Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Farmer's Cabinet bird protection essay contest winner

The Farmer's Cabinet, a monthly journal-style agricultural periodical, began publishing out of Philadelphia in 1837. [Note, this should not be confused with the New Hampshire newspaper of the same name.] By 1838, it was deeply involved in the bird protection discussion. In January, it published bird-related excerpts from the Entomology of Kirby & Spence and reprinted an old plea, originally published in the New England Farmer, to stop the wanton destruction of birds. In April, it focused on how best to bring public opinion to bear.
The wheat, Indian corn, fruit trees, garden vegetables, and even the grass and the trees of our forests annually furnish the most conclusive testimony of the great disturbance in the equilibrium of nature, produced by these ignorant savages who can load and shoot a gun.--Public opinion, the influence of which is so potent in many other matters, ought speedily to be brought to bear on this very momentous subject. Where would exist the difficulty in calling public meetings in townships or neighborhoods to concentrate, and express public opinion on a subject in which every member of the community has so deep an interest? Let this speedily be done and try its effect; if it should fail, other means must be resorted to, for the grievance is of too alarming a character to be tolerated longer in civilized society. Teachers of religion and school teachers ought to consider, whether they might not render some service to their fellow citizens by occasional instruction and admonition, that would illuminate the ignorant and alarm the vicious, in a matter that so deeply concerns the public welfare. A premium of ten dollars, or a medal of equal value, at the option of the writer, will be paid to the person who will furnish the best essay on the foregoing subject...
In June the essay contest winner was published, titled "Injury from Destroying Birds." The author framed his reasoning squarely within a teleological Christian cosmology:
Those who believingly adopt the atheist theory of a chance creation, must in consistency discard that ultimate doctrine of christianity, that every thing however diminutive it may be, is formed for some end. We are glad that we differ from them. We rejoice in believing that every existence animate or inanimate is a member of a vast and united family of servants and worshippers, that nothing is formed in vain, that every atom has its task to perform, as surely as every spirit an account to render. 
Assuming that everything has an ultimate purpose, "What is [birds'] duty in the great business of the universe?" The author ponders some possibilities. Is their use-value in their consumption by humans, for example?
We think we may say, without fear of contradiction, that none of the birds of the air, not even those which are now most sought, for that purpose, were originally created expressly for food, and yet that seems to be the only light in which we regard them…
Ultimate purpose and utility for humans don't necessarily align perfectly. The author leaves an out for farmers disposed to destroy injurious beings.
We would not be understood as saying, that all, even of these more diminutive species, are useful to the farmer. It is not so. Some are of no use, others decidedly injurious, and with the latter we would hold no terms; we would say, destroy them in any manner which in itself would not do more injury than it would prevent if successful--but a large number of these creatures are most useful and faithful servants of the tiller of the ground. 
Having established the agricultural/cosmological usefulness of most birds, the author turns to arguments that might persuade young gunners to cease their sinful ways. For example, if killing birds harms agriculture, bird killers are ultimately responsible for harming people, particularly the most vulnerable.
Let our remarks especial impress on the young the thought, that every missile aimed in sport tends to take food from the mouths of the poor and famishing--that if successful in its aim it destroys its pretty victim, however small in proportion may be its immediate and perceivable effect,--it deprives the agriculturalists of the life-time labor of one faithful servant at least, perhaps of more who perish in a deserted nest....The race was not formed in vain. Each one has its task to perform; we sin in wantonly destroying them, first against him who made them for his glory, then against ourselves, willingly ignorant of their untaught "labor of love."
Among these higher order appeals might be patriotism. Indeed an appeal to patriotism might mitigate against the feeling that they were being asked to be "soft" or "feminine."
We would appeal, then, to the young, the most active and thoughtless enemies of the feathered creation: to the rising generation, the hope of the country, who are unwillingly, and perhaps, as far as motive is concerned, innocently doing that country which it is their high ambition to serve, an injury, which is irreparable and deep.…If to such an aspiring youth, joyful and giving joy, in the glad hope and promise of future usefulness, the soft intercession against cruelty of a tender mother, or a fond sister, come in vain, or are derided and disobeyed, as the weakness of feminine hears, we would offer the higher and more sacred consideration, that if they are too manly to yield to such mild petitions, they should be manly enough to feel and to be proud to feel, a responsibility for their country's welfare, breaking in with every ray of knowledge, and beating with every pulse of young and buoyant life. 
Ideally, raising boys properly would be a remedy
First we would propose the attainment of this great object, to the parents, guides and preceptors of the young--they are the great fountainhead of effort, the sources of deep and well directed endeavor. 
as would appeals to a baser kind of agricultural self-interest.
…we would appeal to the self-interest of owners and cultivators of land….We would appeal even to their own selfishness and love of gain, if no higher motive will reach them…Let them resist and punish every trespass of the wanton slaughterers of birds…
But, if these social remedies fail, and the author believes them to be insufficient, it is time (contra Isaac Hill) for laws protecting birds. 
We look then to legislative enactment for our remedy. It protects game for sportsmen, who disregard all fear of trespass in its pursuit. In many states it offers a large reward for the destruction of the noxious birds, whose numbers are small, but whose paid destruction is of evident injury to the farmer! Those who take advantage of the bounty offered being, usually, miscreants who care no more for the laws of property, than for the lives of the myriads of serviceable birds which fall in common with the proscribed species. We look to legislative power for the uprooting and extermination of this evil.
Surely, given the existing legal game and bounty frameworks, there was room for useful bird protection, particularly if the beneficiaries of the bounties tended to be the same people wantonly destroying birds generally.

Note that the author of the essay was unknown, even to the editors of the Cabinet, who asked in a footnote for the author to identify himself. Nevertheless, the contest winning essay was to stimulate a great deal of interesting response [to be discussed next post]. [UPDATE: The entire essay was reprinted in the Farmer's Register.]

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