Friday, August 5, 2016

Charles L. Flint defends the birds and is honored with a poem (New England Farmer 1855)

In its May 1855 edition, the New England Farmer reprinted a circular from Charles L. Flint, Massachusetts's first Secretary of Agriculture. It addressed a particular New England problem:
Dear Sir,--There is a custom, very prevalent in many sections of the State, of regarding the Annual Fast as a holiday, and using it for gunning and shooting. Many thousands of our most useful and beautiful birds, to none more useful than to the farmer, since they destroy innumerable insect injurious to vegetation, are thus sacrificed to the wantonness and cruelty of those who know not what they do. Many painful instances of this came to my knowledge a year ago, when robins, blue-birds, sparrows, and other varieties of birds, which occasionally visit us in the early spring, were shot down without distinction or mercy.
I need not say that apart from the pleasure and delight which these innocent creatures afford, the injury done to the farmer, and to the community at large, by their destruction, is almost incalculable. I take this occasion, therefore, to entreat every farmer, and every man who has any regard for the public good, to use his influence to put a stop to this practice, not only on his own premises, where he has an undisputed right, but throughout his neighborhood and town. Stringent laws already exist against the destruction of birds. Let every man see too it that these laws are rigidly enforced, and rest assured that he will be richly rewarded, not only by the consciousness of an act of mercy in preventing their annual and rapid diminution, but also by the fulness of joy and song with which these sweet messengers of heaven will surround his dwelling, and testify to every passerby that there is practical Christianity enough in its owner to protect and save them. 
I will thank any man, in any section of the State, to inform me of the extent of this violation of the laws of mercy and of the Commonwealth, in order that, if necessary, more effectual measures may be taken to protect the birds, and thus invite them and encourage them to live among us.
"Fast Day" (like "Old Election Day") was a traditional New England holiday that had been observed since colonial times. It was ostensibly a day of prayer and fasting preceding spring planting, but because it essentially shut down all business, was widely treated as a recreational holiday. Its exact date of observation changed from year to year but eventually was set in mid-to-late April. It is now observed in Massachusetts as "Patriot's Day."

For many, Fast Day became a day to slaughter small animals. The New England Farmer had been publishing appeals from correspondents since the 1840s directed at this activity, urging boys to use the day for its intended religious purpose, not for taking "the lives of the innocent and harmless"(April 6, 1842), and calling for the enforcement of current laws ("Spare the sweet songsters" June, 1853 ). Flint's circular was in that tradition, backed up by government authority.

Indeed, the editor of the New England Farmer had appended comments to the introduction of the circular, writing out the current state bird protection laws and hoping that
the penalties of the law will be rigorously enforced, and that a stop will be put to this wholesale murder of the joyous, innocent, and useful denizens of the woods. 
In fact, the month before this was published, Massachusetts had strengthened its useful bird law to increase the penalty and to indicate, like New Jersey and Connecticut before it, specific bird types that were to be protected all year, not just during a close period. These were: robins, thrushes, linnets, sparrows, bluebirds, bobolinks, yellow-birds, woodpeckers, and warblers. (As in the other cases, landowners were still free to do what they wanted with birds found on their properties.)

Flint's circular was widely reprinted throughout the general and farm press. In the New England Farmer (July 1855) however, it received a more singular honor, verse from a noted local poet, Josiah D. Canning, the "Peasant Bard." He introduced the poem as follows:
Sir:--While fitting my corn-grounds to-day, and listening to the song of the prophetic "Planting-bird," your issued circular concerning birds came up to mind, and for which please to accept my grateful thanks. The accompanying verses followed my thoughts, and I take the liberty to forward them to you, hoping they will meet some answering chord in your breast.
Dear Sir:--I read your proclamation
With pleasurable admiration.
Ye printers, speed it o'er the nation!
     May ye who read it,
Feel under sacred obligation,
     When read, to heed it! 
The birds! The birds!--what man may know
The vast amount of good they do?
E'en the poor bann'd and bandit crow--
     (Writ calls him raven)--
Once fed a prophet, long ago,
     By will of Heaven. 
Now-days crows pull some corn, 'tis true;
They love it; so do I and you;
But grubs and worms they likewise view
     With mouths that "water,"
And wage upon the vermin crew
     Unflinching slaughter. 
Please keep before the people's eyes
This truth, of every bird that flies:--
Far more of good than evil lies
     To their account;
The evil's small; no money buys
     The good amount. 
How oft I've quit my toil, and run
To see what meant the "slaughtering gun;"
And if I found some valiant son
     Of blood and Mars
Shot birds, his shirt-tail was one
     Of "stripes," not "stars." 
What songs with those of birds can vie?
From the bright gold-finch that on high
Swings its wee hammock in the sky,
     To the dear thing
That nestles where the mosses lie,
     And grasses spring. 
How blessed 'tis to be awaking
To the bird-choir, when day is breaking!
When Phoebus is the west forsaking,
     No fine-spun sermon
Like theirs, could o'er my soul by shaking
     The dews of Hermon. 
This bright May morn, from shaking spray
Yon bird outpours his Planting lay,
How sweetly, naively sociably,
     As late I heard
A dear-loved friend--God bless her?--say,
     And save the bird! 
Sir, count me ready to abet
You, in the work to which you're set.
I'm loth to speak or pen a threat,
     But loafing rowdy
Who kills birds on my farm, will get
     Especial "goudy." 
Yours most heartily for the birds, Josiah D. Canning. 
The "Spare the Bird" poem was alive and well. Regrettably I have been unable to determine what he meant by "goudy" here. Any ideas?

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