On a Monument to the Pigeon, by Aldo Leopold

9/1/2014 | 4

Aldo Leopold in 1942. Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, www.aldoleopold.org.

Aldo Leopold in 1942. Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, www.aldoleopold.org.

In 1947, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology erected a monument to the Passenger Pigeon at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers in southwestern Wisconsin, in Wyalusing State Park. The following essay, penned by Aldo Leopold on the occasion of the dedication of the monument, is widely regarded as the most poignant ever written about extinction.

Read the keynote delivered by Stanley A. Temple on the occasion of the rededication of the Passenger Pigeon Monument on May 17, 2014.

We meet here to commemorate the death of a species. This monument symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.

Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live that, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.

The plaque on the Passenger Pigeon Monument. Artist Owen Gromme sketched the bird. Ornithologist A. W. Schorger drafted the inscription: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin Passenger Pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.” Reproduced with permission of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

The plaque on the Passenger Pigeon Monument. Artist Owen Gromme sketched the bird. Ornithologist A. W. Schorger drafted the inscription: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin Passenger Pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.” Reproduced with permission of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather; they live forever by not living at all.

*  *  *  *

Our grandfathers, who saw the glory of the fluttering hosts, were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered our lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange.

It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of ­generations: that man is only a fellow-voyager with other creatures in the Odyssey of evolution, and that his captaincy of the adventuring ship conveys the power, but not necessarily the right, to discard at will among the crew. We should, in the century since Darwin, have achieved a sense of community with living things, and of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the ­biotic enterprise.

For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. Vandevar Bush’s bombs, or Mr. DuPont’s nylons, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.

*  *  *  *

We who erect this monument are performing a dangerous act. Because our sorrow is genuine, we are tempted to believe that we had no part in the demise of the pigeon. The truth is that our grandfathers, who did the actual killing, were our agents. They were our agents in the sense that they shared the conviction, which we have only now begun to doubt, that it is more important to multiply people and comforts than to cherish the beauty of the land in which they live. What we are doing here today is publicly to confess a doubt whether this is true.

Silent Wings: A Memorial to the Passenger Pigeon, Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, 1947 and 2014.

Silent Wings: A Memorial to the Passenger Pigeon, Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, 1947 and 2014.

This, then, is a monument to a bird we have lost, and to a doubt we have gained. Perched like a duck hawk on this cliff, it will scan this wide valley, watching through the days and years. For many a March it will watch the geese go by, telling the river about clearer, colder, lonelier waters on the tundra. For many an April it will see the redbuds come and go, and for many a May the flush of oak-blooms on a thousand hills. Questing woodducks will search these basswoods for hollow limbs; golden prothonotaries will shake the golden pollen from the river-willows. Egrets will pose on these sloughs in Augusts, plovers will whistle from September skies, hickory nuts will plop into October leaves, and hail will rattle in November woods. But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts, like the bronze pigeon, will have no wings.

*  *  *  *

We are told by economic moralists that to mourn the pigeon is mere ­nostalgia; that if the pigeoners had not done away with him, the farmers would ultimately have been obliged, in self-defense, to do so. Perhaps this is true, but perhaps it is also true that we did away with an idea, as well as a bird. It is one of the ironies of science that it discovers, ex post facto, a philosophical significance in what it has previously tossed into the dust-bin.

The pigeon was no mere bird, he was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two biotic poles of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and his own zest for living. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a travelling blast of life. Like any other chain-reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity. Once the pigeoners had subtracted from his numbers, and once the settlers had chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a wisp of smoke.

Today the laden oaks still flaunt their burden at the sky, but the feathered lightning is no more. Worm and weevil must now perform slowly and silently the biological task which once drew thunder from the firmament. The wonder is not that the pigeon passed out, but that he ever survived through all the millennia of pre-Babbitian time.

*  *  *  *

The pigeon lived by his desire for clustered grape and bursting beechnut, and by his contempt of miles and seasons. Things that Wisconsin did not offer him today he sought and found tomorrow in Michigan, or Labrador, or Tennessee; to find them required only the free sky, and the will to ply his wings.

But there are fruits in this land unknown to pigeons, and as yet to most men. Perhaps we too can live by our desires to find them, and by a contempt for miles and seasons, a love of free sky, and a will to ply our wings. – Aldo Leopold

Revised from a talk delivered by Aldo Leopold at the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, ­Appleton, Wisconsin, April 6, 1946. Reproduced with permission of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. Copies of the booklet Silent Wings: A Memorial to the Passenger Pigeon, in which the essay appears, can be purchased from http://wsobirds.org/?page_id=2294. A further-modified version of this essay appeared in Leopold’s best-known book A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (Oxford University Press, 1949). 

Read the keynote delivered by Stanley A. Temple on the occasion of the rededication of the Passenger Pigeon Monument on May 17, 2014.

Read about Aldo Leopold (Aldo Leopold Foundation).

Download maps, get directions, and learn about Wyalusing State Park (Wisconsin DNR).

Read “Like Meteors from Heaven,” Joel Greenberg’s article about the Passenger Pigeon (BirdWatching).