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Gene Stratton-Porter, The last Passsenger Pigeon (#Review)

January 30, 2021

I have passed up reading and/or posting on so many Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offerings over the last months – sadly, because there have been some excellent selections chosen for their political relevance. However, when I saw a sentimental favourite, Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924), pop up, I knew I had to break the drought.

Gene Stratton-Porter (Uploaded to Wikipedia, by gspmemorial; used under CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Some of you may not be familiar with this American Midwest author who wrote, says LOA, “sugary (and extremely popular) fiction to underwrite her work in natural history”. It was one of these works, The girl of the Limberlost, that I loved, and later introduced to Daughter Gums who also loved it. Yes, it was sentimental, though it has its tough side, but it did also leave an everlasting impression on me of its setting, Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp. According to LOA again, it was the immense success of this book, and Freckles which I also read, that resulted in her publisher agreeing to also publish her less saleable nature books. She was, writes LOA, “a fighter for the world she saw disappearing around her, as Standard Oil of Indiana drilled new wells and farmers drained more land”.

Interestingly, LOA’s as usual excellent introductory notes focus not on Stratton-Porter but on her subject, the Passenger Pigeon. LOA discusses others who have written about this bird – novelist James Fenimore Cooper, a chief of the Potawatomi Indians Simon Pokogon, and naturalists John James Audubon and John Muir – before eventually getting to Stratton-Porter herself. LOA’s point is to document the extinction of these birds from the early 1800s, when they were still seen in immense flocks, to a century later in 1914 when the last one died in captivity. Stratton-Porter wrote her piece just 10 years after that.

So Stratton-Porter’s piece. She commences by describing the beauty of her childhood farm, including its woods and forests where birds, such as the Passenger Pigeon, loved “to home”. She writes, introducing her environmental theme, that:

It is a fact that in the days of my childhood Nature was still so rampant that men waged destruction in every direction without thought. Nature seemed endlessly lavish …

When people started to clear land they “chopped down every tree on it” without, she says, having any “vision to see that the forests would eventually come to an end”. She writes – and remember, this was 1924:

… as the forests fell, the creeks and springs dried up, devastating winds swept from western prairies, and os the work of changing the climatic conditions of the world was well under way.

She talks of animals and game birds “being driven farther and farther from the haunts of civilisation”, but she also talks of people who did not believe in living so rapaciously, preferring instead to live in log cabins in small clearings. She describes her family’s own hunting practices, including of quail. As their numbers decreased, her minister father forbade the family’s trapping and egg-gathering. He’d noticed that when bird numbers were low, grain-damaging insect pests were high.

He had never allowed, however, the hunting of Passenger Pigeons, despite their being significantly more numerous in those days than quail. Stratton-Porter thinks this stemmed from his having “a sort of religious reverence” for pigeons and doves. Others, though, had no such qualms, and she describes some brutal hunting practices involving wild pigeons, which apparently made good eating. Gradually, it became noticeable, writes Stratton-Porter, that their numbers were decreasing. Not only did her family miss the sound and beauty of these birds, but

The work that they had done in gathering up untold quantities of weed seeds and chinquapins was missed and the seeds were left to germinate and become a pest, instead of pigeon food.

Once again, she notes the wider ecological or environmental implications of species reduction or loss. She then writes of the death of the final two birds in captivity before sharing her own searching for any remaining wild birds. It was while she was watching and photographing, over a period of time, a brooding goldfinch, that she heard the unmistakable “wing music of a bird that should reasonably have been a dove, but was not”. She describes this beautiful bird, but says “it had not the surety of a bird at home; it seemed restless and alarmed”. This was, she argues, “one of the very last of our wild pigeons”, a male bird “flying alone, searching for a mate and its species”.

Stratton-Porter closes her essay with a cry from the pigeon, whose song she says sounds like “See? See?”:

Where are your great stretches of forest? Where are the fish-thronged rivers your fathers en- joyed? Where are the bubbling springs and the sparkling brooks? Why is this land parching with thirst even in the springtime? Why have you not saved the woods and the water and the wildflowers and the rustle of bird wings and the notes of their song? See what you have done to me! Where a few years ago I homed over your land in uncounted thousands, to-day I am alone. See me searching for a mate! See me hunting for a flock of my kind! See what you have done to me! See! See! See!”

And that was written in 1924! Nearly 100 years ago, and yet we still destroy habitat including, here in Australia, that of one of our most popular native animals and national symbols, the koala. Will we never learn?

Gene Stratton-Porter
“The last Passenger Pigeon”
First published: Good Housekeeping, 1924 (Collected in Tales you won’t believe, 1925)
Available: Online at the Library of America

21 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2021 20:05

    No, ST, we never will. Because we will always have politicians seeking funds from wealthy corporations who, for their various but always selfish reasons, want to destroy habitat.
    I read “Laddie” as well as “Freckles” and “Girl of the Limberlost”; Gene wrote with amazing emotional pull.

    • January 30, 2021 21:07

      Oh yes, M-R, I think I read Laddie too now you mention it … and yes, the selfishness of humans (not just politicians) will do us in every time.

  2. January 30, 2021 20:18

    I was thrilled to read this post. I am in the process (slow) of writing a piece on the passenger pigeon. All extinction narratives are different, all tragic and horribly significant. However the story of loss of the passenger pigeon is perhaps one of the most poignant.

    • January 30, 2021 21:09

      Oh, how wonderful Carmel … had you read this Gene Stratton-Porter piece? It’s heartbreaking isn’t it – including how we keep not learning. How can that be?

      • January 31, 2021 09:30

        No, I had not read the Gene Stratton-Porter text. So I am most grateful to you for bringing it to my attention. My principal reference is A Feathered River Across the Sky by Joel Greenberg. – Bloomsbury 2014.

        • January 31, 2021 14:40

          How serendipitous then that of all the Library of America stories I’ve missed over the months, I chose this one to not miss! I am so pleased!

  3. Meg permalink
    January 30, 2021 20:21

    Hi Sue, sad story and they will continue! Thanks for making me read it. My mother gave me The Girl of the Limberlost to read, which was given to her by her mother; and from then I was hooked on Gene Stratton-Porter novels. I searched second hand book shops and op shops. I now own, Laddie Freckles, The Keeper of Bees, Michael O’Halloran, Her Father’s Daughter, The Song of the Cardinal, and my favourite The Harvester. All centre around nature, beautiful stories, but all have a touch of sadness..

    • January 30, 2021 21:11

      Yes, that’s the thing I think Meg – they aren’t just “sugary” though there is that element in them.

      I love finding others who loved her books, though I have to say, I don’t think I read all those when I was growing up.

  4. January 30, 2021 21:14

    I don’t understand clear felling, it’s not even good for the land, let alone for the planet. And shooting, killing living things not even for sport but just for the sake of killing. It’s disgusting. We’re disgusting. I hope we leave a record of how vile and thoughtless we were for the next species that comes along.

    • January 31, 2021 06:25

      My husband used to say that we would eventually blow ourselves up; but that the planet would survive and the pattern of evolution would begin again ..

      • January 31, 2021 08:36

        He could be right … particularly if “blow” ourselves up is read figuratively as well as literally.

    • January 31, 2021 08:24

      Agree with all you say Bill. I guess the record is both in the results of what we’ve done and writings like these.

  5. January 30, 2021 22:16

    I’m another one who read The Girl of the Limberlost when I was a girl.
    I can’t remember how I came across it…

    • January 31, 2021 08:34

      I had no idea there were so many of us who read this. I read my Mum’s copy, as I did many of her childhood books.

  6. January 31, 2021 08:06

    Yes – Girl of the Limberlost! I suppose I was 10 or 11 when I read it – there was some haunting quality that made it stand out from the others (Anne, Little Women etc)

    • January 31, 2021 08:38

      Yes, Margaret, haunting is a great word. And that comes I feel from the Limberlost itself I think, and the way it seemed to be part of the characters’ beings in one way or another.

  7. February 2, 2021 08:41

    How frustrating to be reminded how little we’ve learnt about our planet and how to look after it in over 100 yrs! The making of money and individual gain always seems to come first. Sigh

    Thank you for leading me into the arms of the LoA and their weekly blog. I’ve just discovered the Octavia Butler piece, someone I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

    • February 2, 2021 08:45

      I love LOA Brona and have posted on many pieces over the years-some by people I love, and some by those I’ve been meaning to read – not to mention of course some by completely new people. It’s a great resource.

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