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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Passenger

Spring brings forth the optimists among us. monkeygrinder details the latest dreams of high mileage nirvana by pundit stooges Boot, Friedman, and Zacaria, and then inserts this "robbing Peter to pay Paul" thesis:
And this, we pump into 3.25 billion cars? To what end? Jared Diamond has asked what the individual who cut down the last tree on Easter Island was thinking.

Funny you should ask but - on the historical record - we can find what ran through the mind of the kid who shot the last known wild passenger pigeon:
Press Clay Southworth was just 14 years old when he persuaded his mother to let him take the 12-gauge shotgun and shoot the bird that was eating the corn on the family farm.

“I found the bird perched high in the tree and brought it down without much damage to its appearance,” Press Southworth would write 68 years later at the age of 82. “When I took it to the house Mother exclaimed — "It's a passenger pigeon!'”

It actually took about one hundred years to decimate a population of likely over a billion birds along the eastern heartland. A Cornell economist tries to describe the tipping-point algorithm here (PDF). Look at the equations sideways and they look a bit like ordinary supply-demand relationships crossed with predator-prey concepts.

I didn't read Thoreau as a youngster but do remember writers such as Sterling North who wrote descriptive accounts (usually from a boy's perspective) of 19th century Wisconsin. I haven't picked up his book The Wolfling since but still recall details of lakes, streams, and backwoods teaming with wildlife. The accounts of passenger pigeons by natural historians Audobon and Muir bring back those memories and bridges to the stark contrast of what occurred at the end of the century. Right before the whimper of a boy and his shotgun, it panned out like this:
Then in 1896 the one last great nesting flock of 250,000 passenger pigeons came together at a site near Mammoth Cave in Ohio. Hunters descended on them in droves. Only 5000 birds escaped the massacre. Not one dead bird reached the market as a derailment resulted in a shipping delay. More than 200,000 rotting carcasses were finally dumped in a deep ravine nearby.
The last passenger pigeon in the wild was shot in 1900. On September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo, Martha, a passenger pigeon born in captivity died at the age of 29, the last of her species.

Oh the passenger
He rides and he rides
He looks through his window
What does he see?
He sees the bright and hollow sky
He see the stars come out tonight
He sees the city’s ripped backsides
He sees the winding ocean drive
And everything was made for you and me
All of it was made for you and me
’cause it just belongs to you and me
So let’s take a ride and see what’s mine
-- James Osterberg


Professor Blogger Big Gav said...

Sigh - a day spent reanimating my laptop (curse Microsoft and HP), then Blogger takes a post as some sort of ritual sacrifice and finally I get to ponder the extinction of the carrier pigeon. Maybe I should have stayed in bed...

Nice post though.

3:47 AM  

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