FLIGHT MAPS: Adventures With Nature In Modern America / Edition 1

FLIGHT MAPS: Adventures With Nature In Modern America / Edition 1

by Jennifer Price Jennifer Price
Pub. Date:
Basic Books
Pub. Date:
Basic Books
FLIGHT MAPS: Adventures With Nature In Modern America / Edition 1

FLIGHT MAPS: Adventures With Nature In Modern America / Edition 1

by Jennifer Price Jennifer Price
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In five sharply drawn chapters, Flight Maps charts the ways in which Americans have historically made connections—and missed connections—with nature. Beginning with an extraordinary chapter on the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and the accompanying belligerent early view of nature's inexhaustibility, Price then moves on to discuss the Audubon Society's founding campaign in the 1890s against the extravagant use of stuffed birds to decorate women's hats. At the heart of the book is an improbable and extremely witty history of the plastic pink flamingo, perhaps the totem of Artifice and Kitsch—nevertheless a potent symbol through which to plumb our troublesome yet powerful visions of nature. From here the story of the affluent Baby-Boomers begins. Through an examination of the phenomenal success of The Nature Company, TV series such as Northern Exposure and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and the sport-utility vehicle craze, the author ruminates on our very American, very urbanized and suburbanized needs, discontents, and desires for meaningful, yet artificially constructed connections to nature. Witty, at times even whimsical, Flight Maps is also a sophisticated and meditative archaeology of Americans' very real and uneasy desire to make nature meaningful in their lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465024865
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 04/06/2000
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)
Lexile: 1260L (what's this?)

About the Author

Jennifer Price attended Princeton University and received her Ph.D. in History from Yale. Her essays have appeared in the collections Uncommon Ground and The Nature of Nature. She lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



They say that when a flock of passenger pigeons flew across the countryside, the sky grew dark. The air rumbled and turned cold. Bird dung fell like hail. Horses stopped and trembled in their tracks, and chickens went in to roost. "I was suddenly struck with astonishment at a loud rushing roar, succeeded by instant darkness," the ornithologist Alexander Wilson wrote after he encountered a pigeon flock along the Ohio River in the early 1800s: "I took [it] for a tornado, about to overwhelm the house and everything around in destruction." Wilson sat down to watch the flock pass over, and after five hours, he estimated that it had been 240 miles long and numbered over two billion birds.

    Since the extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914—which would seem nearly as astonishing as the flocks themselves—Americans' collective memory of the species has grown vague. We tend to confuse the birds with the domestic carrier pigeons, still very much in existence, that served as messengers during the two world wars. The passenger pigeon, or "wild pigeon," looked like a large mourning dove, and ranged across the eastern half of the continent from Quebec to Texas. It did not perform feats of heroism in wartime, but by all accounts was hard to miss, and was one of North America's more riveting natural wonders. In 1831, John Jay Audubon wrote about a forty-mile-wide pigeon roost he had seen in Kentucky. "Some persons have thought fit to consider my account of this species as fabulous,"he defended himself several years later, "[but I] could easily have obtained corroborative statements." Like Audubon, many chroniclers claim they had witnesses. Others claim sobriety. Some refuse to try: "too strange to describe"; "beyond the power of this pencil to portray." A typical wild-pigeon roost blanketed hundreds of square miles of forest. The underbrush died, the trees were entirely denuded of their leaves, dung piled up inches deep, and century-old trees keeled over under the cumulative weight of the nine-ounce birds.

    We know the exact day of the extinction: the last passenger pigeon died on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo. The last of seven captive birds, she was named Martha. In the wild, however, the species was effectively extinct by 1900. The number of birds had declined rapidly, almost in an instant, from billions in the 1870s to dozens in the 1890s. What happened? At the time, people weren't exactly sure. In fact, many refused to believe it: thirdhand reports circulated that ship captains had spied the flocks over the Gulf of Mexico, and there were putative sightings in Chile, Bolivia and along the coast of Russia. "They went as a cannon-ball is dropped into the ocean," the game dealer Edward Martin wrote, still mystified in July 1914, "now in plain sight, then a splash, a circle of ripples—and nothing." It was "as if the earth had swallowed them."

    Others charged angrily that game dealers and commercial hunters such as Martin had destroyed the pigeons. Since the 1860s, as the rapid westward expansion of rail lines linked the still-rich game haunts of the rural Midwest to fast-burgeoning eastern cities, market hunters had been harvesting game in unprecedented numbers. By all accounts delectable, pigeons were also the target of choice in the newly popular sport of trap shooting. As market hunters cleared the game birds of the Midwest literally county by county, the pigeon hunts became notorious: at a famous 1874 nesting in western Michigan, four hundred market hunters shipped out twenty-five thousand pigeons every day for five to six weeks. By 1890 the game business had driven eskimo curlew, golden plover and other species to the brink of extinction. Buffalo herds vanished exactly in these decades, and their sudden decline met with the same disbelief: surely the enormous herds must have fled to Canada or other more hospitable climes. The bison, we know, never left the Great Plains in any numbers. And the passenger pigeon would never recover. "No other bird," the naturalist John Muir waxed nostalgic in 1913, "had seemed to us so wonderful." The next year Martha died, and she was taken to the Cincinnati Ice Company, frozen in a three-hundred-pound block of ice, and shipped to the Smithsonian. And while Edward Martin still harbored a faint hope that some birds might "yet be hidden in the vast forests of the Amazon," the extinction finally persuaded many Americans that the continent's wildlife was finite and that much of it had been destroyed.

    An extraordinarily active posthumous phase of the pigeons' history had already begun. My choice of the story of this extinction to launch a wide-ranging inquiry into Americans' connections to nature follows a well-established tradition. By 1900, American conservationists had already begun to invoke the loss of the pigeon flocks as one of our most devastating encounters with nature. The birds' disappearance fueled a reckoning, an inquiry. After 1914, a stream of essays, histories, children's books and novels about these birds would appear—and the stories continue, because the wild pigeons, if they are congregating at the South Pole, waiting for us to reform our ways, still haven't returned. Civic groups have erected monuments to the pigeons in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. "No living man," Aldo Leopold wrote in 1949 in A Sand County Almanac—the post-World War II environmentalist bible—"will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies."

    What happened? We will never know the exact causes. Hunting, deforestation and disease have been the preeminent theories—in that order. With the hindsight of ecological science, we do know that the very species that look most inalterably abundant—the great auk, the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon—can in fact be unusually vulnerable to population declines, since the enormous groups in which they live are so often essential to their survival. Hunting may have driven these flocks below a minimum population threshold—in combination, perhaps, with disease or the destruction of forest habitat.

    Still, the postmortem on wild pigeons not surprisingly has focused not on their biological weak points but rather on us. As the refrain of a 1973 folk song asks, "God, what were we thinking?" What we do know is that in the late-nineteenth century Americans' encounters with nature changed. As urban populations exploded, the economic uses of natural resources increased exponentially, and the destruction of game species became a bellwether for our ties to nature in the coming century. Extinction stories beg naturally for morals—even for the dinosaurs: were they overconfident? too carnivorous?—and the passenger pigeon has been the most spectacular modern extinction. Leopold wrote his elegy to the species for the 1947 dedication of a monument to Wisconsin's last pigeon. The stone lies in Wyalusing State Park, just south of the site of the great 1871 nesting—seventy-five miles long, where the game business had shipped out 1.5 million birds—and the plaque condenses the standard moral of this story into a single sentence: "This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man."

    My own version is longer. Who exactly drove the pigeons to ruin? What were, their specific motives? To find the meaning in the extinction, I haven't looked for timeless human failings such as "man's avarice." Rather, I've looked at Americans' fast-changing connections to the wild natural world, as urban populations exploded and market networks grew rapidly more complex. Above all, in pursuit of my own question—"What does nature mean to me?"—I've looked for the changing meanings of passenger pigeons in people's lives. Before the extinction, what did the pigeons mean: what did people do with pigeons, and say about them? What did the flocks mean in the 1870s and 1880s? And what did they mean after?

    To get to the moral you have to go back to the fable, to the once upon a time, to tales about everyday life. In the 1870s, market hunters were netting pigeons in Wisconsin. Farmers were leaving their fields to work for the hunters. Sportsmen in Chicago were signing up to compete in weekend trap shoots. People were shopping for pigeons in the outdoor markets in New York City, and chefs at restaurants like Delmonico's were deciding which vegetables to serve with pigeons and how to prepare the sauce. The sky was dark. The air was rumbling. What were these people thinking?

Pigeon Years

In the early 1700s, when pigeon flocks flew over Philadelphia, Americans were climbing onto the rooftops with sticks and knocking the birds out of the sky. For people who preferred to use guns, pigeon shooting was particularly fine just west of Broad Street. By 1720, city officials had legislated a fine of five shillings for shooting pigeons in the streets. In 1727, Quebec authorities passed a similar act

because ... everyone takes the liberty of shooting from his windows the threshold of his door the middle of the streets without thinking of the passer-by the old people the children who cannot take shelter ... from the danger to which they are exposed by ... people of whom the greater part know nothing about the handling of guns.

Little expertise was required, however, since a shot into the sky generally brought down enough meat for dinner. The Quebec ordinance also made leaving work to shoot pigeons a criminal act. During one pigeon flight in 1821, the constable in colonial Toronto arrested lawyers, the sheriff, and much of the town council before he gave up and proclaimed open season in the town square.

    When pigeons flew over settlements, people followed. Fields tended to lose their farmers, shops their shopkeepers and schools their children. "Here they come!" the Kentucky settlers around Audubon had cried. Where pigeons nested and roosted, hundreds of people converged on the site, which was not entirely a safe thing to do. The overhead flocks precipitated a mixed hail of dung, branches, whole trees and bludgeoned birds. The uproar, like a "hard gale at sea," rendered inaudible the firing of one's own shotgun. Depending on the season and local custom, American colonists shot pigeons, netted them, knocked them down with sticks, ignited pots of sulfur beneath them, or chopped down trees stacked with eighty or a hundred nests apiece. In Tennessee, settlers set fire to the nest trees and returned later to gather up the squabs, the young pigeons, that had toppled to the ground, roasted alive.

    Pigeons didn't show up near any one settlement very often. Foraging for the heaviest crops of seeds and nuts, especially beechnuts and acorns, the flocks migrated up through the northern colonies in the spring to nest, and back south in the fall. In most beech and oak species, a stand of trees produces a bumper crop every two to ten years. Around Niagara in the 1700s, the flocks came every seven or eight years, and the settlers called these "pigeon years." For weeks, pigeons glutted the town markets. The colonists broiled and roasted pigeons, stewed them in gravy and jellied them in a calf's-foot broth. They salted the birds away in barrels for the winter. Eventually people would long for feathers and the stench of poultry to lift from the air, but for a while the pigeons provoked spontaneous revelry in the streets. When the English traveler Andrew Burnaby arrived in Newport in autumn 1759, and could find hardly any fare at the taverns besides pigeon, he had stumbled upon a "pigeon year" in southern Rhode Island. Above all, colonists made pigeon pot pies. After the extinction many former pigeon hunters would reminisce about pot pie with as much regret and fondness as for the birds themselves. A good pot pie had five or six pigeons inside, and stuck in the middle, "three feet nicely cleaned, to show what pie it is."

    What were colonists thinking? What exactly did pigeons mean? In retrospect, environmentalists often have pinned the later devastations of game animals to a utilitarian, Judeo-Christian view of nature that European immigrants brought to New World lands; and I agree, the colonists thought of the pigeons as useful to humans and as economic resources. The first English reports on New World landscapes in the 1600s read a lot like marketing lists. In the case of game, the rough, muddy colonial roads (English travelers complained endlessly about potholes) kept the early markets small and local—pigeons jostling in the back of a wagon for two days would make better compost than pie—though even by the mid-1600s, the very first generation of colonists had destroyed game populations near the large settlements. Yet there were farmers, shopkeepers, boys and girls who were thinking about nothing but pigeons for weeks at a time. The colonists appreciated pigeons in other ways, too. They valued the wildlife and lands around them for many reasons at once. Wild pigeons were economic resources to shoot and eat and to sell. They were also a natural wonder, and an occasion for celebration.

    In fact, the wild pigeons fueled the widely shared conviction that Americans could never deplete their resources. While in the 1990s, that logic may be hard to grasp, colonists perhaps would have had to summon even greater imaginative powers to envision the comparatively empty, devastated landscapes that have become so familiar to us. Six-foot lobsters in the surf, rivers swarming with salmon and covered with ducks, woods "abounding with deer, and the trees with singing birds": the abundance of North American wildlife in the 1600s and early 1700s sounds almost as biblical today as it must have seemed to European settlers (with decidedly more biblical turns of mind) who left behind Old World lands that had been overhunted for centuries, and where the upper classes held game preserves under strict control. While even the first settlers depended primarily on domestic European crops and livestock, they supplemented freely with wild game. Occasionally, when the crops failed due to drought or an early freeze, colonists relied on hunting as an essential stopgap. Reports to England seldom failed to mention the free and abundant game, or the wild pigeons: "I have seen them fly as if the airy regiment had been pigeons, seeing neither beginning or ending, length or breadth of these millions of millions."

    To shoot and eat a game bird in the American colonies became a defining New World act. Think of Thomas Morton in Massachusetts in the 1620s, reporting back that he had seen a thousand geese "before the mouth of my gun," and had fed his "dogs with as fat geese there as I have ever fed upon myself in England." The geese were American. So was their easy abundance, their impressive lard-to-bone ratio, their frequent presence on the table, and not least, one's freely held, unregulated right to shoot them. Going off to shoot pigeons or geese, and hauling strings of them back home, became activities resonant with one's experience of daily American life. The hunt meant so much more than mere utilitarian gain. To go hunting was to tap into the continent's bounty, to supplement the table, to exercise your skill with a shotgun, perhaps to band together with neighbors after plowing. You also expressed your rights or ideals in a fledgling polity. Hunting was at once an ecological, economic and political thing to do, a social event and a sport. It was like telling a story to yourself, about yourself. Not actually a story told out loud: the hunt was more a cultural play, a story acted out in the course of day to day living, about your relationships to birds but also to one another—a story about where you lived, who your neighbors were, how you made a living and what you believed. In the course of their encounters with pigeons—as they invested nature with small worlds of meaning—people were also doing a great deal of thinking about themselves.

    You could make especially emphatic meanings with pigeons. A waterfowl hunt brought together a few neighbors, but a pigeon hunt, which mobilized an entire county, enacted a more powerfully meaningful story about the social ties that knit these rural communities together. Likewise, to bag "thirty, forty, and fifty pigeons at a shot" was practically to caricature your political claims to American game. And if settlers relied on other game animals during lean times, the pigeon hunts, when necessary, enacted a more dramatic cultural play about the weak points of the colonial economy: in 1769, during a widespread crop failure in Vermont, pigeons staved off starvation for thirty thousand people for six weeks. Above all, more than any other piece of the New World, pigeon flocks symbolized the continent's natural bounty. The salmon, geese and lobsters inspired believe-it-or-not reports, but the pigeons' abundance seemed quite literally biblical, like "the quails that fell round the camp of Israel in the wilderness." Eventually the pigeons' disappearance would symbolize Americans' rapid conversion of a landscape of abundance into one of scarcity. The pigeons would narrate that story with special effectiveness, too.

Pigeon Years Every Year

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European settlers were just one of many human groups who encountered pigeons. Until the late 1700s, colonists inhabited far smaller regions of eastern North America than did Native Americans. Some if not all indigenous societies east of the plains used wild pigeons intensively, and thought about them deeply. And some parts of the nonhuman natural world, no matter the humans, seem inevitably to carry unusual doses of meaning. The Senecas, of what is now western New York and Pennsylvania, have left the best historical record as pigeon hunters. In Seneca legend,

a white pigeon once flew into the forest lodge of a noted old man, the Wild Cat. White Pigeon informed the old man that all the various tribes of birds had held a council at which it had been decided that the wild pigeons should furnish a tribute to mankind, because their Maker had selected the wild pigeons for this important duty.

Like the colonists, Senecas believed that pigeons were put on earth for humans to use. Yet their stories and worlds of meaning were different, and apparently more sustainable: pigeon flocks had been nesting on Seneca grounds for hundreds of years. The group's history dates to at least A.D. 900, and pigeon bones have been found at archaeological sites.

    An Iroquoian group, the Senecas were major parties in the 1700s to the warfare among the British, French, Iroquois and Americans. Of the many white captives they adopted, a few—such as Horatio Jones, who was captured as a teenager—recounted the pigeon hunts in memoirs, or "captivity narratives," that became an early-American literary craze. One spring, around 1782, a runner arrived in a village on the Allegheny River, shouting, "Pigeons, pigeons!" "All was now bustle and confusion," Jones remembered, "and every person ... at once set out" on a two-day trip north to a pigeon nesting on the Genesee River. As Seneca bands from all over converged on the site, they built huts to "[afford] a fair shelter" for several weeks. The men chopped down small trees—toppling squabs so stuffed with beechnuts that the young birds occasionally exploded on impact—and women and children either bludgeoned the squabs, pinched their heads at the temples or wrung their necks. "It was a festival season," Jones would write, "and even the meanest dog in camp had his fill of pigeon meat." Senecas boiled pigeons and stewed them. They dried the birds in smoke and packed away thousands in bags and baskets. Sometimes they served them in bunches of a half dozen, tied together by the necks and with the bills pointing out—perhaps, as the colonists did with pot pies, to show what kind of dish it was?

    At first glance, these events appear remarkably similar in act, method and meaning to pigeon years in the colonies. Senecas killed uncountable numbers of birds, using expedient methods. They ate and thought about nothing but pigeons for weeks, and enjoyed it immensely. A pigeon hunt was a large-scale social affair—not like the fall deer hunt or the maple harvest in early spring, when the clans split into families. In fact, the Senecas sometimes used "pigeon time" to conduct tribalwide business, such as the allotment of planting grounds to clans. In the evenings, people gathered to sing, dance and tell tales. Horatio Jones arranged his own marriage at a pigeon nesting. Hunting pigeons was much more than the simple act of killing and eating pigeons. In Seneca society, too, the hunt was a featured economic, social and political event.

    In the long view, the hunt and its meanings look very different. Senecas dispatched scouts to find a nesting every single year, while colonists hunted pigeons only when the flocks happened to fly near. The clans hunted for a few specific weeks, in the spring, when the squabs fledged. And Senecas never killed adult birds. As White Pigeon had emphasized to Wild Cat, "young pigeons were to be taken in the proper season"—an injunction that, whether intentional or not, encouraged Senecas to keep the adult breeding population intact. The pigeon hunt was part of the Senecas' annual subsistence cycle. The nestings occurred at a critical time of year, after maple sugar harvest and before planting, when winter grain stores were depleted or scarce. For Senecas and colonists alike, a pigeon hunt enacted stories about everyday life. The Senecas' hunts, however, narrated a different economic livelihood, of traveling across watersheds to exploit seasonal wild resources. Seneca pigeon time was shorter, regular, predictable, vital.

    According to tales the clans retold in the evenings, they had

learned these songs ... from a superior people [the pigeons] and so we must cherish this ceremony. We have learned, too, that in dancing we must always make the circuit of the fires in one certain direction, namely, from the right toward the left.

Downstream along the Hudson River, colonists were swapping tales about how many birds they'd killed with one shot. The Senecas were playing too, but they were playing by rules. Like the daytime hunting frenzy, the nightly revelry was more deliberate: if the pigeons had been put on earth for humans to use, and agreed to this destiny, the people owed these songs and dances in return. The colonists' stories showed no such restraint. Pigeons, pigeon killing and pigeon revelry all contributed critically to making the Seneca world work as it should. To the settlers, pigeons meant many things, but in the colonial world of markets, towns and farms, game birds served no absolutely vital economic, spiritual, social or political purpose: in eighteenth-century cookbooks, you can find many more recipes for chicken.

    To say Indians historically were more "connected" to nature has become a truism—as if somehow, after European conquest, the continent of North America lost its meaningfulness, like steam into the desert air after a hard rain. Yet colonists made the nonhuman world around them highly meaningful. Both societies used pigeons intensively. Both put pigeons to human purposes and valued them through human eyes, whether stewing birds, selling them or enacting and enjoying the pigeon hunts as an understanding, or story, about the ties to people and to nature that knit that world together. All humans are connected to nature: white Americans, like all people, have always made nature meaningful. What changes is not the fact of connection, or the amount of meaning, but the content of each. European immigrants brought utilitarian markets, that would encourage overintensive use of resources; in the 1800s, Senecas, too, would participate in the pigeon and game markets. Regardless, people's connections to specific wild resources were not essential. As the webs of varied meanings reflected, the colonists' ties to pigeons were expendable.

An Almighty Dollar a Dozen

In the 1780s and 1790s, the Iroquois, who had allied themselves with the British during the Revolution, ceded much of their land in treaties with the new American states. As early as the 1750s, pigeons already had become scarce on the eastern seaboard. New and improved roads, canals and eventually railroad lines rapidly expanded the markets west. Game depletions followed in the wake of new transport routes. And the meanings of wild pigeons changed as market hunters and urban consumers encountered pigeons, too. In the early 1800s, market hunters shipped passenger pigeons from upstate New York on schooners down the Hudson River. In the 1840s, hunters shipped wagonloads of pigeons to New York City over the new Newburgh and Coehecton Turnpike, across former Seneca lands. As late as 1833, settlers with pigeon fever were shooting at flocks in Chicago's mud streets, and as late as 1864, the citizens of St. Paul were brazenly ignoring laws against the discharge of firearms in the center of town. By 1870, however, the only wild pigeons in Chicago, New York or St. Paul were piled in the stalls of outdoor city markets, shipped by rail from the last region where large flocks still nested, in the still extensive forests of the northern Midwest.

    Pigeon fever erupted in Sauk County, Wisconsin, late in April 1871. Also in Columbia, Juneau, Adams, Monroe and Jackson counties. The pigeons nested across a swath of southern Wisconsin ten to twelve miles wide and roughly seventy-five miles long, from the oak groves of Black River Falls to the dells of Baraboo. "Never in the history of the La Crosse Valley," reported the newspaper in Sparta, on the nesting's northern edge, "were such myriads of pigeons seen, making the whole valley resound with the noise." Near Kilbourn, on the southern edge, "a stranger would have thought it about war-time.... [everyone] had a gun or wanted to borrow one." One merchant sold over sixteen tons of shot. The La Crosse Valley had entered pigeon time.

    The Milwaukee-St. Paul Railway had extended its lines to Kilbourn in 1857, Sparta in 1858, and Black River Falls in 1870. "Hardly a train arrives," the Wisconsin Mirror reported, "that does not bring hunters or trappers.... Pigeons are shipped to all places on the railroad, and to Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York and Boston." Pigeons were selling for fifty cents a dozen in Milwaukee, and two dollars in New York. By 1870, as the swiftly expanding game business made market hunting a feasible (if difficult) career, hundreds of specialized "pigeoners" were tracking pigeon flocks through the Midwest. At the La Crosse Valley nesting, the pigeoners hired local farmers to drive wagons and hunt. They shipped pigeons in ice to game dealers in the cities, and sent live birds to sporting clubs for trap shoots: they stayed up all night hammering together barrels. When the squabs fledged, they snapped off the heads and loaded the fat bodies into wagons. They filled the express trains to capacity and made special arrangements to ship the birds east on midnight freight trains. Packing pigeons thirty dozen to the barrel, they shipped more than twenty barrels daily from each of half a dozen stops on the railway line.

    A pigeon hunt was still a sociable event. The flocks still drew huge crowds and provoked a single-minded massive frenzy. Over one hundred thousand people—roughly equal to the resident population of the six counties—converged on the valley. Farmers were still stuffing pigeons into pot pies—although it was "no longer fashionable to have the feet of the pigeons sticking out of the slit in the top of the paste" (according to one Philadelphia cookbook, but the new rules may not have achieved hegemony yet in the rural Midwest). However, the varied meanings of the pigeons had changed. In the evenings, there must have been fewer conversations about pot pie, and far more about wholesale prices, railway express charges and daily rates for wagons. By 1871, the meanings of pigeon fever centered squarely on money.

    Money: twentieth-century laments have made it the chief culprit. These scenes of market hunting in the Midwest quickly became the cause and meaning, the root and moral center of the extinction. In 1907, the sportsman William Mershon bitterly blamed the demise of wild pigeons on "the greed of man and the pursuit of the almighty dollar." Sponsors of the 1947 monument to Wisconsin's last passenger pigeon —"the avarice and thoughtlessness of man"—sited the stone strategically just south of the La Crosse Valley. In fact, while the 1871 nesting was one of the first nestings in the northern Midwest that hunters tapped as vast cash faucets, an 1878 nesting in Emmett County, Michigan, just south of the remote upper peninsula, would be the very last, before the flocks vanished. But "the greed of man"? Pigeons still meant far more than economic gain. And the meaningful reasons people convert birds into cash are far more varied and complex.

    As money, what did pigeons mean? In Sauk County in 1871, the "almighty dollar" was more almighty than many of the local farmers, for their part, would have liked. Since the 1850s, declining soil fertility across southern Wisconsin had diminished the viability of wheat as the area's staple crop. Amid statewide ventures to diversify in the 1860s—Wisconsin dairies emerged from this crisis—farmers in Sauk County had tried planting hops, just when the hop louse devastated hop fields in the East, and few Americans wanted to go without beer. Kilbourn, the county seat, flourished as the world's center for hops production—until 1868, when the hop louse arrived and ruined hundreds of farmers, many of whom in their enthusiasm (and greed?) had failed to reserve even an acre of land to raise grain for personal use. While settlers in the 1700s had feared disastrous crop failures as a danger to subsistence, most of these local Wisconsin pigeon hunters feared the dangerously volatile markets. For Sauk County farmers, as for all people, to hunt pigeons was to play out an understanding of one's time and place—and one's role in the world—and the market hunts told a story most effectively about the uncertainties of the cash-based economy in which most farmers were now firmly enmeshed. After the Civil War, as new rail lines connected rural counties to large eastern markets, farmers all over the Midwest were diving deeply into debt to invest in new machinery to boost production, and many lost their gambles in market crashes such as the Panic of 1873. The wild pigeon hunts, of course, told the story even more emphatically. "Altogether," sighed the editor of the Sparta Herald, "it seems likely that we can 'live on pigeon pies' for a while, whether we are able to 'read our title clear,' or not." When the pigeons arrived as plentiful and well-timed as manna during a severe agricultural depression, they made dramatically obvious the opportunities and drawbacks of being a market player.

    As for the pigeoners, the itinerant hunters, these men pursued livelihoods that were even more precarious. Hunters were the least-well-paid players in the game business, which was not hugely profitable to begin with. During other seasons, they hired out as farmhands or pork packers. Men who hunted for a living were traditionally scorned as lower-class layabouts who eschewed steady work. According to H. Clay Merritt, a very industrious hunter who personally cleaned out entire midwestern counties, this reputation was undeserved. But Merritt and his colleagues didn't eschew money, either, and compared to most game species, pigeons were like cash that grew on trees. Pigeons were what hops had been to the farmers—closer to the main chance than you usually could get. Of the stories embedded in full-time market hunting, the pigeon tales may have been especially gratifying to enact.

    Without doubt, avarice had something to do with the fortunes, and the meanings of the pigeon hunts, in the La Crosse Valley in 1871—but the pursuit of money was not powered solely by greed. As money, the pigeons still meant many things. They were still expendable—even more so, as a commodity interchangeable with every other. In these webs of meaning, however, the meaning of every pigeon had changed. In the 1700s, colonists had turned pigeons into pie, soup and feather pillows. But in the 1870s, people converted the birds into cash. And they converted the cash into seed, plows, shotguns and powder. On May 18, 1871, the Juneau County newspaper, the Mauston Star, with notices for six foreclosure sales, ran advertisements for land, flour, feed, wagons, saddles, milling, boots, shoes, threshing machines, feed grinders, wallpaper, pianos, tobacco, fly killer, gargling oil, Dr. Crook's Wine of Tar, coffins, fire insurance and pain-free dental work—to name just a few things the pigeons might have meant or become that day.

    What were people thinking? There is a world of difference between thinking of a pigeon as pigeon pie and thinking of it as cash or a plow. You could convert any game bird, like any crop or pig or deer or bucket of milk, into a plow. As cash, the value of a wild pigeon had become more abstract. The bird and its meaning had lost some uniqueness—and the pigeons, if anything, had always meant something highly unique. As the writer Leah Hager Cohen has described commodification: We "strip objects ... bare of their original identities," and "find we can compare apples and oranges." Market players disconnected the meaning of a pigeon from many specifics of a pigeon—the bird's habits, its taste. That pigeon, you could say, lost some of its "pigeonness." At the scenes of the market hunts, as people converted pigeons to cash, they invested the pigeons with meanings that did not say much specifically about the birds themselves.


Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsix
1Missed Connections: The Passenger Pigeon Extinction1
2When Women Were Women, Men Were Men, and Birds Were Hats57
3A Brief Natural History of the Plastic Pink Flamingo111
4Looking for Nature at the Mall: A Field Guide to The Nature Company167
5Roadrunners Can't Read: The Greening of Television in the 1990s207

What People are Saying About This

Richard White

Funny, compassionate, and wonderfully written, Flight Maps soars far above the pedestrian nature writing so evident these days.

John Demos

A stunning debut performance...A deep—and deeply disturbing—meditation on the significance of nature in modern times.

David Rains Wallace

A highly stimulating exploration of the bewildering ingenuity with which America converts its ideals about nature into status symbols and commercial products. Rush out and buy it!

William Cronon

Jennifer Price writes with keen insight, wry wit, and easy grace...a superb book.

From the B&N Reads Blog

Customer Reviews