Icons of Oblivion | The Nation


Icons of Oblivion

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When Europeans first arrived in North America, millions of bison thundered across the continent's interior, and billions of passenger pigeons sometimes blotted out the sun when they took flight. But by 1900 these animals had all but disappeared, preyed on by hunters serving an increasingly voracious market for hides and feathers. Around the same time, a second industrial revolution transformed the nation's economy. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, seeking a better life, began arriving annually; American cities swelled to previously unfathomable sizes; and settlers scrambled overland to fill the last unoccupied corners of the West, "closing the frontier," as Frederick Jackson Turner put it in a widely cited address delivered at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The pace and scale of these changes threatened to overwhelm increasingly nostalgic Americans, who clung to threatened symbols of the nation's past.

Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction From the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology
By Mark V. Barrow Jr.
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Rewilding the World: Dispatches From the Conservation Revolution
By Caroline Fraser
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About the Author

Ari Kelman
Ari Kelman, author of A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, teaches history at the University...

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For many concerned onlookers, steeped in Jeffersonian and Turnerian intellectual currents, the West served as a synecdoche for the United States, and the imperiled bison served as a synecdoche for the West. If the rugged bison died out, then so too, they worried, might America, a nation they felt was being feminized by an economy that alienated workers from the land; radicalized by labor activists preaching class warfare in exploding cities; and mongrelized by ostensibly unassimilable immigrants (Catholics, Asians and Jews).

So when William Hornaday, a naturalist at the Smithsonian, realized in 1886 that fewer than 300 bison still roamed the West, he panicked. There was nothing else to do, he reasoned, but embark on a scientific expedition to shoot or capture some of the remaining beasts. Since the prevailing natural history of Hornaday's times was, in Barrow's words, "firmly rooted in collection and taxonomy," such a rash cure seemed far better than the disease. But upon returning home, Hornaday blazed a new trail. He didn't just stuff, catalog and display his quarry. He also called for protection of the species, experimented with captive breeding programs and considered methods of restocking the Great Plains with bison. A year later, Hornaday had six of the animals grazing on the National Mall. A little more than a decade after that, the Bronx Zoo featured some of his bison. And at the dawn of the century he loosed a herd to ramble in an Oklahoma wildlife sanctuary. The bison would survive, a symbol not just of the nation but also of the growing efficacy of an emerging conservation movement.

The passenger pigeon, by contrast, went the way of the dodo. Although the shaggy bison is hardly a fetching beast, its utility as an icon far outstripped the pigeon's. Pigeons aren't cuddly. Even though new conservation organizations like the Audubon Society lobbied on the bird's behalf, by 1909 the last pair of passenger pigeons, George and Martha Washington, were perched in the Cincinnati Zoo. George died a year later, and Martha followed in 1914. Zookeepers encased her corpse in ice and shipped it to the Smithsonian, where the ornithologist who performed the autopsy issued a dire prediction: "The day will come when practically all the world's aviafauna will have become utterly extinct. Such a fate is coming to pass now, with far greater rapidity than most people realize." Museum officials then mounted and displayed Martha's body, a macabre warning to visitors that even the most abundant species, absent stewardship, might soon disappear. A few years later the last Carolina parakeet died, also at the Cincinnati Zoo. One wonders if the animals still at the zoo, apparently a cradle of extinction, sought transfers to other facilities.

Throughout Nature's Ghosts, Barrow sympathizes with the naturalists he studies yet almost never ignores their warts. Hornaday, for instance, was often a crank, his advocacy for animals born in part out of anxieties over racial decay. In 1913 he published a 400-page call to arms, Our Vanishing Wildlife, demanding protection for threatened species. In one breath he extolled the virtues of "gentlemen sportsmen," the white knights who, he argued, formed the "bone and sinew of wild life preservation." But in the next he damned so-called pot hunters, people who took game to feed their families. African-Americans and Southern European immigrants, whom he referred to as "pestilence that walketh at noonday," came in for especially harsh treatment. Hornaday had plenty of company--men like Theodore Roosevelt and Madison Grant who, Barrow suggests, "tended to be deeply ambivalent about the forces of modernity that were transforming the American landscape." Their ambivalence often manifested itself as racism, xenophobia or blood lust. During his 1909 expedition to Africa, Roosevelt assured the world of his virility by sponsoring a genteel blood bath: eleven elephants, fourteen rhinoceroses and seventeen lions counted among the more than 500 animals killed for sport.

Only Barrow's treatment of Aldo Leopold, a secular saint in the pantheon of modern American environmentalism, flirts with hagiography. In the years between 1900 and 1940, federal authorities, including Leopold, hunted predators far more frequently than they protected them. As late as 1931 the Biological Survey devoted three-quarters of its annual budget to eradicating animals like the coyote and the gray wolf. At that time, Leopold, a federal forester and devotee of William Hornaday's, began expressing doubts about the killing after he studied the notorious Kaibab deer crisis.

In 1906, eager to increase the number of mule deer in the Kaibab National Forest, sited on the Grand Canyon's North Rim, the Biological Survey began systematically eliminating all the predators in the area. Within fifteen years an exploding deer population had run short of food. Disease and hunger then began culling the herd, work that predators once would have done. A great die-off ensued. Leopold diagnosed the problem in 1933: overweening hubris. His solution? Apply an ecological worldview, focused on the interconnectedness of all organisms, to managing wildlife. Two years later he helped found the Wilderness Society, and he soon published "Thinking Like a Mountain," still a sacred text for environmentalists. In that essay, Leopold recalls an episode from his days as a young forester, when he killed a mother wolf. "We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes," he writes. "I was young then, and full of trigger itch; I thought that because few wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the fierce green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view." Leopold's epiphany became the foundation for what he called a "land ethic," the idea that people must extend their ethical considerations to include other members of their complex, interwoven biotic community, including all manner of nonhuman species.

The postwar years in the United States, Barrow argues, became an "Age of Ecology." Confronted by the apocalyptic threat of nuclear annihilation, many Americans embraced ecological tenets and joined a popular environmental movement. In these same years, naturalists, whose worldview often owed more to Aldo Leopold than Thomas Jefferson, increasingly embraced activism and found a willing audience among the public, and eventually within the government. Political will rose to meet the environmental crisis of the '60s and '70s, leading to passage of endangered species acts in 1966, 1969 and 1973. This high-water mark lingered until the mid-1990s, when Congress, under Newt Gingrich, began rolling back environmental regulations. The United States, Barrow concludes, has "effectively abandoned its long-established role as a world leader in endangered species protection."


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