Sunday, July 10, 2016

On editors and robins (updated)

On April 17, 1844, the New England Farmer ran a pro-bird piece from a correspondent cleverly constructed as a mock notice of a "meeting of choristers." "A. Robin" had been elected president; "A. Little Tom-Tit" was secretary. The article listed a series of resolutions, including concert arrangements. For example:
4. Resolved. That the price of admission be and are--an early walk, a kind heart, a listening ear. "For the time of the singing of birds has come."
5. Resolved. That all rude boys (girls we never find rude to us) are requested to leave stones, sticks, clubs, and brick-bats where they find them, and be still, that they be humanized…
It ended with an entreaty to boys "not to shoot at, maim, and murder us, in cold blood, for mere sport, before our young ones are fledged, next fall,"and requested that parents of any "young and thoughtless" son read this resolution to them.

Most interesting for our purposes, however, was resolution 7, which directly addressed the editors of several area periodicals.
7. Resolved. That as the concerts will commence for the season, on or about the 15th of this month, that Messrs. Breck, of the New England Farmer; Buckingham, of the Boston Courier; Buckminster, of the Ploughman, and Earle, of the Spy, being friends of the farmer, and of reputed taste in melody--and above all, being our personal and professional friends, (so we hear and hope)--be respectfully requested to insert our advertisement once in their country papers.
The New England Farmer tagged the article with a single line: "Protect the Birds." Breck, the editor and publisher, was indeed a "friend."

Buckingham of the Boston Courier (May 30, in response to a pro-bird article in the Massachusetts Ploughman), however, was more conditional in his friendship, contesting the idea that robins were beneficial to the orchard. Indeed, he accused the robin of being a false friend.
The robin is truly an exceedingly pleasant companion. His song is the most cheerful of any, always excepting that of that merry chatterer, the bob-o-link; and he gives us a concert every day through half the year. But his concerts are not given gratis. He contrives to get his pay for the whole season in cherry time. He is the most bold and arrant swindler that walks upon two legs. He is a hypocritical, uncivil, unprincipled, unchristian-like thief. He sings among the branches of your cherry tree, and then steals your cherries, or makes a dive at your strawberries.
Making things worse, according to Buckingham, was the fact that robins didn't even provide the benefit of controlling harmful insects: "Robins and caterpillars are, apparently, very civil neighbors to each other."

The New England Farmer reprinted the Courier article on June 12, 1844, under the title, "The birds and their usefulness," with the following introduction:
"Audi Alteram Partem" [let the opposition be heard] 
We were perfectly astounded upon reading the following remarks by the worthy and much respected editor of the Boston Courier….The robin's friends are legion, and we anxiously wait to see what defence they can make. Our prejudices are in favor of the birds--but, "fiat justitia, rual caelum"--let justice be done, &c. 
For the sake of justice (that word again) the New England Farmer would allow an opposing voice space in its paper. 

Buckingham, of course, was wrong: robins do in fact consume caterpillars and canker worms. On June 26, 1844, the New England Farmer called Massachusetts' most prominent entomologist, Thaddeus W. Harris, as its expert witness. 
Allow me to [say] a few words in behalf of robin-redbreast. Observing members of my family have seen this favorite bird pick canker-worms and bud-worms from the leaves of apple-trees, and swallow them. We had a young robin, which we fed, daily, with common apple-tree caterpillars, and the bird ate them greedily and apparently with great relish. We never saw the bud-worms and leaf-rolling caterpillars... thick as they are at this time, on the apple and plum trees; and we are much indebted to birds for their services in destroying them. We intend to set out cherry-trees enough to give the robins a share of the fruit with us. Yours, T. W. H. Cambridge, June 15, 1844. 
The New England Farmer tagged the remarks with a direct address to its editorial opposition:
Our neighbor Buckingham, of the Courier, will see by Dr. H.'s notice of the robin, that there are some who have seen "a robin eat a caterpillar"—and canker-worms, too—and, (if it was not a case of "optical illusion,") we think we have ourself seen the robin making a meal on caterpillars—but we are not sure it was in cherry time.
Breck was willing to concede that robins might favor cherries over insects when cherries were in season. But Harris might well have agreed. His solution, which was apparently followed by a number of horticulturalists at the time, was to grow cherries for the robins to consume.

[UPDATE: July 14, 2016]

On July 10, a correspondent calling himself "Peter Cudgel" weighed in, directing his attack at Buckingham.
The editor of the Courier seems to belong to [that class] who with their fallacious theory, seem to be altogether on the wrong tack, beating against the tide of popular opinion, and a stiff breeze of philanthropic indignation, and must ere long be driven upon the lee shore of practical experience, as they ever who, through prejudice or ignorance, attempt to controvert the operations of nature.
Buckingham was on the wrong side of popular opinion and the wrong side of "nature." Moreover, it made no sense to accuse the robin of immoral behavior.
Unreasonable man! Does he suppose a robin to be capable of theft? I ask every reflecting and candid man, if the taking of cherries, or fruit of any kind, by robins or other birds is theft? If they know the difference between right and wrong, that is is contrary to our wishes to take the fruit which we have grown and perfected by our industry and care, it is theft: otherwise it is not; because there is nothing capable of theft, or any other crime, whose reason is not developed to such a degree as to enable him to distinguish between right and wrong. Whether the robin is capable of such discernment I leave for the editor to consider.
And because nature (and bird behavior) were expressions of God, it was a sign of human depravity to kill a bird for acting in accordance with God's intentions. 
Is it to be presumed that all-wise Providence has given to any of the lower orders of creation, natures and appetites which infringe upon the rights and well-being of man, his masterpiece? No reasonable man can, I think, after mature reflection, arrive at that conclusion. All departments of nature are perfect: every thing has its respective part to act; every thing (which is undepraved by man) has an appetite suited to its wants, (man alone excepted,) and he who kills a bird for indulging in a natural appetite, infringes upon one of nature's --one of God's laws--and of course must suffer the penalty thereof. 
In a relatively lengthy appended comment, Breck supported the sentiment but scolded the correspondent for his incivility. 
We cannot object to what our correspondent says in defence of the birds; but we have thought it best to omit a few of his expressions in allusion to the editor of the Courier…We like to see spirit manifested by writers, but we would have courtesy coupled with it…Our advice to writers for the agricultural press is, be as spirited as you like, but never suffer your pen to trace an uncourteous epithet:--leave that weapon to the rabid participants in the muddy warfare of politics, who gloat upon detraction as vultures upon carrion.
The agricultural press as a whole could not afford to let its credibility suffer by engaging in the kinds of partisanship seen in the party papers of the day. 

Buckingham (whose Courier was aligned with the Whigs) had no such hesitation. In a July 24 letter, printed on the front page of the New England Farmer, he urged the paper not to "expunge epithets in the future." And he laid into Cudgel and his argument.
I perceive by a communication in your paper of the 10th inst,. that I have given offence to one of your correspondents…I assure you, sir, that when I wrote the article which elicited from Mr Cudgel that outpouring of indignation, I had no intention of provoking the anger, or in the slightest degree ruffling the temper, or the most sensitive philanthropist; and I do not perceive that even Mr. Cudgel, with all his philanthropic sagacity and inexorable resolution to write me down "a mean, unprincipled, unchristianlike rascal," has produced any evidence that I was guilty of stating anything untrue. 
Indeed, he was just skeptically calling into question "the accuracy of a certain popular impression," not advocating the destruction of birds.  Despite Harris's testimony, Buckingham still believed that robins avoided eating caterpillars. Moreover, it was Cudgel whose logic was unsound. If "all departments of nature are perfect" then it followed that
no reasonable man can wish the destruction of caterpillars and canker-worms, and grasshoppers, and other worms and insects injurious to vegetation; for these all do nothing more than "satisfy the cravings of a natural appetite." Did not the God who created the robin create also the caterpillar and canker-worm?
On August 21, perhaps sensing that that partisan advocates such as Cudgel were in fact undermining the case in favor of the birds, Breck ran a note explaining to a correspondent why the New England Farmer would not be printing his response to Buckingham's July 24 letter. It wasn't the tone but the argument that was flawed.
The communication from an Andover correspondent, upon the subject of birds, is entirely unobjectionable in its tone; but like the coffee we sometimes find in travelling, it is too weak to be good....If the writer wished to blow up the Editor of the Courier…he should have provided himself with a heavier piece of ordnance. …When he asserts with his friend "Cudgel" …that "[the birds] have a claim from a high source, to food and drink wherever they can find it," does he not assert an equal claim for the caterpillar and cankerworm to food &c. wherever they can find it?....we think the publication of his article would do him little credit, either as a controversialist or a logician, and we have therefore with parliamentary courtesy, "laid it on the table."
It was better that the robin's eating habits be doubted (for this could be confirmed or disconfirmed scientifically) than a confused argument from natural theology be advanced. 

No comments:

Post a Comment