The Passengers

At an Earth reconnection workshop, conservation biologist Nicholas Wilkinson begins to tell the story of Ectopistes migratorius, a slender American spike-tailed dove, and finds himself overwhelmed by the number of wings around him and the difficulty of accounting for one of the most notorious extinctions ever to occur on the planet: the destruction of the passenger pigeon.
is a conservation biologist who has been working on the Critically Endangered saola since 2006. He has worked in various roles with WWF, the IUCN-SSC Saola Working Group and the Universities of Cambridge, Kent and Vinh in Vietnam. Much of his research work has considered the question of using information provided by local people in conservation decision-making. He lives in Cambridgeshire, England.

Stories with numbers

If you’re brought up in science and want to tell stories, one problem you face is numbers. There’s a theoretical objection that some things just cannot be counted and a practical one that big numbers won’t land. Birds, for example, are countable, but what are a billion birds like? ‘A billion’ is an easy piece of mental furniture, useful for being outraged by rich people on social media. The zeroes go plink plunk plonk, it doesn’t matter how many there are. 

But I had been listening to stories of isotopes with half-lives in the billions of years. It was 2005; I was a young conservation biologist with a daunting new mission and I was at a workshop in Dorset, led by the eco-philosopher Joanna Macy. Joanna’s teachings are rooted in Buddhism and systems theory but they are anything but dispassionate. For me, that is the draw. Tears stood in Joanna’s eyes when she spoke the words she had heard from a woman in Novozybkov, a Russian city near Chornobyl in 1992. She felt pain in a soul she’d been told she did not have, because not only could she never pick honey fungus in the forest, but nor could her children, or their children or her children’s children’s children, ‘and we are people of the forest,’ she said. 

At Oxford and Cambridge I’d been taught to see ‘pain in the soul’ as something for distant and privileged people like myself, indulging in melodrama. If I imagined suddenly uncountable wings around me and tears stood in my eyes with the force of them, well I had no right to such feelings. On the edge of the forest were hunger and fear, and perhaps local property rights, the rest was our fancy. If I wanted people to conserve biodiversity, I should find a solid economic argument. Joanna told stories of Deep Time and calls it mythic, and I thought maybe I could tell a story too.

I’d gone to this ‘Work that Reconnects Intensive’ with Joanna in Dorset because I was sick of that. I got up at the end of the workshop and said that I wanted to share ‘a great story of my people’. I got my laugh, then I started.

‘Martha is lonely,’ I said.

 

So. How much loneliness are we talking about here?

This is Ectopistes migratorius, a slender American spike-tailed dove. The English name is passenger pigeon. The Choctaw, I have read, called them ‘the lost doves’. The names say something: these birds moved around a lot. The names are inadequate, that’s where the numbers come in.

Alexander Wilson, pioneering ornithologist, famously saw a flock containing (approximately):

two billion,

two hundred and thirty two million

two hundred and seventy-two thousand

birds.

2,232,272,000. Only three zeroes left to go plink plunk. Does it help? Not really.

It has to be an approximation. Had all of Wilson’s work since birth been the steady, simple, unsleeping counting of the birds in that one flock, he would only have got slightly over halfway by the age of 47. The birds would have had to last 47 years themselves and they would have had to come in single file. It wasn’t like that. Football pitches, multiples of Wales, towers of paper which reach to the sun; surely no one is still moved by this kind of talk any more. We know this kind of universe is there outside the door, but we can’t leave that door open all the time. In my story, I was choosing words in an English country hall, so I talked about the clatter of a wood pigeon’s wings. It sounds like applause. Imagine applause that swells to fill a theatre. Imagine the theatre is the largest stadium ever built and it fills with the sound. Got that? Multiply by 10,000. 

This is no way to talk. There’s only one thing you can say, and many have said it already; some spoke from experience and now none ever will. We say: ‘the sound of their wings was a gale and their landing thunder.’ We say: ‘the shadow of their multitudes blacked out the sun. At the great roostings, which filled forests, their droppings covered the ground like snow.’

Things that truly matter can’t be measured, we like to think. We let the numbers slide off our minds and affirm the importance of ‘the human scale.’ Then we can use the word ‘lonely’ to talk about Martha, and believe it’s enough.

There are numbers that do just about work. A flock that passed over Cincinnati was two miles from edge to edge. Two miles is a measurement one can get a foothold in. Imagine standing in the centre of a field of shadow under two miles of black sky; flickers of sunlight, sifted by wingbeats; they flew fast, they flew thick, they flew low. A flock that passed over Cincinnati was two miles from edge to edge. It’s a thought to get a foothold in. It was 230 miles long. On 8th April this year, Cincinnati is to be brushed by the umbra of a total eclipse. Perhaps that will be similar.

Living, sussurating rivers in the sky, pouring close to the continent, twin rivers of shadow beneath them. Pouring finally, in their power, into the unfortunate forests of the great Roostings where they break the boughs, poison the understorey and utterly baffle the local populations of bobcat, fox, fisher and goshawk who could guzzle for lifetime after lifetime and never be done. What predator has a bite that could even wound it?

It was a rhetorical question once.

No ordinary destruction

Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the north as its breeding grounds, travelling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced. 

It’s from a select committee of the Ohio Senate in 1857 and is probably the most famous quote about the species. It provokes dark laughter now, but nothing about it is incorrect. Melville, six years earlier, had made a similar claim about whales in chapter 105 of Moby Dick. The extirpation of the American bison was well underway even then and Melville explained at length why the whale was different. He sings up its vastness and the vastness of its oceans. What could men do against it? Men are bandits with knapsacks, all animals are. We are not civilised like the great fungi; or not as a rule. It’s always a mistake to imagine there are rules, though. A glut draws intelligence to it. We are hardly better equipped to understand this than Melville, or the Ohio Senate; we just have less choice.

A glut draws intelligence to it. We are hardly better equipped to understand this than Melville, or the Ohio Senate; we just have less choice.

Scientist’s stories can switch quickly, leaving old courses dry. As a child, I had a book which claimed that the passenger’s tremendous numbers showed the species was old and its demise preordained. Reassuring nonsense; species are like elves: killable, but not senescent. However, in 2014, a paper came out claiming that the pigeon was a boom and bust species which was on a downturn anyway, its low genetic variation indicating bottlenecks in its past. ‘Humans not solely responsible,’ claimed a follow-up article in Science, which is stretching it; ‘she was already sick!’ does not fly in court. In any case, a 2017 article reinterpreted the low variation as the signal of intense natural selection in a population that had stayed in the billions of birds over millions of years, the exact opposite conclusion. So we are back where we started.

Other stories have shifted, though. In 2005 I still thought E. migratorius might be the most numerous bird ever to have lived. Already then, the most numerous bird was the chicken, kept in boxes, bred to near flightlessness, so that we could eat the fruit of its womb and boil its spent corpses. Already then, Chornobyl was a wildlife haven, hosting the biggest catfish in Europe and its forests a womb for the wolf. Compared to the hunting those good forest people used to do, the radiation is a rounding error, it doesn’t hurt them like we can. Perhaps even the current war will turn out to be relatively unimportant to the animals also.

Chornobyl is allowed to be monstrous, spectacular, Weird with a capital W. The hunter with a bag and a table to lay is an ordinary destruction because we see him at human scale. But, by 1857, railroad and telegraph had linked him to the hunger of cities. Other dark rivers, wingless, pushing across the continent like honey fungus rhizomorphs under living bark. We piled onto the Passengers as they themselves had massed onto the mass fruitings of the trees. We are no ordinary destruction. 

The artwork titled Shooting Wild Pigeons in Northern Louisiana is based on a sketch by Smith Bennett and appeared in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of July 3, 1875. (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News/Wikimedia Commons)

 

The size of our love

In their long glide down to the forest, Audobon says, the flocks would oscillate their colours, from azure to deep purple as their birds flickered, back to breast within them. Even his description, he says, can’t convey what occurred when a hawk came upon them: ‘Like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the centre. In these almost solid masses, they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent.’

An inadequate description, he says. We have to take his word for it. What happened next is harder to believe. Audobon says that, even with the raptor gone, the flock would keep pouring through the figures described by the birds who had dodged it, even though it was no longer there. Against my scepticism, I set the thought that I am not only speaking of ‘pigeons’ but of the most sociable dinosaur touched by human knowledge. Should I be sure it’s not possible? We cannot check. 

We also cannot check Audobon’s claim that ‘the tenderness and affection displayed by these birds towards their mates is, in every way, striking.’ It’s also unlikely we’d try. Even in the 1920s, Audobon doesn’t use the L-word. Scientists are committed to the measurable, the story goes. Love cannot be measured and so we must pretend it’s not real. I could say this is why we decry ‘anthropomorphism’ and end up embracing automatism instead. I would be in good company, claiming this, but I don’t believe it. I suspect the truth is the exact opposite of that. 

It’s convenient to claim that love is secret and immeasurable and that pigeons, symbols of Aphrodite and the Holy Spirit though they were, are bereft of it.

It’s convenient to claim that love is secret and immeasurable and that pigeons, symbols of Aphrodite and the Holy Spirit though they were, are bereft of it. Scientists can make it the null hypothesis and then never test it and then society supports them in that by avowing immeasurable love. Love, for the Earth or for anyone, either has no size or its size is ineffably secret. We never need to worry if our love is not enough, which is convenient. Or maybe love can be compared, on the ‘human’ scale but never be summed across lovers, never multiplied by ten and by ten and by ten and by ten and by ten and by ten and by ten and by ten and by ten. Also convenient. 

 

What did guns do to them? Audobon doesn’t say. The townspeople lined up on the buttes with their shotguns, and a blast could bring down 80 birds; they flew thick, they flew fast, they flew low. What a pellet does to a pigeon is quite like what a peregrine does, except this falcon is invisible and comes from below. Invisible, coordinated and impossibly numerous. Did the flocks writhe away as they did from the hawks? You would think someone would have mentioned it. 

As they tumble, their slipstreams warble and wink out and the light of their fall hits the eyes of the others and the brains, grown to surf landscape, absorb that. The flock is so internally attuned, it can shiver a hawk of memory down the snake of itself, or so Audobon says. Is this the time to resist anthropomorphism? I think they just kept coming. What else could they do?

Guns weren’t the half of it. The hellish accounts of what happened when a township attacked a roosting are oddly consistent between Audobon’s in the 1820s and those of Etta Wilson, a century later. Wilson was a young girl at the time and not allowed in there. She didn’t smell the sulphur, hear the pigs or see the ‘gnomes’ with their sticks, knocking down babies. She heard about these things from her brothers and maybe from Audobon too. She says just one thing about it that he never mentions. She says ‘the high, cackling notes of the terrified Pigeons, a bit husky and hesitant as though short of breath, combined into a peculiar roar, unlike any other known sound, and which could be heard at least a mile away.’

Little Etta and her mother sat waiting for their share, less than a mile away, I suspect ready to process pigeons. Or, to put it another way, Homo sapiens had a muzzle stuck into the womb of E. migratorius, and was guzzling thirstily as it now guzzles oil. Etta and her mother sat at the top of the gullet, ready to process pigeons. I say this because pigeons cannot roar; E. migratorius roared. It was a short-lived phenomenon, as these things go.

Targeted hunting is not expected to extinguish species. It isn’t profitable to seek out and kill the last ones, unless rarity value puts the price up. The ‘vast forests of the North’ were still there, but they weren’t the real habitat of passenger pigeons. The habitat of passenger pigeons was passenger pigeons.

 

Martha, last of her species, died at 1pm, 1st September 1914, age 29, in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. (Smithsonian Institute)

If numbers mean nothing, you can call Martha ‘lonely’. You can empathise with her, put on a mask and speak for her, and think that’s enough. Crying like a fire in the sun.

If numbers do mean something then maybe the relevant measurements aren’t of the loss but the size of the brain that could hold it. Martha’s was so much smaller than any of ours so, while her cause for loneliness might be greater, her experience had to be smaller. Except surely she knew that. Don’t we know it now? Shouldn’t we now be roiling in sky-high serpents when we just keep coming, over the ridge?

Her smallness in the little light of our word ‘lonely’ stands in a great grey cirque of voiceless sand, and the difference in size between her mind and ours is just a rounding error.

Speculation.

We don’t know what happened at the animal level, or at the species level. We’ll know better one day but never for sure, and at some point we’ll have to forget. We don’t know when or where Martha was born or was captured, only that the last passenger pigeon died in the early afternoon in her cage in the Cincinnati Zoo on the first of September 1914, less than a century after a two-mile-wide river of shadow ran over that place.

In that 2005 Work that Reconnects Intensive in Dorset, it seemed that a story ran through me that just was too big to hold. At the same time, there was a voice in my head all along telling me I was brewing up tragedy, to get a kick out of the feelings, looking for catharsis. .

Anyway, I was drawing the story to a close, the wind of it would settle. ‘When a human being leaves a place of destruction,’ I found myself saying, ‘it is traditional that they will hear a bird singing.’ ‘The song,’ I said, ‘will flow out and not stop and it’s built on a song on a song on a song, coming to us from the worlds before the world ended and it means…’

The wind didn’t settle, it was more like a tap was turned off. Whatever had carried me was gone. And I was standing in front of a little audience who I had just promised to tell the meaning of birdsong.

Gone.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires

Our Autumn 2023 full colour edition is an ensemble exploration of the eight ceremonial fires of the year, celebrated in practices, stories, poetry and artwork.

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