Saturday, July 18, 2015

Spare the skunk and the snake and the squirrel, but not the smoking loafer (1841)

In its March 1841 issue, the (Albany) Cultivator ran a letter from Solomon W. Jewett announcing "A Remedy for the Grain Worm." Jewett's remedy involved skunks.
I prepared some boys with traps and hired them to catch an animal well known in these parts by the name of skunk. They caught two or these noxious animals, which I hung up in two different parts of my wheat field [my emphasis] about the height of the grain heads; and the result proved on strict examination that within a circle of several rods around these animals, no larvae or grain worm could be found, and at the same time in other parts of field, some considerable intrusions of the worm were noticed...The contrast as I suppose was occasioned by the strong effluvia that spread in all directions over it. 
It wasn't strictly necessary to hang up skunks for this effect; one could simply take their scent sacks, mix them in a jar with twine, and at the appropriate time string the twine across the field. Jewett, incidentally, was an extremely successful Vermont farmer, but a notorious eccentric.

The Maine Farmer (edited by noted agricultural educator Ezekiel Holmes) ran a letter from a correspondent  ("T.P.") in response to the Cultivator article defending the skunk:
If the farmer could but know the amount of the beetle and other insects one of these animals will destroy in the season of them, he would never think of trapping them to string up in his field.
Instead, T.P. suggested facetiously, a certain two-legged mammal would do the job:
Sir, if I had a wish to cage an animal to keep up a nauseous effluvia for the purpose of driving the fly from my grain, I would catch some of the smoking loafers which infest our villages, that the industrious part of the community have to support, say four of them, and furnish them with "long-nine" cigars, and cage one on each side of the field, so that they cannot do one another mischief, and my word for it, I would rid society of a useless animal, and raise an effluvia that will be more disgusting to the flies and a surer protection to the wheat, than the scent of the quadruped named above.
In a comment appended to the article, Holmes responded:
His skunkship is beginning to be duly appreciated. The substitute which our friend recommends is a good one--but won't it drive all the skunks from the farm too, as well as the weevils?
The New England Farmer, in its May 5 issue reprinted the exchange, appending its own request:
If it can be demonstrated that the skunk is a useful animal, we would move, as an act of justice, that a little more euphonious cognomen be applied to him than the one which he at present bears in the nomenclature of quadrupeds. Can't Dr. Holmes, of the Maine Farmer, suggest a name for the creature which will be more expressive of his character and less repulsive to the ear than that of skunk?
Unlike birds, whose defense was usually deadly serious, the usefulness of the skunk was an opportunity for humor.

Meanwhile, the Farmer's Monthly Visitor, in its April 30 issue, ran an article (likely from Isaac Hill himself) asking readers to reconsider birds, beasts, and reptiles usually considered "noxious." He led with the toad and the crow but quickly moved to the snake, an animal that was generally killed on sight (sometimes for "Scriptural" reasons). The turning point for Hill came when a Quaker friend stopped him from killing a striped snake with a stick. "He never did thee injury--he will do more good than harm: let him alone." And indeed, Hill came to learn that even the black snake should be spared, because of its controls on grain-eating mice, rats, and chipmunks. (The rat, Hill added, was a puzzle: "In the economy of nature we can see no possible good resulting from their creation.") Finally, Hill addressed the usefulness of the skunk, an animal that could cause mischief in the hen house, but was a big consumer of mice and harmful grubs. Hill concluded, "If the skunks shall not molest us, let them live and do good."

In its May 12 issue, the New England Farmer ran an excerpt from the Visitor article focusing on the skunk:
The merits of this hitherto much abused animal, are beginning to be developed and appreciated--Subjoined is Gov. Hill's testimony of his worth.... It would seem that the good which the skunk (out upon that name!) accomplishes in his way, fully atones for whatever is offensive in those striking peculiarities and mischief working eccentricities of his character, for which ever since mother Eve nibbled the pippen, he has been noted and persecuted. The testimony of so eminent an individual as Gov. Hill in favor of the skunk, we think is entitled to great weight, and we trust it will have its due influence in preventing a further war of extermination upon the animal...
Consensus, in a much shorter time frame than with useful birds, had emerged among the leading farm journals.

Holmes at the Maine Farmer, continued to have fun with the topic. In response to the New England Farmer request for a renaming, he replied:
Well...if you think a skunk "by any other name will smell as sweet," suppose you call him muskiferous puppy? or if that cognomen is not sufficiently euphonious and magniloquent, suppose you call him L'Eau de Cologne animal?
In its June 6 issue, the New England Farmer continued the exchange, rejecting Holmes's suggestions (because they still focused too much on the animal's "aromatic peculiarity"), but drew attention to the consensus and (mock) heroism of their campaign for changed public opinion:
When you and we! and Gov. Hill, shall have succeeded in "elevating" the skunk to his rightful place among useful animals, by demonstrating that instead of being the enemy of man he is the destroyer of man's enemies--when we shall have accomplished this (and our prospects of success grow brighter with the lapse of time,) shall we not merit the title of public benefactors? We shall,--and who shall say, that posterity, estimating aright the signal service we have rendered them by our disinterested and philanthropic exertions, may not enrol our names among "the few, the immortal few, that we not born to die."!!!
The New England Farmer's pro-skunk campaign was finally fully realized in a long article in direct support of the animal on June 21, titled "The Useful Creature." Indeed (maintaing the mock heroic tone) the editors noted, "All the laurels we may have gained in this "new field of popular distinction,"are most cheerfully surrendered to the gentleman who has in this article so ably defended the skunk." The author of the article, "P.D.," while continuing the wordplay that so delighted the farm journal editor collective, laid down a multi-prong detailed defense. In addition to destroying the "worst enemies of the tillers of the soil," the skunk, when de-scented was "as sweet and harmless a creature as the prettiest kitten or puppy," and given its physical limitations (it doesn't really climb) it was very easy to guard henhouses from any potential depredations. Thus, as with other useful animals, their wanton destruction was a tragedy. This article was reprinted in June 30 edition of the Farmer's Monthly Visitor. Meanwhile, the witty banter between the editors of the Maine Farmer and the New England Farmer over the skunk issue went one final round, with Holmes suggesting that the his counterpart deserved to "be knighted, and have a skunk fragrant on the field of your coat of arms."

Finally, in its October 6 issue, the New England Farmer extended its support to the (gray) squirrel, running an article drawn from the Farmer's Cabinet, which referenced both the usefulness of birds and the "loafers, who wage an eternal war against every thing that has life in the shape of bird or beast." Drawing from a British publication, the correspondent called out the valuable role of the squirrel in planting oak trees.

The defense of other useful animals was both an extension and a response to useful bird protection. On the one hand, it simply included more animals under the heading of "unwarranted prejudices" (many of which continue today). On the other hand, it addressed the seeming unfairness of all the attention being paid to the usefulness of birds. As the author of the above article observed, "We find many who are ready to advocate the cause of the birds, [but] we never hear any commiseration expressed for the little animal, the squirrel, whose presence enlivens the otherwise lonely solitude of the deep wood, and adds a charm to everyday landscape, but who is doomed to destruction..." As the playful conversations around skunk protection indicated, there was also a touch of irony in this extension and perhaps in the "heroic" efforts of animal protectors generally.

No comments:

Post a Comment