Saturday, June 07, 2008

The thing with feathers

I just had the pleasure of reading in manuscript Chris Cokinos' new book on meteorites. I'm not sure when the book will be available, but it will find an appreciative audience. Chris traveled from pole to pole in search of those bits and pieces of the universe that fall from the sky. He tells us of the men and women who collect and study celestial rocks. And we learn too about Chris Cokinos and the passion that drives a gifted writer to spend years of his life on a single-minded quest.

I've been an e-mail friend of Chris since he asked me some years ago if I would provide my name as support for Isotope, a literary journal that explores the intersection of art and science, published at Chris' home institution, Utah State. I had previously read and admired his wonderful book Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. In that book, Chris told the story of North American birds that have become extinct at the hand of man -- the passenger pigeon, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Carolina parakeet, the Labrador duck, and the great auk. These birds once graced our skies in teeming numbers, and are now no more.

Embarrassingly, for a longtime New Englander, I had never heard of another of the birds chronicled by Chris -- the heath hen.

The 18th-century naturalist Thomas Nuttall wrote that the birds "were so common on the ancient bushy site of the city of Boston that laboring people or servants stipulated with their employers not to have the heath hen brought to table oftener than a few times a week!" The bird was not, apparently, a great delicacy, which is why it was considered appropriate fare for the common folk below stairs. Of course, as Boston, New York, and other Eastern cities grew, there were common folk aplenty. The heath hen cooperated by making itself an easy target for hunters. In the spring, the birds would seek out wide fields of cropped grass for courtship rituals, the males "booming" out calls that announced their presence far and wide. They perched in low trees like "sitting ducks." And, when they took to the air, they flew in such nice straight lines that even a youngster with a new gun could pop them off with ease.

And then -- well, it's Chris' story to tell, a story of relevance to anyone interested in the preservation of species. The last eastern heath hen, nicknamed "Booming Ben," boomed his last in 1932 on Martha's Vineyard.

The big question is why we should care about the demise of a few species of birds when 99.9 percent of all species that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. Extinction is a necessary engine of evolution, a corollary of the thrust toward biological complexity and diversity. Without extinction, we would not be here. Again, with his big, vulnerable heart, Chris is the best one to answer the question. As conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote: "For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun."