Friday, November 20, 2015

That Feathered Thing

This fall I finally visited the Storm King Art Center, an enormous rambling sculpture park north of New York City I have driven past many times, on my way to somewhere else, wishing I had time to stop. 
It is debatable whether some of the gigantic pieces enhance the landscape - or detract from the rolling hills and forest...
...but some were thought provoking, and powerful -  conjuring thoughts about deep time and our place in the universe.
It was the last day of a special exhibit of whimsical fountains.
Even though these are made of petroleum-derived plastic, I admired the bright, garish color flaming against the natural backdrop - and the playful organic moldings.
This gravity defiance was breathtaking, and I’m sorry I can’t supply the movement and sound of the water, or the wonderful clear sky and sunshine on that windy afternoon.
One permanent installation is a memorial, a lovely tribute to someone the sculptor must have cared deeply about.  Every time a visitor rings the bell, it is a vibrating resonant reminder of a life that once existed but is now over.  Of course I never knew the man this iron poem was dedicated to, nor do any others who pass by.  But, this sort of profound gesture of love reaches each of us, even when we can't have ever known the individual the artwork commemorates.  This expression of love is one of many that make humans unique in the animal kingdom, and very much part of the theme for my latest Dispatch From the Endocene on Extinction Radio.  You can listen to it online, and/or read the transcript below. Links follow the text:

Thanks Gene, and welcome listeners, to the 17th Dispatch From the Endocene.

It seems a natural and common reaction when people encounter the certainty that the sixth mass extinction has begun - and the likelihood that the human species will not be spared - to wonder why and how this has been allowed to happen.  The concept of mass extinction, especially our own, challenges the deepest cherished faith we nourish - in progress, in the ultimate perfectibility of fallible humanity, in divine forgiveness of our sins and foibles.  It is the end of all that.  It requires confronting our worst enemy, ourselves.

Even the few people who are able to understand that our species is doomed by our own actions often remain in denial that, sooner or later, it was inevitable.  Instead of accepting the immutability our self-imposed destruction, it is comforting to turn to the illusion that things might have turned out differently.   This is a tempting fallacy because embedded within this rationalizing is an implicit desire, that we might yet change and improve our fortunes, perhaps even avert our untimely demise as a species.  To truly accept our role in the 6th mass extinction, it is essential to understand the human propensity to deny and to hope, and how such delusions arose, inextricably and genetically entwined, in tandem with a consciousness of our individual selves, language, symbolism, and the foreknowledge of death.

One pertinent indication of our inability to overcome the primal instinctual behavior that developed over countless generations is the tendency of populations to become obese and develop related diseases once the supply of fatty, salty, sweetened food, scarce for most of our evolution, becomes readily available and inexpensive.  Usually the notion of free will is invoked and industrial civilization is blamed, along with individuals for their “life-style choices”, while our evolved imperatives are overlooked.  Similarly, we compulsively binge on power from cheap energy and on the products that derive from it.

Present-day culture is frequently reviled as overly preoccupied with status, as expressed by rampant consumerism - but like culinary excesses, the urge to flaunt possessions is simply an extension of behavior that evolved long ago.  Humans began bargaining with fate as soon as they started to bury their dead, something no other species does, entombing remains with offerings starting with simple bones, shells, then clay figurines, and ultimately fantastic, elaborate and ostentatious objects such as are found in the ancient pyramids of Egypt.  Rituals and ceremonies arose as religions and worship of spirits permeated cultures from primitive to the most complex and are always accompanied  by tangible objects of value. 
It’s amusing that current obsessions with fancy watches and cars, body sculpting and plastic surgery are denounced as a shallow fetish, when the same impulses in native tribal cultures are lauded as “indigenous spirituality” and considered sacred “ethnic traditions”.  Among some of the more outlandish practices have been crippling and painful bodily re-configurations such flattened heads, bound feet, corsets, the insertion of enormous lip plates from as long ago as 8700 bc, requiring the removal of teeth, earlobe gauging and let’s not forget some horrible genital mutilations.   More often relatively benign self-ornamentation has been used to denote membership in a tribe, and one’s position within it, such as tattoos, piercings, jewelry, headdresses and clothing style.  To expect that people in today’s society eschew such symbolic displays of reproductive fitness, or to forsake totemic possessions that defy death, is to ask humans to stop being humans.  We have brains big enough to understand how meaningless and futile it is to appease mythical gods in hopes of immortality…but not big enough to stop us doing it.

We have driven species to extinction not just for the necessities of life, but because they were collected purely for trivial decorative purposes, such as tree-dwelling snails in Hawaii, sea turtles, horns from animals of all sorts, ivory, abalone, coral.  The enchanting nautilus has been depleted in the Philippines by 80 percent since 1980.  Thanks, US, for importing more than 100,000 a year!  But this frivolous collecting began at dawn of time.  When people blame civilization, or capitalism, or the neolithic revolutionary turn to agriculture for the trashing of the natural world, they forget that it was civilization that finally enabled people, albeit too late, to deem our behavior wrong and attempt to ameliorate prior and ongoing damage.  Modern people have deliberately set aside large tracts of land for wilderness, and designated species endangered in an attempt to protect them.  Our ancestors thoughtlessly took until there was nothing left, and then resorted, when they could, to some other resource or location.
Shells aside, there is probably no finer illustration of the phenomenon I am describing than to trace the use of feathers.  Recently my daughter informed me with a fine sense of outrage that down comforters and pillows are an evil indulgence, because the feathers are cruelly yanked from living geese and ducks.  I checked and unfortunately, she’s right.  But this atrocity isn’t an invention of contemporary manufacturing.  It has been a world-wide habit.  Nobody can know how long ago it started, because it began before records were kept.
The following is some history from BirdLife International.  It may seem a tedious recounting, but I feel like it is important to acknowledge the scale and ubiquity of the carnage, to honor the unique and dazzling creatures we have mercilessly exploited for tens of thousands of years.
“Feathers have always been part of human self-adornment, betokening status, wealth, vitality, ardour and defiance (Diamond 1986). Across the world, tribal peoples had used the most colourful and extravagant plumes of the birds they hunted to decorate themselves. Zulus once wore turaco feathers as headdresses. The King of Swaziland and traditional Masai men still do. In West Africa, a porcupine quill and red flight feather from Bannerman’s Turaco in a man’s black hat indicate his position as a traditional council member.
“In the Palas valley in northern Pakistan, people wear the colourful plumes of the near-endemic Western Tragopan  in their caps. In Borneo the tail-feathers of the largest hornbills are used in ceremonial dances and rituals. In New Guinea the birds of paradise were (and again still are) the chief targets, and dried skins were used in trade as far east as mainland South-East Asia and as long ago as 3000 BC; but cassowaries are used more completely—their feathers used in ceremonial headdresses, their bare quills carved into nose-pins and ear-rings, their leg-bones fashioned into implements and their sharp claws fitted to arrow-tips (on top of all this, they furnish a spectacular amount of food).
“In New Caledonia, Kagu feathers were used in the war headdresses of chiefs, and their calls mimicked in war-dances. Polynesians trapped Red-tailed Tropicbird on the nest, plucked their long red streamers to wear in their hair or nose, and—with admirable self-restraint and forethought—let the birds go.
“Rulers in Hawaii made capes out of now-extinct drepanid finches, and probably contributed heavily to their demise: the ceremonial cloak made for Kamehameha, the first king of all the islands, is composed—to the most exacting of standards and to memorised incantatory rituals—of nearly half a million yellow feathers from an estimated 80,000 birds belonging to one species, the Hawaiian Mamo.
“In North America the feathers of the Bald Eagle formed the almost legendary headdresses of native Indians, but they also made necklaces and tiaras from the feathers of Red-headed Woodpecker, quails and hummingbirds, with one surviving cape being made entirely of the red head-plumes of Acorn Woodpeckers, several thousands of which would have been needed for the purpose. In Central America, the extraordinary blue-green iridescent snaking back-plumes of the Resplendent Quetzal were woven into royal gowns; besides quetzal plumes, the gown belonging to the Aztec king Moctezuma had many hundreds of trochilid feathers, interspersed with tiny platelets of gold.
“In South America, many kinds of exquisite feathers were used by native tribes, notably from cotingas, hummingbirds, toucans and parrots: certain tribes made headdresses from the wings of the Hyacinth Macaw, and the Emperors of Brazil had cloaks made from Channel-billed Toucan plumes and mantles made of Guianan Cock-of-the-rock feathers.
“At the height of the Aztec empire, five provinces which contained cloud-forest were compelled to furnish tributes in the form of as many as 2,480 “bunches” or “handfuls” of mostly tail-streamers from Resplendent Quetzals. If it is assumed that each “handful” contained 10–50 such feathers (four from each bird), this would have meant a harvest of 6,200–31,000 Resplendent Quetzals per year! Even if the lives of the birds were spared (and despite the edict of death on those who killed them, it seems inevitable that a large proportion might have been seriously injured in the capture/plucking process), the figure is still astonishing, and indicates that the species must have been very much more abundant in pre-Columbian times than it is today.”
Elsewhere I learned that Plains Indians obtained feathers for their war bonnets by capturing young eagles from the nest.  Once the bird reached maturity they could pluck tail feathers three times, until they no longer grew back, yielding a total of thirty-six feathers.  The same nest could be raided annually.  I could find no information on the fate of the thrice-plucked birds that could no longer fly but I doubt it was auspicious.
Feathers are still somewhat popular, but nothing today approaches the absolute mania around the turn of the 20th century for exotic feathers - to adorn hats, as well as for fans and other accessories.
For that history a wonderful resource can be found at a blog that highlights a traveling museum exhibit, titled “Fashioning Feathers”, which was a collaboration between several artists and scholars.
That global massacre was only possible because indigenous people were already skilled at trapping or killing birds to obtain their feathers.  The hunt for bird of paradise plumage in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and New Guinea was described in 1869 by naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, who, like Darwin - to whom he proposed the concept of natural selection  - was searching for the origin of species.  Over eight years he traveled 14,000 miles collecting 125,660 specimens, mainly insects but also birds, plants and animals.   Following is an excerpt from the book that chronicled his findings, “The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-utang and the Bird of Paradise”:
“…the males assemble early in the morning to exhibit themselves in the singular manner already described…This habit enables the natives to obtain specimens with comparative ease. As soon as they find that the birds have fled upon a tree on which to assemble, they build a little shelter of palm leaves in a convenient place among the branches, and the hunter ensconces himself in it before daylight, armed with his bow and a number of arrows terminating in a round knob. A boy waits at the foot of the tree, and when the birds come at sunrise, and a sufficient number have assembled, and have begun to dance, the hunter shoots with his blunt arrow so strongly as to stun the bird, which drops down, and is secured and killed by the boy without its plumage being injured by a drop of blood. The rest take no notice, and fall one after another till some of them take the alarm…The indigenous mode of preserving them is to cut off the wings and feet, and then skin the body up to the beak, taking out the skull. A stout stick is then run up through the specimen coming out at the mouth.”

I’ve put an etching from the book of that scene on my blog, Wit’s End ~
The website describes the extent of the “harvest”.  The market was worldwide, but the industry centered in the UK:

“At the height of the ‘Plume Boom’ in the early part of the 20th century the business of killing birds for the millinery trade was practiced on a large scale, involving the deaths of hundreds of millions of birds in many parts of the world…around 1901-1910, 14,362,000 pounds of exotic feathers were imported into the United Kingdom at a total valuation of £19, 923, 000…The overwhelming majority of egret plumes (at their finest during the breeding season) were obtained by shooting the birds as they nested, with the inevitable result that the young slowly starved to death.”
Eventually the obscene carnage inspired protest, leading to the formation of the first Audubon Societies and legislation in the US and UK protecting wild birds.

And so we read on the website:  “W. H. Hudson, a representative of the Society for the Protection of Birds (SPB,) recoiled with horror as he witnessed the sale of 80,000 parrot and 1,700 Bird of Paradise skins late in 1897:  Spread out in Trafalgar Square they would have covered a large proportion of that space with a grass-green carpet, flecked with vivid purple, rose and scarlet.”
It also quotes W. T. Hornaday, author of Our Vanishing Wildlife, published in 1913.

“From the trackless jungles of New Guinea, round the world both ways to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, no unprotected bird is safe. The humming-birds of Brazil, the egrets of the world at large, the rare birds of paradise, the toucan, the eagle, the condor and the emu, all are being exterminated to swell the annual profits of the millinery trade. The case is far more serious than the world at large knows, or even suspects. But for the profits, the birds would be safe; and no unprotected wild species can long escape the hounds of Commerce.”

But it was not noble efforts at conservation that finally spared surviving species.  A sad footnote records the reason that millionaire ostrich farmers in Australia lost their mansions, some driven to suicide by the bubble collapse:
“Yet, as absurd as it may sound, it was really a fashionable new hairstyle that ultimately saved the birds. In 1913, the bob and other short hairstyles were introduced—cuts which would not support large extravagant hats. Plain slouch hats and ‘cloches’ became very popular, and it was for this reason that most plume-hunters were forced to abandon their trade.”
Feathers have been symbols of eternal life, ascension, and wisdom in many cultures.  An inscription on a Egyptian tomb from nearly 3500 years ago is translated “May I walk every day unceasing on the banks of my water, may my soul rest on the branches of the trees which I have planted, may I refresh myself in the shadow of my sycamore.”  But in those days, it was believed that after death, the Goddess Ma’at would weigh the purity of a soul’s heart, and only those lighter than the white feather of truth would reach the afterlife.

One of Emily Dickinson’s most beloved poems begins with the line, “Hope” is the thing with feathers - that perches in the soul.
It was very disappointing to me to find that so many reviews, even very sophisticated critiques, take it to be a childlike affirmation of the value of hope in the human experience.   Almost without exception readers depict her portrayal of hope as sentimental, if not saccharin trope.  But, it seems to me that her self-imposed exile from society was at least partly related to her refusal to accede to the strong familial pressure to accept the religious fervor of her time.  She eschewed hope and eternal salvation through a deity in favor of a devout pagan worship of nature, and instead embraced a stubborn delight in the natural world, and a felicitous desire to experience life as it is.   As a subtle but profound sense of irony wends through her oeuvre, and a playful mockery of dogmatism, I imagine her reflection on “Hope” was intended to be sardonic.  When it is unrealistic, which it so often is, hope is an inescapable, stifling trap that humanity can never escape - and I suspect that Emily was shrewd enough to know that.
I thought I was alone in this interpretation until finally I came across author Derek Murphy, who wrote the following on his unique and intriguing blog, Holy Blasphemy:  “Emily Dickinson strikes me very much like Camus’ character in The Stranger. Facing death for murder, a preacher comes to save him, and he yells, “leave me alone! I don’t have much time left, I want to focus on this life, not the next!” (Or something like that, I’m paraphrasing and it’s been awhile since I’ve read it.) A common mistake is to take each of her poems separately and tug out a stand-alone meaning. In this way the body of work Emily produced can mean anything to anybody. But taken at face value, and read collectively, Emily’s anti-organized religion stance and outspoken blasphemy is clear.”

I will leave a link to that post with the only others I located that venture into the darker side of Dickinson, on my blog for anyone interested to read more.  Thanks for listening to this Dispatch from the Endocene.


nautilus shells

funny - appropriating native headressess

BirdLife International:
quetzetl, Aztec:  

Museum Exhibit on feathers:


more on Emily:

A 2010 post from me, about Emily Dickinson and her poems about the garden and nature:

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