Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Wilson Flagg joins the conversation (1853-1856)

The magazine of horticulture, botany and all useful discoveries and improvements in rural affairs (AKA, "Hovey's") was a horticultural journal of long standing published in Boston. It had not shown great interest in birds or in the project of protecting them. That changed with the arrival of Wilson Flagg in 1853, though even Flagg was more interested, in his first year, in expounding upon his theory of the "picturesque" in rural landscapes than on wildlife. But in the April 1854 issue Flagg directed his attention toward the birds in an article titled, "On the means of multiplying the smaller birds around our dwellings," and from that point on he would become one of the most important and influential writers on birds and their protection in this era of American history.

Flagg joined others in rejecting "utility" as the primary reason for protecting birds. Indeed, he was explicit about this point:
...admitting the value of almost every species as destroyers of insects, I am disposed to consider their importance in this respect as only secondary to that which regards their pleasant companionship with man [my emphasis]. 
To this end, he encouraged home owners to attract and protect birds on their properties. That birds shouldn't be shot was obvious. But also important was to preserve the habitats in which they thrived, recognizing that some birds did well in clearings but that others ("some of the sweetest singers") required forests. He encouraged the planting of shrubbery with berries, especially the "miscellaneous hedge, the more agreeable because unshorn by art" (his picturesque theory still in play...).  And he argued against lawns, judging they were "luxuries," "obtained at the expense of all birds that nestle in the ground." He encouraged farmers to return to the practice of offering houses for swallows.

In August 1854 he wrote about "The singing birds and their songs," including a table of British vs American singing birds and reviewed ornithologists' judgments about the singing quality of old-world vs new-world birds. The mockingbird was over-rated in his opinion, and he admitted not yet having heard the song of the rose-breasted grosbeak. But, while he pined for the songs of European birds
[T]he lark and the nightingale which have been made so familiar to us by our acquaintance with English literature, are not inhabitants of America, and their absence is lamented by every lover of nature
he believed that
no bird on the face of the earth, can be found, any part of whose song is equal in mellowness, plaintiveness, and in what is generally understood as expression, to the five strains, never varied [?] and yet never tiresome, of the common, little, olive-colored wood-thrush.
The New England Farmer praised this article in its September 1854 issue but judged it was too long to reprint in full.  

Finally, in a two-part article running in the January and February 1855 issues of Hovey's, Flagg turned to the bird protection value he had found secondary, writing a "Plea for the birds--their utility to agriculture." He organized the article by listing five classes of harmful insects and identifying which kinds of birds helped to control each class. Swallows, for example, helped control minute swarming insects in the air, while woodpeckers helped control wood-boring grubs. This comprehensive article, while rarely reprinted in full, was widely noticed in the rest of the agricultural press, and reused in extracted and summarized form.  Indeed, despite Flagg's own stated reservations about "utility" it might have been the most influential piece of "spare the birds" writing yet circulated. (Here are links to part 1 and part 2 of the article.)

The same year, in addition to writing regular articles about the aesthetics of landscape architecture, Flagg also wrote a monthly "studies in the field and forest," piece highlighting various seasonal aspects of nature that readers should be sensitive to. And in 1856, as if he didn't have enough outlets for his nature writing, he began to contribute "portraits from the field and farm-yard," to the New England Farmer, beginning in January with the chickadee. Many of his essays from this period were collected and published as Studies in the Field and Forest in 1857.

With Wilson Flagg, we begin to move into a well-known era of conservation. Flagg soon became a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly and was a national figure, specifically known for his sensitive, observing, non-scientific approach to birds and their behavior. Thoreau for one respected him, but famously thought he "was not alert enough." Indeed, Flagg's "picturesque" aesthetic and valuing of birds' "pleasant companionship" were not nearly wild enough for future environmentalists. 

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