Thursday, July 21, 2016

Henry Ward Beecher answers "What's a bird good for?" (1850)

In 1850, shortly after the passage of the New Jersey "small birds" law, the New York Independent ran an article by Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most prominent speakers and social reformers of the day, praising the law. Titled, "The Value of Birds," it began with a news item summarizing the law, and then asked:
What's a bird good for? What dainty sentimentalism has set a Legislature at such enactments? Not so fast. Although we should greatly respect a legislature that had the humanity to think of birds among other constituent bipeds, yet experience has taught farmers and gardeners the economic value of birds. 
There are no such indefatigable entomologists as birds. Audubon and Wilson never hunted for specimen birds with the perserverance that birds themselves exhibit in their researches. They depasture the air, penetrate every nook and corner of thicket, hedge and shrubbery, they search the bark, pierce the dead wood, glean the surface of the soil, watch for the spade-trench, and follow the furrow after worms and larvae. A single bird in one season destroys millions of insects for its own food and that of its nest. No computation can be made of the insects which birds devour. We do not think of another scene more inspiriting that the plowing season, in this respect. Bluebirds are in the tops of the trees practising the scales, crows are cawing as they lazily swing through the air toward their companions in the tops of distant dead and dry trees; robins and blackbirds are wide awake, searching every clod that the plow turns, and venturesome almost to the farmer's heels. Even boys relent, and seem touched by the birds' appeal to their confidence, and until small fruits come, spare the birds. Bobolinks begin to appear, the buffoon among birds, and half sing and half fizzle. How our young blood sparkled amid such scenes, we could not tell why; neither why we cried without sorrow or laughed without mirth, but only from a vague sympathy with that which was beautiful and joyous. 
Were there ever such neat scavengers? Were there ever such nimble hunters? Were there ever such adroit butchers? No Grahamitic [vegetarian] scruples to agitate this seed-loving and bug-loving tribe. They do not show their teeth to prove they were designed for meat. They eat what they like, wipe their mouths on a limb, return thanks in a song, and wing away to a quiet nook to doze or meditate, snug from the hawk that spheres about far up in the ether. To be sure, birds, like men, have a relish for variety. There are no better pomologists. If we believed in transmigration we should be sure that our distinguished fruit culturists could be traced home.  
[Nicholas] Longworth was a brown thrasher; [A. J.] Downing a lark, sometimes in the dew and sometimes just below the sun; [J. J.] Thomas was a plain and sensible robin; junior [William] Prince was a bobolink, irreverently called skunk-blackbird; [A. H.] Ernst a dove; [Samuel] Parsons a woodpecker; [Marshall] Wilder a kingbird. We could put our finger, too, upon that human blackbird, wren, bluejay and small owl--but prudence forbids; as it also does the mention of a certain clerical mockingbird that makes games of his betters. 
But we wander from the point. We charge every man with positive dishonesty who drives birds from his garden in fruit time. The fruit is theirs as well as yours. They took care of it as much as you did. If they had not eaten egg, worm and bug, your fruit would have been pierced and ruined. They only come for wages. No honest man will cheat a bird of his spring and summer's work.
Beecher, by this point, already occupied the prestigious position of pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn; later in the year he would write his famous diatribe against the "Compromise of 1850," which had strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act. Beecher's bird article was widely reprinted and was collected in the 1855 volume of his writing, Star Papers, or Experiences of Art and Nature. The bird protection movement was now bolstered by the highest level of writing and rhetoric. 

Beecher, in fact, had been for several years in the 1840s, the editor of Indiana-based Western Farmer and Gardener, an agricultural monthly associated with the Indiana Journal. His pieces for that publication were eventually collected in a volume, Plain and Pleasant Talk about Fruits, Flowers, and Farming, published in 1859. While we can place Beecher among the "bird-friendly editors," he actually didn't have much to say about bird protection in that publication. 

This was not true in the articles for the Independent collected in Star Papers, where he aimed his words (and imaginary armaments) against "shooters from the city:" 
We are guiltless of shooting, and seldom feel an impulse to explode powder, except when we see respectable city stupidities killing little singing-birds. We sometimes feel an inclination then to shoot the unmannerly fowler. No gentleman would shoot a singing-bird. (p. 239)
And noting that "robins [were] gathering in flocks in orchards, and preparing for their southern flight, prayed:
May his gun for ever miss fire that would thin the ranks of singing-birds! (p. 331)
For Beecher, birds were not just "useful." Throughout Star Papers, he described how natural settings and birdsong were sources of spiritual renewal:
Often when extremely depressed I have gone to the parks or out of the city to some quiet ground, where I could find a wooded stream, and the wood filled with birds, and found, almost in a moment, a new spirit coming over me. I was rid of men--almost of myself. I seemed to find a sacred sweetness and calmness, not coming over me but into me. (p. 79)
Mirroring the priorities of birders today, when Beecher travelled to England:
among the many things which I determined to see and hear in England were the classic birds, and especially the thrush, the nightingale and the lark; after these I desired to see cuckoos, starlings and rooks. (p. 34)
Beecher, after some trouble, would actually see and hear his skylark. Unsuccessful efforts had already been made to introduce the starling (and skylark) to the New York City area. 

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