “the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.”
Beer of the Week: Fosters Lager: The stars on Fosters cans make up the Southern Cross, a constellation that is not visible to most of the northern hemisphere. While in Australia, I got a chance to see the Southern Cross. I also learned that a more appropriate slogan for Fosters would be, “Fosters: Australian for tourist,” since the natives generally prefer other brews. Fosters has is a very subtle hint of beer flavor. Mostly it is just water flavored. There really is nothing to this beer at all. Also, if you are in the United States, be sure to check your labels; there is a good chance this beer is brewed in Canada, Texas or Georgia.
Reading for the Week: Clancy Of The Overflow by Banjo Paterson – Australia’s premier poet wrote this lovely piece that compares the city life with that of a cowboy. Clancy moved out to the country to drive cattle, and the narrator of the poem would gladly trade the dirty, crowded city for the open spaces that Clancy’s found. I can’t say I blame him.
Question for the week: Do the respective appeals of city and country life speak to opposite desires in our nature, or do they appeal to the same desires in different ways?
Proof of the adage “people see what they want to see” can be found in a number of fields. Politics is likely the easiest place to observe the phenomenon. For example, people with diametrically opposed political opinions, when presented with the same information, tend to believe that the new information justifies their previously held beliefs. This is known as confirmation bias.
Even more interesting is the ability of people to find meaning in places where there is none. “Do you believe, upon your conscience, that Homer, whilst he was a-couching his Iliads and Odysses, had any thought upon those allegories, which Plutarch, Heraclides Ponticus, Eustathius, Cornutus squeezed out of him?” asks Rabelais. These men, who were no mean thinkers, “found” volumes worth of hidden ideas in Homer’s epic poems. Rabelais insists that the author does not think deeply upon what he writes, but with glass in hand he lightly dictates his stories.
However, just because the author does not consciously insert layers of secret meanings into his work does not mean that we are wrong to look for meaning therein. As it becomes a dog to meticulously extract every last bit of marrow from a bone, it “becomes you to be wise, to smell, feel and have in estimation these fair goodly books.” In fact, one ought to seek out meaning in all things, not because meaning has been hidden there for us to find, but because the search for meaning human nature, just as it is the nature of a dog to chew on bones.
Beer of the Week: Victoria Bitter – The search for some deeper meaning often leads one into the bottom of a bottle. However, this Australian macro does not have many answers. It has a faint, somewhat sweet and bready odor. VB is highly carbonated and tastes of malt and adjunct sweetness with hardly a hint of hops. It’s good enough to have a few while watching the rugby, but it’s nothing special.
Reading of the week: The Author’s Prologue to the First Book of Gargantua by François Rabelais, excerpt – The introduction that Rabelais gives to his book is somewhat perplexing. It is not surprising that he advises the reader not to judge a book by its cover; on the surface, Gargantua seems like little more than a giant collection of scatological humor and bodily diversions. Rabelais promises that under it all there is “a doctrine of a more profound and abstruse consideration, which will disclose unto you the most glorious sacraments and dreadful mysteries.” He then promptly announces that he did not let his writing get in the way of his gluttony and tippling, says that he has a “cheese-like brain” and makes a poop joke.
Question of the week: Rabelais seems sincere in his claim that there really is something valuable hidden under all of his toilet humor, so does he claim that Homer (whom Rabelais calls “paragon of all philologues”) never imagined the hidden meanings in his own work?
It has been observed, and often with comedic effect, that when people are depressed they seldom turn to cheerful music to brighten their mood. On the contrary, they set their iPod to ‘repeat’ and play the saddest songs they can think of. Some regard this as being sulky, nurturing a mopey disposition simply to prolong it for its own sake. Indeed, this is occasionally the result of this course of action, but it is not the original intent.
In the poem My Soul is Dark, Lord Byron looks to music to soothe his “heavy heart.” Like our modern dispirited individuals, it is not happy music to which Byron turns: “Nor let thy notes of joy be first.” He does not need music that is contrary to his current disposition to turn him around, rather, he needs music that will lead him through his current dejection. Only after he has plumbed the depths of his internal darkness, can he finally return to the light. Until then, the repeat button will stay on and the Elliott Smith play-count will rise.
Beer of the Week: Coopers Best Extra Stout – If this beer had existed at the turn of the 18th century, the title of Byron’s poem may well have been My Soul is Dark as a Coopers Extra Stout. It is the darkest beer I have ever seen. I am not even sure that I can say that I have actually “seen” it since I am not sure that any light actually escaped it as I held my glass to the light. The head was a beautiful dark bronze. The flavor was much as one would expect from a beer so dark. The roasted malt carried the flavor, with some coffee notes and a pretty sweet finish. The mouth-feel was also great, silky smooth but not thick. All in all, Coopers Best is a really, really good beer.
Reading of the week: My Soul is Dark by George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron – In 16 lines of poetry, Lord Byron expresses beautifully the connection that the melancholy soul feels for sad music: one’s heart must “break at once—or yield to song.”
Question of the week: Although experience seems to support the idea that embracing sadness allows people to work through it, experience also supports the idea that dwelling on negative feelings makes them stick around. (See What is an Emotion?) Is it probable that some middle-ground is the ideal?