Saturday, July 16, 2016

"Love of birds ought to be a part of our religion" (1846)

On October 1845 The Cultivator ran an article by "X." The author knew it would be controversial. It was titled "'Spare the Birds'" (the original in quotes).
"Spare the birds," say a large host of scribes in the different agricultural papers. Though the birds destroy, mutilate, and defile the fruit, yet they also eat the insects which destroy the fruit. Hence we should spare the former on the principle of "setting a thief to catch a thief."
Like Buckingham of the Boston Courier, the author wanted to show the logical absurdity of favoring bird-life over other parts of nature. 
[T]his benevolence should be more expanded. The grubs and wire-worms, though they destroy the crops, also destroy the weeds which choke the crops; therefore "spare the grubs." Canada thistles, though they choke the crop, also choke mulleins, docks and Johnswort, which injure the crop also; therefore, "spare the Canada thistles."
The author's perspective, which he admitted was "heterodox," was thoroughly economic and utilitarian. 
I am in favor of destroying all depredators that are proved to be such. If they happen to be snakes, destroy them; if they are birds, destroy them…We must take care of our own crops and show no partiality to any intruders or thieves, however handsome their dress or fine their music. 
This article was reprinted in both the New England Farmer (Nov 5) and the Boston Courier (Nov 17). 

"X." would have to wait until the following year for a response. On May 20, 1846 The New England Farmer ran an article from "J.T." rebuking "X." for his "malignant, unprovoked attack on the little warblers." J.T. began by stressing that popular opinion was on his side:
He admits that "a large host of scribes, in the different agricultural papers," cry "Spare the birds." And, let me tell him, no scribe will ever gain enviable renown by arraying himself against this formidable host, who have the promptings of humanity, the kindest feelings of our nature, as well as the dictates of reason and justice to support them, in their appeals to our sympathies, in behalf of this interesting portion of the animal creation. And an attempt to obliterate the kind feeling every generous bosom cherishes for the joyous, social, little songsters, will be as futile as the attempt to remove the disgust and hatred naturally implanted in every human breast, for that implacable enemy of our race, the snake.
The public liked birds as much as they hated snakes. And they were right to because birds had been given a higher station in the Creator's design than other animals, particularly the accursed snake.
"X." wants to know if it is "any greater merit to be a bird, than to be a toad, snake, or lizard?" He might ask, with the same propriety, if it is any greater merit to be a man than a monkey. Yes it is. The bird is designed to fill a more meritorious place,--to perform a more meritorious office,--to act a part giving him just title to more merit and distinction in the scale of animal existence. His superior merit is evinced by the sphere he occupies, and by the element he moves in. He is endowed with the faculty of pleasing, and making himself agreeable, which neither snake, toad nor lizard can boast of….Original sin attaches to the snake. But the poor bird is only accountable for a little actual transgression….
This may be the high point of esteem for birds among authors in the agricultural press. Birds were not just useful but uniquely blessed agents placed in the world to help humans to be more pious:
A love for the birds is, or ought to be, part of our religion. Their music not only kindles the poet's fire, but it enlivens devotion in the pious heart. Assimilated with the beautiful and ornamental in creation, indicative of the gratuitous benevolence of the wise Creator, it raises the pious, contemplating, feeling heart from "nature up to nature's God." [Pope's Essay on Man] If their Maker designed them as "gross nuisances," which ought to be "abated," why give them their beautiful plumage, the soul-enlivening voices, their graceful forms and motions? Utility did not demand them. The end of their creation as "nuisance" could as well have been answered without their graces, and then we could "abate" them without doing so great violence to the best and noblest feelings of the generous heart. 
Love of birds could make you a better person.
The mother who instills a sympathetic feeling for the birds into the tender mind of her boy, stamps there a principle which will never detract him from his usefulness, or from the dignity of his character, and if it does not make him a better soldier, a better statesman, or a better citizen, it will give him a better heart, and be likely to make him a better Christian and a better man.
As we have seen and will see further, this natural theological perspective on birds and nature generally was widely shared during this era. 

"X.", for his part, was unconvinced. In an article published in the November 1846 Cultivator, titled "A plea for fruit," he framed the blanket protection of birdlife in the face of fruit destruction as an affront to a properly civilized and patriotic attitude.
There is perhaps nothing in the whole visible creation, that has a stronger tendency to check the wild and roving disposition which characterizes semi-barbarians, than refined horticultural pursuits....["Founding father of landscape architecture" A.J.] Downing says that "fine fruit is the most perfect union of the useful and beautiful that the earth knows."…The man who would discourage the honest and industrious cultivator by turning unrestrained upon him the pilferer….has most essentially the spirit of the vandal, and has forgotten the true promptings of patriotism.
Scripture did not favor birds when it came to the requirements of humans.
[W]hen need requires it, all the rest of the animal creation must bow to the wants of man. But some would alter the original law, so as to read thus, " ' And have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowls of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth,' except such birds as are handsome, and sing prettily--such thou shalt not touch." Every part of the creation was pronounced good; yet every thing equally was to be sacrificed to the wants of man when he needed it…the notion that mere external beauty…is to shield and protect, is too much like the the modern practice of acquitting handsome, rich, or well-dressed scoundrels in courts of law, for crimes committed. 
Beauty alone was not sufficient to save fruit depredators. Indeed, to put too much stock in beauty could lead to miscarriages of justice.  And disrespected the "good" of all Creation.
These remarks…were in part prompted by a leader in the New England Farmer, written by a correspondent who says a "love of birds ought to be a part of our religion," forgetting that a moscheto [mosquito], when microscopically examined, is as perfect and beautiful an animal as a bird, and equally the work of creative wisdom.

In its February 1847 issue, the Cultivator ran a note explaining it had received a response from J.T. but had decided not to publish the letter; the public "would not be benefitted from a controversy" on the specific objection he had to the article, but had the editor noticed the objection in question before publication it would have been omitted. What this specific objection was we will never know.

The New England Farmer ceased publication in June 1846, the end of an era in the history of American agricultural publications. 

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