Aldo Leopold’s “On A Monument To A Pigeon”

15 02 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Recently, I’ve grown increasingly fascinated by the content of Connie Barlow’s YouTube channel “ghostsofevolution” to which I have subscribed for a few months now (having learned of its existence from Mrs. Barlow after briefly reviewing her book of the same name last December).

Earlier today, she posted the following video in which she visits the official monument to the now-extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park and utilizes the occasion to orate the legendary environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s ceremonial (and incredibly evocative) essay entitled “On A Monument To A Pigeon”, which originally appeared amongst several others in his 1949 compendium, “A Sand County Almanac” (which, having seen Mrs. Barlow’s video, I simply must read!).

For those interested, I’ve included a transcript of the entire essay below:

 “We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.

 Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.  

There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all.  

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 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 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 now 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 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. Du Pont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts. 

This monument, perched like a duckhawk on this cliff, will scan this wide valley, watching through the days and years. For many a March it will watch the geese go by, telling the river about clearer, colder, lonelier waters on the tundra. For many an April it will see the redbuds come and go, and for many a May the flush of oak-blooms on a thousand hills. Questing wood ducks will search these basswoods for hollow limbs; golden prothonotaries will shake golden pollen from the river willows, Egrets will pose on these sloughs in August; plovers will whistle from September skies. Hickory nuts will plop into October leaves, and hail will rattle in November woods. But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts will not take wing.  

We are told by economic moralists that to mourn the pigeon is mere nostalgia; that if the pigeoners had not done away with him, the farmers would ultimately have been obliged, in self-defense, to do so.  

This is one of those peculiar truths that are valid, but not for the reasons alleged. The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a wisp of smoke.   

Today the oaks still flaunt their burden at the sky, but the feathered lightning is no more. Worm and weevil must now perform slowly and silently the biological task that once drew thunder from the firmament.” 

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5 responses

15 02 2010
Wyalusing Willie

As the author of Friends of Wyalusing Blog, I have visited this monument many times. I could ‘see’ the thousands of passenger pigeons coming from the west, over the Mississippi River. It must have been a glorious site. Thank you so much for the video. May I include the video on Friends of Wyalusing Blog? In addition, you might wish to include a few personal thoughts.

Willie

15 02 2010
tanystropheus

Willie,

Though I’m flattered to hear of your interest in obtaining some of my personal thoughts on this subject, I think that your blog would be best served if you were to instead contact Mrs. Barlow through her YouTube channel, considering the fact that she’s most assuredly given a superior amount of thought to the Monument and to Leopold. Furthermore, it’s not my right to grant you permission to repost the video, but rather Mrs. Barlow’s, though I suspect that she wouldn’t mind your doing so provided that credit is given when due.

-Mark

16 02 2010
Doug

*removes hat*

I often lament animals having gone extinct and not surviving to the modern day (because then we could learn so much more about them). But it think the most tragic and bitter are the ones who were wiped out in historic times. So close yet so far…

PS: i just want to apologize again for leaving so many comments on the “Cenozoic Guy” post. I didn’t think i could have fit it all into one comment box.

17 02 2010
tanystropheus

It’s truly heart-breaking to live through the death of a species, as Leopold so eloquently argues.

And don’t worry about the ‘Cenozoic Guy’ post: there’s absolutely no fault in dedicating a huge number of comments towards a subject you’re passionate about. Your museum sounds exquisite, and I wish you the very best of luck in its creation! In fact, should it work out, I’ll be among the first to visit.

21 08 2010
My 2010 Booklist Part 2 of 3: May-August « The Theatrical Tanystropheus

[…] Thoughts: Last February, I reprinted Aldo Leopold’s “On A Monument To A Pigeon”: a humbling and […]

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