Monday, July 25, 2016

Lewis F. Allen preserves a birdy swamp (1850)

In its September 1850 issue, the Michigan Farmer ran a profile of Lewis F. Allen, prominent stock breeder and businessman. He was the elder brother of Anthony B. and Richard L. Allen, the founding editors of the American Agriculturist.

The profile, part of a series of articles touring prominent farms, began:
Allen is rough hewn, merely blocked out, and has a rather prosy exterior, but he has some interior apartments which are well fitted up; prosy as he looks, he is as full of poetry as he can hold. 
Allen's farm was situated on Grand Island, between Niagara Falls and Buffalo, NY. The article proceeded to make a tour of the grounds. Finally the author's company and subject reached an undeveloped section of the property.
At the far end of the field, we came to a small wood, with underbrush so thick as to make parts of it impervious to mortal footsteps, and a wet swale running through it--Here he commanded attention, and said he wanted to hold a council upon this piece of wood; so we all sat down upon the logs, when he opened his mouth and said, "Gentlemen, I am in a quandary; there is a swamp which no mortal can penetrate, but it is the home of the sweetest songsters of the forest, and there at certain hours of the day, they pour forth their almost unearthly music up on the ear of the lingering passer-by, and what shall I do? If I clear out the under-brush, and drain off the swale, I shall drive away the birds."
The draining of wetlands during this period of American agriculture was widely recommended in the agricultural literature and was usually done with little thought of its consequences for wildlife.
After mature deliberation, and many sage remarks, our assembled wisdom came to the unanimous conclusion; 1st, that the swamp belonged to the birds by right of possession [my emphasis], and that he had no right to disturb them; 2d, that it would show a spirit of barbarism to undertake to molest them; 3d, that it was due to the spirit of civilization, progress, and refinement, which was abroad, that they should not be molested; and finally, that his own highest poetical interest required of him total abstinence from any and all participation in so unpoetical a deed, recommending to him, in conclusion, as he valued his reputation as a poet, and as a man, simply to make a winding foot pathway through the thicket, all of which was in most perfect accordance with his own poetical feelings, and of course, he "signed the bill," and it has now become a law. The birdies then have nothing to fear, from this time forth.
The deliberation parodies legislative proceedings (whether explicitly inspired by the New Jersey or Connecticut small bird laws it is hard to know). The idea that the birds had "right of possession" while probably facetious in this case would be taken up more seriously in years to come. This early bird sanctuary, inspired more by a "poetic" sensibility than a "utilitarian" one, is now part of Beaver Island State park. 

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