Friday, July 29, 2016

Frances Dana Barker Gage and the hunter-naturalist (1852)

Birding loving Frances Dana Barker Gage was an outspoken abolitionist, feminist, and temperance advocate. Writing as "Aunt Fanny," she contributed a regular letter to the Ladies' Department of the Ohio Cultivator, where she talked about a variety of topics, from sewing machines to birds & flowers. She could be very critical of the prevailing "utilitarian" attitude toward those topics, as in a June 1, 1852 letter:
"Of what use," cries the utilitarian and money-maker,"are birds and flowers." Of what use? God made them--and he has made nothing in vain. If beauty and fragrance and harmony were not useful, this world would not be full to overflowing with them all. Yes, God made the birds and the flowers, but he never made a bank bill or a railroad bond. The love of birds and flowers never made a man a tyrant or a robber; but the love of money has done both...
She used her writing to "plant the seed" of love of birds and flowers.

In its July 15 issue the Ohio Cultivator printed a letter (originally in the Cleveland True Democrat) in which Aunt Fanny reported on a visit to Chester County, Pennsylvania. She discovered something in one of the farm-houses that "surprised and delighted" her. 
A cabinet of curiosities, in the shape of birds, beasts, insect and reptile, plant, shrub, and flower, all in a high state of preservation. There were near five hundred birds, stuffed and made to look as perfectly natural as if they were cheerily singing their morning or midnight song, in their own native forest and woods, from the grave and solemn owl down to the tinyest hummingbird that ever sipped sweet from the bell of a honeysuckle….All these things were the gatherings up of the leisure hours of a young farmer…within the last four or five years, and in his own neighborhood too….What an interesting occupation it would be for the leisure time of our young men and maidens, to thus get up home cabinets and honor through Nature, Nature's God, in all His glorious attributes and perfections. What a high source of intellectual amusement and scientific research. 
Taxidermied bird collections were becoming more and more popular during this period, a new wrinkle on the boy bird shooter so often criticized. Modeled after John James Audubon, who had just recently died, "hunter-naturalists" could justify their sport by an appeal to scientific ornithology. (See especially, C.W. Webber's The Hunter-Naturalist: Romance of Sporting (1851) ).

New England Farmer associate editor and resident bird expert, Henry F. French, was proud of his own collection, taken during his younger days. He, like Gage, thought collecting was a splendid activity for country boys. 
My collection, by the way, which comprises about a hundred specimens, and which I picked up from time to time about fifteen to eighteen years ago, are in almost perfect preservation as when first procured. I say this by way of encouragement to any of your readers, who may feel an interest in this fascinating branch of study. Any country boy of common ingenuity, may obtain at very little cost of money, a collection of native birds, which will constitute one of the most beautiful and useful ornaments for his home that can be imagined. A taste for the subject as a science would soon lead to an accurate knowledge of the habits of birds, and prevent their wanton destruction. (April, 1852)
French was a protector of birds, writing, " I have never shot a single bird on my farm since I occupied it, and suffer the crows to sit daily on my tall pine within reach of my rifle unharmed." He frequently preached the sermon of birds' usefulness to the New England Farmer's readership.  Far from seeing a contradiction between the protection of birds and the killing of them, he saw a positive relationship. If you were collecting specimens for scientific study, that, by definition, wasn't "wanton" destruction. 

In response to requests, he taught readers "How to stuff birds," in the August 1852 issue of the Farmer. His instructions included a section on "how to kill a bird." (It is not for the squeamish.)
You can easily wring their necks, or cut their heads off, but since feathers are considered somewhat ornamental to birds, this kind of violence will not do. Blood can be easily washed off of water birds, but not from land birds… 
The scientific mode of murdering the poor innocent creatures…is to pinch them with the thumb and fingers under the wings so as to stop respiration, and as gentle [he's being sarcastic] Isaac Walton says, in directing how to put a live frog on to a fish hook, "in so doing, handle him as if you loved him." …If any one objects to having birds killed, he "had better stop,...before he begins" his collection. 
One fan of Gage, indeed, objected to her support of the practice, writing (September 15, 1852):
I have been grieved to find one paragraph which seems at variance with the general tenor of her writings….To me it does not seem like an interesting occupation for our country youth to take the lives of so many dear little warblers, who are enjoying their brief existence so cheerily, singing in their native element, their morning and evening songs, gladdening all nature with their vocal music.  
And surely while we have health and strength to ramble over the hills or fields, and hear the sweet forest songsters….where Nature and Nature's God has placed them unmolested by any other hand, save His, "who, when he formed, designed them an abode" till their short span is ended--we should feel as if we were religiously fulfilling our duties, than while catching and depriving of life so many harmless creatures by sticking pins through their bodies, hearing their pitiful death shrieks, or in any way torturing them for our gratification to look at when at home.
The editor agreed that such killing could be "unnecessary cruelty" but not if "valuable instruction could be gained for it." Nevertheless, "even in that case we should fear the effects upon the disposition." Killing innocent creatures was bad for one's moral development.

In a January 15, 1853 letter to the Ohio Cultivator, Gage responded.
Your correspondent…thinks it would be a cruel amusement to kill birds and butterflies, simply for gratification of this kind. I regret that my words should have conveyed the idea that I would, for mere amusement, suggest the taking of life from any living thing.
Surprisingly, however, instead of repeating the justification from science, she argued the old farmer's justification:
But if the Orioles and American Canaries [goldfinch], plunder our peavines, shall we not take measures to secure our rights? If the kingfisher [kingbird?] makes war upon the bee-hive, the mocking-birds upon our cherries, the wood-pecker upon our best apples, …the…blackbirds and crows upon our corn, the quails, pigeons,...become robbers and depredators, and we are obliged to defend ourselves and property, is there any objection to immortalizing even our enemies, and preserving their beauty and grace, though the harmony of life is gone?
Her knowledge of economic ornithology, regrettably, was not up-to-date. Ultimately, however, she used the criticism as an opportunity for reflection on the cruelties underpinning much of every-day life:
I will not argue the question with my friend, for hers is the higher mercy and kindness; but I would inquire, does my friend, for the gratification of her taste, eat meat? does she carry a muff or tippet? has she ever worn a silk dress, or ribbon upon her bonnet, or about her neck, and reflected how many lives have been sacrificed to give her the luxury? Again I say, I do not pretend to justify one of these things; but I have thought of them all, and thank our friend for her reproof; it has made me more cautious to impress mercy and kindness to every living thing, upon those about me. 
The killing and collection of specimens in scientific ornithology remains a controversial practice, often criticized by humane organizations. The idea that individual boys should complete their own stuffed bird (and egg) collections was ultimately counter to the aims of bird protection in the United States, and would be the target of campaigns to come. Collecting, did, nevertheless, produce naturalists such as Gilbert Pearson, who would be influential in the Audubon movement. 

No comments:

Post a Comment