Obscuring the heath hen: memory and the nature of memorials

This past summer, artist Todd McGrain placed a sculpture on Martha’s Vineyard in memory of the extinct heath hen. His statue stands along a bike path in the former reserve meant to save the dwindling species, now known as Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. McGrain’s installment looks smooth and graceful as it shines darkly against the muted colors of the New England forest. Its beak is opened slightly, as if crying out for its lost companions.

McGrain's memorial to the extinct heath hen, part of his Lost Birds project.

Heath hen once occupied barrens from New Hampshire to Virginia and some believe it was heath hen—not turkey—that Pilgrims consumed at the first Thanksgiving dinner, as they were a cheap and easy food source. During the mid-nineteenth century, however, the hens became increasingly rare and, by 1870, were completely gone from the American mainland. Only on the Massachusetts island Martha’s Vineyard did the heath hen remain.

The population diminished quickly, however, from 300 to less than 100 individuals by the turn of the twentieth century. Only then did the island place a ban on hunting. In 1908, the same year Theodore Roosevelt announced American bison were nearing extinction, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard created the Heath Hen Reserve. Instead of hunting the bird, people now made pilgrimages simply to observe them.

Yet even as tourist attraction, the heath hen of Martha’s Vineyard could not hold on. They suffered from fire, weather, disease, predators, and inbreeding. Despite human intervention, there were a mere dozen birds in 1927; only two were female. The next year, the females were gone. By the end of that year, only one male remained. Booming Ben, as he was named, was the last of his kind. Birders flocked to see this lone male, hoping to catch a glimpse before he too disappeared. Sighting this creature who could not reproduce, had no companions, and whom one would likely never see again, must have been a sublime moment of wildlife observation. Booming Ben observers literally watched the original wildness of America pass before their eyes. Ben was last seen on March 11, 1932. In 1933, heath hen were officially declared extinct.

Though the people of Martha’s Vineyard were unable to save the heath hen, residents today continue to find a sense of identity in the bird. Rare as it was, the community once prided itself on its ability to retain a population, and the heath hen remains a part of their local identity—so much so, in fact, that they talk of reintroduction. Of course it is impossible to re-introduce the heath hen species itself, as it no longer exists. But some believe introducing a flock of greater prairie chicken is a near-enough match. Not quite a reintroduction, the plan is, rather, an ecological memorial.

Tim Simmons, from the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program says the (re)introduction is not an attempt to get back to an original nature, but a way to “reintroduce processes.” The greater prairie chicken would be an umbrella species that would help restore the landscape to what it was in historical memory. The chicken is not a heath hen, but its ecological role is similar. Thus, what the (re)introduction would produce is an historic landscape; it is not restoring a species but reproducing a place considered part of the region’s natural heritage.

Historian Tom Dunlop suggests the (re)introduction would add another rare species to Martha’s Vineyard (which has several), creating a unique New England landscape for nature-seeking tourists. This perspective would seem to restore the island’s sense of itself as a draw for wildlife tourists, as it was over the heath hen’s declining years. Greater prairie chicken, themselves growing increasingly rare, would represent a pairing of natural and cultural heritage that has more to do with human uses of the landscape than the extinction of one species. The heath hen itself gets lost in the shuffle.

Since the original (re)introduction discussions began more than ten years ago, some ecologists admit the greater prairie chicken plan has problems. As it turns out, greater prairie chickens are not so closely related, genetically, to heath hen. Ecologists have grown increasingly skeptical of what one said would resemble a “museum exhibit of landscapes” more than a modern ecological restoration. Another was pushed to question: “What really is a heath hen?” Though he asked this from a biological standpoint, when turned onto culture, the question takes on a different significance. Is it a specific biological species? A generic chicken-like bird? Or a character in history?

Plaque commemorating the lost species at Correllus State Forest.

It is all these things. And in its memory, each brings the heath hen back to life. The question of what really is a heath hen underlines our memories of and memorials to the extinct species. Booming Ben is remembered on the bronze plaque installed in the state forest, but his body is not preserved (as is Martha‘s, the last of the passenger pigeons). Nor does he have a sculpture representing his individual identity: the hens depicted on the plaque are generic specimens.

Plans to memorialize heath hen with prairie chickens obscure the lost birds even further. While the plaque admits the birds are gone, describing in detail how they disappeared, (re)introduction seems an act of denial. Such plans care not for the fact of extinction. They are statements about place. Bringing in the threatened prairie chicken creates a blurred watercolor version of an historical landscape, defines Martha’s Vineyard as a sort of Noah’s Ark for endangered poultry, and installs a living landscape of loss.

Beyond the stark history of the plaque and the denial of (re)introduction stands McGrain’s statue, larger than life and silent, yet telling a more poignant story of loss. McGrain’s representation stands in place of the real thing not because it has to, but because the animal itself has become an abstraction.

As the case of the extinct heath hen reveals, we have no standard cultural response to losing the last of a species. McGrain’s statue is a beginning, a recognition, that humans mourn animals—and not just their pets—but an entire species.

This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.

Resources & References:

“An Extinct Bird has comeback hopes,” in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine (May – June 1999).

Barrow, Mark. A Passion for Birds (Princeton University Press 2000) and Nature’s Ghosts (University of Chicago 2009).

Cokinos, Christopher. Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds (Tarcher 2009).

Dunlop, Tom. “Birds of a Very Different Feather,” in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine  (September – October 2004).

Categories: Animals | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Obscuring the heath hen: memory and the nature of memorials

  1. thanks for this thoughtful series. I wrote about memorials and the Lost Bird Project today here:http://econowblog.blogspot.com/2012/06/living-in-age-of-extinction-lost-bird.html

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