Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone?
"Before white settlement, more than one-quarter of all the birds in what is now the United States were Passenger Pigeons. They were so abundant that in 1810 Alexander Wilson saw a flock pass overhead that was a mile wide and 240 miles long, containing over two billion birds. That flock could have stretched nearly twenty-three times around the equator. Passenger Pigeons were pretty and brown, with small grayish heads, barrel chests, and long, tapered wings that sent them through the sky at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.
"But they had two problems: they were good to eat and they destroyed crops by eating seeds. Farmers not only shot them, but also cast huge nets over fields to trap them by the thousands. It took only a few decades to wipe out what may have been the most plentiful bird ever to live on the earth. A fourteen-year-old boy named Press Clay Southworth shot the last wild Passenger Pigeon in 1900. The species became extinct in 1914, when Martha, the last captive pigeon, died quietly in the Cincinnati Zoo."
You know those arcade games with a steering wheel and a gas pedal? (There never seems to be a brake pedal on those things.) Well, sometimes the world feels to me just like one of those babies, careening along full speed, sound effects and all, with all of us just trying to hold on and not send anyone or anything flying off the road. And then there are also those times it feels like I'm out there on that animated road like a deer in the headlights, waving my arms with all those crazy drivers blindly bearing down on me.
"Humans now use up more than half of the world's fresh water and nearly half of everything that's grown on land."
Back in 1960, when there were around 177 million people in the United States, I was growing up in Plainview, L.I., which was then the eastern terminus of the Long Island Expressway. I'd sometimes go kite flying in the pasture of a nearby cow dairy. (Yes, cow dairies in Plainview.)
In 1970, when the US was up past the 200 million people mark, my parents loaded us in the car for a drive to Florida to see the piece of investment property they'd bought in the middle of nowhere. That nowhere is now the city of Naples, Florida, and the swamps and grassy plains I saw there in 1970 are now nowhere.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker must have been one heck of a bird. Big, noisy, powerful, and fierce, it once existed all over what is now the US South, and its plumage and/or head was prized by Native Americans for decoration and as an amulet. Indians from the North would offer much in trade for their own specimens. Once the white boys arrived, they too killed the Ivory-billed because of the big bucks involved. THE RACE TO SAVE THE LORD GOD BIRD utilizes the story of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker as the centerpiece for a fascinating and vital history that portrays the long and belated evolution of the "bird lovers," from the guys who loved them, shot them by the dozen, and sold them to collectors the world over, to the first modern ecologists who arose in the 1930s. Trying, at that point, to solve the mysteries of how the Ivory-billed fit into its environment, and whether there was a way to save the handful that still then existed, we read of the heroic determination by a few to prolong the life on earth of what many once called "that Lord God bird."
From James Audubon to the Audubon Society and beyond, THE RACE TO SAVE THE LORD GOD BIRD is as thrilling and as scary in its consequences as one of those arcade games. And, sadly, some of the corporate characters we meet treated the birds' survival as if it were a game. The story brings us to Jim Tanner, a man of my grandfather's generation, who spent years amid mosquitos and snakes, studying the world's remaining handful of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. All living by that time in a single, last chunk of virgin riverbottom woods in Louisiana that was owned by the Singer sewing machine company, Tanner became the only person to ever band an Ivory-billed. His 1937 photos of that feisty young chick, which they came in contact with while its parents hunted for food and which they named Sonny Boy, show the proud young bird strutting atop his partner's hat. Returning to the Audubon society with the photos and a plea for immediate action, Tanner was singularly responsible for the Society's last ditch effort to save the Ivory-billed.
It is ironic that that last ditch effort was ended by a war. A self-proclaimed money grubbing corporation, utilizing imported Nazi POWs as cheap replacement labor, deliberately destroyed that last stand of Ivory-billed habitat before it could be saved. Now, as this powerful and sure-to-be-an-award-winning book comes to press, as thousands of species continue to become extinct every year, it is ever so hard to concentrate on such abstract issues as the pending extinction of some rare bird or bug. The economy has been crappy for years, so many have no health care, and we're all focused on photos of what soldiers are doing to prisoners for the sake of democracy. There isn't much brain room for nature.
But as the US population inexorably marches toward the 300 million mark--twice what it was when I was born a half-century ago--it is essential for today's young adults to begin considering what kind of world they want to spend their lives in. THE RACE TO SAVE THE LORD GOD BIRD illuminates the kind of important decisions that must be made, where making the wrong decision--or even no decision--will bring about irrevocable results for the planet.