Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sometimes the rhetoric goes off the rails

The New England Farmer had made it a mission to try to draw young farmers into its audience. The young were more likely than old-timers to be receptive to innovations and scientific approaches to farming--less likely to reject the publication as a form of "book learning." Part of this strategy was a liberal policy of publishing correspondence from their younger readers, in hopes of forging a community of open-minded agricultural innovators. Sometimes these new ideas could be ill-conceived.

On June 2, 1841, the Farmer published an article by "A Farmer Boy" (his second appearance in the paper) titled, "To Boys in the Country--Spare the Birds." The writer explained, appropriately, that an appeal to young men from a peer would be a more effective approach than the scolding they typically received from older writers. And thus he proceeded to lay out his arguments for bird protection, addressing directly "boys in the country." In many ways, the writer simply reproduced the form of previous appeals:
My friends, let us receive the birds as welcome visitors to our fields, and not as soon as one makes his appearance, run to the house for a gun, and by creeping slyly behind some fence or bush, get near enough to pour upon him the leaden ball, and spoil his fine dress, wrought and colored by the hand of nature, so as to remain unfaded and uninjured through all the rain and hail which the clouds have poured forth upon him [knowledge about molting apparently was not widespread]; stop forever the music of his throat, tuned by his Maker, and prevent him from ever more assisting the husbandman to free his premises of noxious insects. 
This is familiar language. It is when it came to placing the birds in Creation (the search for purpose that we've seen so often in bird protection discourse), that he made some remarkable claims.
I think that the birds were intended for ornaments to adorn and beautify the works of nature, and with their beautiful plumage, graceful movements and sweet warblings, to please the eye and delight the ear of man....As the birds require food, it may be that the insects were made on purpose for them [my emphasis]; these feed upon the same plants and vegetables which give sustenance to man and beast. It is so ordered by an all-wise Providence, that if man wantonly and cruelly destroys the birds, judgment may come upon him, by having the crops destroyed by the very insects upon which the birds would feed.
In other words, it wasn't simply the case that birds controlled insects harmful to agriculture, but rather that "Providence" had deliberately set up a situation whereby bird destruction (their purpose was ornamentation) triggered automatic penalties in the form of crop depredations by insects. Even by the standards of teleology-seeking creationism this is an incredible construction. What is the purpose of insects? To feed birds and to punish humans who kill birds?

For better or worse this misreading of useful bird arguments received little subsequent attention in the Farmer or other papers. That the New England Farmer ran it (without comment) is an indication that the publication's zealous support of bird protection sometimes made it less critical than it should have been when it came to the quality of support its authors offered. And I expect modern readers may lose patience with "A Farmer's Boy's" youthful writing by the end of his concluding paragraph:
Think of this as you are about to poise your piece and pour its deadly contents upon the unfortunate victim, and if your finder does not refuse to do the horrid deed, or at least if your conscience does not upbraid you and agitate your nerves so as to suffer the bird to escape "more scared than hurt," you must have a heart as hard as the savage [my emphasis], who when seeking for revenge can bury his tomahawk in the heads of innocent women and children, and quench his thirst with the blood as it flows from their wounds.
Clearly bird protection and social justice did not always go hand in hand. Unwarranted prejudices against birds were more easily dispelled than unwarranted prejudices against fellow humans.

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