Thursday, August 15, 2013

Silent Spring 1834 style

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example--where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed.... It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.
--"A Fable for Tomorrow," Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, 1962.
It is a melancholy fact in this vicinity, and probably elsewhere, at least as far as the extent of the New England States, that our songsters, who give the most delightful of all melody, are so extinct, that in our usual walks of business or of pleasure it is rare to hear or see a solitary one....
--Portsmouth Journal, June 11, 1834

In the 1830s a "silent spring" was not a fable but a widely perceived reality. This is not to suggest that Carson was somehow influenced by the scene a hundred and thirty years earlier. Indeed, the relationship between birds and insects had become inverted. No longer the destroyers of insects, birds were dying in the name of insecticides.  Nevertheless, even in the 1830s, there were writers who elevated birdsong above the utilitarian value of insect control. A "silent spring" alone represented a diminished world.

A representative celebration of springtime birdsong can be found in an article originally run in Plymouth's Old Colony Memorial and reprinted in the New England Farmer on May 28 1834.
The return of the birds is in the most undeviating order. Those, who left us last, who seemed unwilling to depart from their accustomed haunts and to turn from those whose friendships they were wont to experience, are the first to greet us with their vernal melody. Thus as soon as the spring opens, we hear the bluebird chirping upon our house-tops, and the song of the robin awakens us from our morning drowsiness. the marsh-lark, too, is seen skimming through the air, and the black-bird returns to his favorite meadow lands.
The air is soon repeopled with its multitude of songsters, and the fields and woodlands resound with swelling notes of music. What a signal example to man also to join in the Anthem, and to make the song of praise universal! Man is the only reasoning creature on earth; yet seems to be the only doubting and thankless creature among the vast millions the Creator as formed.
This article then turned briefly to the insectivorous value of the birds and the sin of wantonly killing them, ending on a pessimistic but realistic note. Unlike other authors (including Carson), the writer didn't have much faith in the power of speech to put and end to the sinning:
But on the whole, what signifies preaching or talking, or writing on these subjects? Sad experience may, after a course of years, bring people to an acknowledgement that these little animals were made for some other purpose than to be sported with and murdered by lazy men and worthless boys; that they are of essential benefit to the agriculturalist, and it is to his interest as a cultivator of the soil, and to his credit as a man of true feeling, that they be preserved.
A world without birdsong would be a world made by humans who had rejected the blessings of their Creator, despite prophetic warnings.

An article from the Portsmouth Journal, republished in the June 11, 1834 issue of the New England Farmer, suggested that the world without birdsong was quickly approaching, the result of human evil: 
It has been the ravenous practice of man to destroy all those beautiful creatures--and the more beautiful, the more furious he is to destroy them, and that too without the least gain.
Now can we be candid enough to consider the evil consequences of this practice, as well as the great benefits to be derived in forbearance of such a practice? It is my present intention to set forth some of the evils resulting from such brutal and inhuman practices, and to endeavor to bring to view some of the benefits unavoidably resulting from their discontinuance.
In New England, songbirds were already missing:
It is a melancholy fact in this vicinity, and probably elsewhere, at least as far as the extent of the New England States, that our songsters, who give the most delightful of all melody, are so extinct, that in our usual walks of business or of pleasure it is rare to hear or see a solitary one, especially one of those admired singers the mavis or mock bird that is so distinguished above others of the bird tribe,--especially to see her so bold as formerly, rise to the top of a high tree, determined that every note should be distinctly heard, and there for fifteen minutes in succession, without the least intermission never repeat a single note; as soon as her song is ended, she is sure to remove to another of the loftiest tops and pitch another song in as clear and deliberate a manner as say of the human tribe possibly can--Now the poor songster, if she presumes to show her head, or sing us one of her old hundreds, even in a bush, she is immediately put to death.
The singing of birds in general is above all music particularly at the closing of our long frozen winters, after being shut up and excluded from most of the enlivening exhibitions of nature. The sight of a variety, and plenty of those birds with their warbling voices around us in our walks, and in our business, would change the present melancholy scene very much.  It is surprising that we notice the very great difference within a few years; I could once see a tolerable number of different species in my orchard, and about my farm; but men as they call themselves, and boys, would flock around my dwellings, and in dry seasons, when there was much danger of fire being kindled from their guns. Every bird of every description was shot on its nest, or off, no matter, if a bunch of birds could be obtained to carry home for a show.  I am not troubled with these gunners now; there are no birds on my farm save barn swallows, and a pair of Pewees, who are sure to come home every season, and breed in an out-building undisturbed.--We endeavor to protect them from guns and stones. They are as tame as we wish them; and they take off a few of the insects that infest our eyes and ears.
In addition to causing a plague of insects, the loss of songbirds would make the world a more dreary place.
Besides the privation names of the sight and music of those birds, we are sensible of a great increase of insects that infest our fruit trees, and that prey upon our grain and corn fields. We may positively assert, that if birds were increased a thousand to one, hopping over our grounds in search for their food, that there would be a great diminution of those insects amounting to nearly total extinction. There are many that feed on the insects on fruit trees, which if undisturbed, from a common course of nature, would free them from these pests which ruin the fruit. The different species of Woodpeckers used to be plenty, which are now almost extinct, from their exposed state, in searching out fruit orchards. The Cuckoo is fine but rare bird; she exposes herself from singing her very melodious songs; also from the circumstance of her particular manner of living, which I believe is wholly on caterpillars. I have seen them light at a new nest and clear it completely.
There are many species of birds which I have not mentioned as to their beauty and usefulness, and some few that are mischievous. My design has been to show that we once were delighted with, and benefited by those birds, and that we are now living in this dreary land, without their company, and without their great benefit.
 Unlike the first article, the writer did believe that something could be done.
And now I will show that if we choose, we can soon enjoy their company again. 
The remedy is practicable, it is only to legislate in their favor. To make the thing more perfect, every State should go hand in hand. A heavy fine should be laid against those who destroy any birds, except the most mischievous. 
The call for uniform national songbird protection was truly before its time (even statewide songbird protection wouldn't happen for another twenty years); this would be a chief project of the National Association of Audubon Societies many years later.

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