Posts Tagged With: extinction

The Lost Franklin Tree


William Bartram, Franklinia alatamaha (1782)

As naturalist William Bartram traveled through the eastern woods and swamps of southern Georgia near Fort Barrington in 1773, he found many plants of interest to his pen, which he collected for study and propagation—both at home in Philadelphia and specimens sent to England for collaborative observation by naturalists there. One blooming shrub caught his attention: “I passed through a well-inhabited district, mostly rice plantations, on the waters of Cat-head creek, a branch of the Alatamaha,” he wrote in Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, “On drawing near the fort, I was greatly delighted at the appearance of two beautiful shrubs in all their blooming graces. One of them appeared to be a species of Gordonia, but the flowers are larger, and ore fragrant than those of the Gordonia lasianthus” (native loblolly bay). He shipped seeds to his father, John, in Philadelphia and sent a second specimen to London.

Although Bartram had travelled through this region with his father eight years earlier, and remembers the plant, they had not collected seeds. They observed a few “very curious shrubs,” one with “beautiful good fruite” (seedpods), but their notes do not hold specific mention of the species.

On August 16, 1783, Bartram wrote Linnaeus, Chair of Botany at Uppsala University, with a description and sketch asking for a new genus designation, but Linnaeus died before replying. In 1788, Bartram sent another request to England but he received a reply that the “botanists in England will not…allow it to be properly named.” Sir Joseph Banks, new president of Royal Society, placed it in Gordonia.
That would seem to be the end of the story. But the curator of the Historic Collections at Bartram’s Garden, Joel Fry, suggests otherwise. He thinks the exchange lacks scientific discourse and was a move to “enforce European supremacy in botanical nomenclature.” Moreover, it may not have sat well with British botanists to name a species after Ben Franklin—a revolutionary leader—so soon after the Revolution.

Bartram remarks: “I have travelled by land from Pennsylvania to the banks of the Mississippi, over almost all the Territory in that distance between the Sea shore & the first mountains, cross-d all the Rivers, and assended them from their capes a many miles; & search’d their various branches Yet never saw This beautiful Tree growing wild but in one spot on the Alatamaha about 30 miles from the Sea Coast.” (to Barclay 1788)

The description of Franklinia does not appear in his journal sent to John Fothergill, so his account of it in Travels, while not suspect, is difficult to measure for accuracy of location and date—both of interest to the subsequent search for the plant throughout the nineteenth century. We know he collected specimens, for one flowered for the first time in the Bartram garden in 1781. It was still known in the wild in Georgia, reported by plant collectors Moses Marshall and Luigi Castiglioni both in 1790.

The last reported sighting in the wild was in 1803 by John Lyon, a Scottish plant collector. When he found Franklinia he located only 6 or 8 trees and remarked how strange it was that the plant should not be found in other locales in the U.S. Franklinia alatamaha is now extinct in the wild. Though The Nature Conservancy, which has purchased large tracks of former forestry land along the Altamaha River, has tried reintroductions from propagated plants (available from Bartram’s original collections), those attempts have failed. (More on this in a future essay.)


Franklinia alatamaha, International Botanical Congress (1969).

In much of my research about extinction, memory, and memorialization, I have found cautionary tales. Monuments to the passenger pigeon, for example, talk about the loss as a tragedy brought on by humans. But Franklinia is a different kind of loss. It was lost not at the end of the nineteenth century when naturalists had become more aware of the power of human exploitation to drive species decline, but at the start of that century when the nation was still being cataloged, discovered, and explored.

While no one at the time seems to have mourned its loss, on August 23, 1969, the International Botanical Congress issued four stamps to commemorate plants associated with four regions of the U.S. to mark the 11th annual meeting of the organization in Seattle. Franklinia alatamaha was chosen to represent the South. The showy flower is in the foreground with a sprig of leaves and in the background stands a plantation house. This is the only one of the four stamps that includes a human element. Franklinia is conflated with the loss of human institutions and therefore is associated with domestic life. The only Franklinia trees remaining today are those propagated from the ones collected at the end of the eighteenth century. The memorial stamp then, is commenting upon the loss of the species’ wildness in its original home. At the same time, the Botanical Congress may have viewed this species as a success story–one which their field had saved from complete extinction.

In a later essay, I will explore and unpack the plantation house imagery, as well the local history and identity connected to both plant and plantation.

Resources & References

Braund, Kathryn E. Holland and Charlotte Porter, eds. Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram. The University of Alabama Press, 2010.

Bartram, William. Travels of William Bartram. Dover Publications, 1955.

Magee, Judith. The Art and Science of William Bartram. Penn State University Press, 2007.

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Natures of John and William Bartram. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Wulf, Andrea. The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession. New York: Vintage, 2010.

__ Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the         American Nation. New York: Knopf, 2011.

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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).

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Memorializing extinction: monuments to the passenger pigeon

“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 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.”  – Aldo Leopold

Martha on display in the 1950s. Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Just over one hundred years ago, a bird that no longer exists flocked in such great numbers they blocked the sun turning day into night. The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a tale often told by historians of nature. It is a parable of wasted American abundance. Felled for food and feathers, wasted by sport hunters and nest-robbers, these pigeons, remarkable only for the immensity of their migration, existed as a handful of individuals in zoological parks.

Still, some optimists kept looking. They scanned the skies and wandered hopefully through former nesting grounds. In 1909, the American Ornithologists’ Union launched a comprehensive hunt, offering prizes of over $2000 to anyone who located passenger pigeon nests or nesting sites. Though the contest continued through 1912, no sightings reported held any credible evidence of their existence.

Despite such denial of loss, the remaining individuals became living (and then stuffed) memorials to their species. The last living passenger pigeon spent her days at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha, after the nation’s first lady. When her mate, George, passed in 1910, she lived another four years as an unlikely and unfortunate celebrity. Her pagoda cage labeled her the last of her kind. She was, according to Christopher Cokinos who chronicles avian exintctions in Hope is the Thing with Feathers, the first endangered species specimen to garner such attention.

A statue likeness of Martha outside her pagoda at the Cincinnati Zoo. Courtesy of Roadside America.

When Martha died on September 1, 1914, the zoo immediately iced her body and shipped her to the Smithsonian. At the pagoda where people once pilgrimaged to see the last of a species, stands a memorial. A statue remembers Martha herself near the building’s entrance. Inside, an exhibit tells the story of passenger pigeon extinction and has several stuffed birds on display. The contrast of living animals outside and dead inside is unusual for a zoo and is a powerful juxtaposition.

At the Smithsonian, Martha’s body was preserved and then put on display. In the halls of the U.S. National Museum, Martha’s body served as a reminder and a warning against the excesses of American culture. Though Martha is no longer on display, her body still lies in the Smithsonian’s collections, at the National Museum of Natural History, underlining her importance in the stories Americans tell about themselves.

Another memorial lies far from the site of Martha’s demise, in the woods of Wisconsin where it is thought an Ohio boy with a BB gun shot the last wild passenger pigeon. There, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology installed a bronze plaque on an oak tree engraved with the following words: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.”

When the plaque was dedicated in 1947, naturalist and nature-writer Aldo Leopold spoke eloquently of the event’s significance. “We meet here to commemorate the death of a species,” he began. “This monument symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the on-rushing 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.” Leopold painted a pastoral picture of the landscape with its now-extinct wildlife and called attention to its place in that environment. Its disappearance changed a visual marker of the seasons. Not only was a bird species lost, but a rhythm, an aesthetic.

A plaque honoring the pigeon and proclaiming the avarice of man in Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park. Courtesy Wisconsin State Parks.

But why, Leopold asked, do we mourn the loss of a species? “Perhaps, we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange.” More poignantly, Leopold wondered how lost species could be remembered: “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.”

Indeed, Martha in the museum, her pagoda, the statue of her likeness, keeps the passenger pigeon alive. But no longer are they signals of seasons; they stand as harbingers of extinction. They warn of the ability of human activities to be both destructive and protective. In embodying the pigeon with such meanings, we tell an emotional history of lost abundance. But Leopold warned of the hubris of telling pointed parables: “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.” But, he continued, it was people just like us who brought about the death of this species. They believed that is was “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.” Leopold concluded: “This then, is a monument to a bird we have lost, and to a doubt we have gained.”

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

Categories: Animals | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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