Posts Tagged With: wildlife

Osa Johnson’s Jungle

Osa Johnson with her pet gibbon ape, Wah Wah.

Osa Johnson with her pet gibbon ape, Wah Wah.

When she walked through the tropical forest, adventurer Osa Johnson found the nature of the jungle troubling. In Last Adventure, her account of her last expedition to Borneo in 1935-6 with her husband Martin, she describes hacking through a “solid jungle wall of tangled foliage . . . nature’s last and strongest defense,” and being struck by the coexistence of the “beautiful and defiant.” To her, nature was a “riotous range of green,” containing a “mystical and silent aura of black-green gloom,” and the forest “a dazzling quiltwork of sinister and alluring palms.” But she also appreciated the beauty of the jungle because of its threatening mysteries. In Borneo, she observed, “the beautiful and the unaesthetic lived side by side.”

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The Johnsons’ houseboat afloat on Borneo’s Kinabatangan River.

When she made her way through the dense tropical forest, its foliage swept against her. It was, on experience, running counter to her ideal, organized, nature. It didn’t penetrate the walls of her home or the fences around her garden, like the scavenging elephants she had previously encountered, but forced itself onto her body. The touch of the jungle tore. On one trek, she discovered the “soft, slimy anatomy of a leech” on the back of her neck. As soon as she located one, she and the rest of the expedition realized they were covered with leeches. “I yielded to my first impulse, which was to scream,” she wrote, but then “I turned to the immediate practicality of removing the annelid.” While the experience initially disgusted her, leeches then ceased to be horrifying creatures and became objectified elements of the natural world she called by their scientific name.

Osa turned moments when the jungle appalled or threatened her into practical lessons about the ecology and wildlife of the region. Just as Martin’s films juggled education and science, Osa’s writing alternated between narratives of her own emotional encounters and practical advice for living in the jungle. While the “unaesthetic” or “defiant” may not always be made “beautiful,” it might at least be dealt with efficiently by the rational thinking of an American housewife.

In a recipe for soup, Osa further reveals the sometimes unpleasant duties of a self-made woman in the wild–this time in East Africa. “The point about Gazelle Consommé,” she confided, “is to first catch your gazelle. Then, having caught him, to make soup out of him. It is almost impossible, to bring yourself to the soup point when gazing into his large, soft, limpid eyes that beg you to open up a can of soup instead!” This “recipe” revealed her ambivalence about killing animals, yet she clearly felt that killing to satisfy her desire for a good consommé was a better alternative than consuming a mass-produced canned product.

Ever feminine, Osa poses with a lion kill and her makeup.

Ever feminine, Osa poses with a lion kill and her makeup.

Although Osa enjoyed hunting, she claimed never to have killed an animal without cause; either she and Martin was in clear danger of an attack or they needed meat. While the roles of protector and provider fell within the prescribed duties of female homemaker, acting out these roles through hunting exotic game was a novelty. To her audience, Johnson’s work in her home and garden fell within the expected realm of female work and the acceptable forms of feminine interactions with nature. As a hunter, Johnson had to carefully position her reasons for killing in order to retain her image as not just a female adventurer but a distinctly feminine one. She left the boundaries of home and its closely related garden and entered a landscape not controlled by male or female.

Throughout her life and adventures, Johnson considered her ability to create a home in the jungle among her greatest accomplishments and downplayed her excellent marksmanship. She saved Martin’s life countless times with her ability to act in moments of imminent danger, but she cast these moments as elements of chance. Osa hardly ever wrote of trophy hunting (though she did plenty of it) and portrayed her love of fishing as a childlike amusement. When she did brag about a kill, her pride was not in besting the animal, but in providing an elegant meal for her husband and guests. One of Martin’s photographs showed her grinning with pride holding a freshly killed turkey meant for Christmas dinner. When Osa wrote of this episode, however, she did not describe this posed moment but rather the moments after the kill, as she watched blood splatter from the bird and realized “as never before that there was more joy in shooting with a camera than a gun.” Still, she confessed, “this wild African turkey would taste mighty good on Christmas Day.”

Fur and animal prints were part of Osa's signature style. Here, she holds a fur shawl while signing a mock copy of her zebra patterned autobiography, I Married Adventure.

Animal elements were part of Osa’s signature style. Here, she holds a fur shawl while signing a mock copy of her zebra-patterned autobiography, I Married Adventure.

Every kill was used in its entirety. Regarding her penchant for wearing animal products, Johnson maintained that she was not promoting the wasteful and exploitative fur industry. When asked by a reporter if she liked to shoot animals for attire, she replied: “Whenever we kill a bustard (African wild turkey) we always save the wings for a hat. And whenever we kill a guinea foul, we say ‘The pompon for a turban, the breast for a roast, the legs for soup and the other feathers for a pillow. Perhaps this is a survival of my western pioneer ancestral thrift.”

Adapted from Maximum of Wilderness: The Jungle in the American Imagination (University of Virginia Press 2012).

Resources & References

Archives of the Martin & Osa Johnson Safari Museum, Chanute, Kansas.

Osa Johnson, Last Adventure (1966).

___I Married Adventure (1940).

Categories: Culture, Nature | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

William Beebe’s “Fascinating Game”

Beebe colorfully-illustrated article in the New York World reflects his beliefs about birds and artistry.

William Beebe believed zoos had the potential to inspire. Visitors must be, he insisted, “pleased, entertained and instructed.” Artists, he continued, should observe grace and color. Ornithologists should find answers to their scientific inquiries. Foreigners should view reminders of their homeland with pride, and the “child of the slums” should stand “speechless with delight.” Beauty, knowledge, nostalgia, and enlightenment were all pieces of Beebe’s ideal exhibit, and his ambitions for the zoo were as political as they were aesthetic. The zoo provided an escape from urban life, enlightenment of the masses, and a space for conservation education. The latter intention was a goal with concrete objectives. Ladies, wrote Beebe, should swear to never wear feathers again after “seeing them adorning the living form of their rightful owner!” It was this conservation message that truly defined the New York Zoological Park as something other than animal amusement. Beebe envisioned his bird exhibition as a place in which minds were changed about personal interactions with nature and wildlife.

When the New York Zoological Park opened in 1899, its exhibits had included the Reptile House, buffalo range, alligator pool, sea lion enclosures, beaver dam, and bear dens. One of the most praised exhibits was the Aquatic Bird House. Cages lining the exterior of the building contained birds of prey–owls, eagles, hawks, and vultures. But the inside, wrote one journalist, “was a revelation.” A photograph from the time showed ducks, flamingos, egrets, penguins, geese, storks, pelicans, and “other water fowl from many climes” standing around a small concrete pool. There was a door at the far end, and two palm trees framed either side of the enclosure. Upon his arrival, Beebe took charge of this collection of birds. In addition to those in and around the Aquatic Bird House, Beebe was responsible for the Duck Aviary, the Winter Shelter House, and the half-completed Flying Cage. Altogether there were 36 avian species and 175 individual birds.

Beebe was unimpressed with these exhibits and collections. When he assumed responsibility in 1899, he joked that he had become the curator of a handful of ducks and geese. He was more pleased when the Flying Cage was completed. In June 1900, Beebe released one hundred birds into the enclosure, which was 150 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 50 feet tall. In contrast to the concrete surroundings of the Aquatic Bird House, the Flying Cage was wide open, contained rooted trees, and was bisected by a naturalistic stream. New enclosures featured numerous pheasant cages, facilities for ostrich, a wildfowl pond, wild turkey range, macaw tree, crane paddock, and the House for Perching Birds.

By 1902, the Bronx Zoo’s initial success had secured funding for additional buildings, including the Antelope House and the Lion House. These exhibits impressed the English writer and sportsman F. G. Aflalo, who visited the zoo in 1906. “The visitor finds at once the expression of American ideals and the reproach of European Zoos,” he wrote. “Perspective, immensity, a middle distance that would measure the furthest limit of Old World menageries, to which it is as New York’s flatiron buildings to mud hovels in Connemara.” Aflalo suggested that the Bronx Zoo embodied ideas specific to American culture regarding the abundance of the natural world. It was an expression, he said, of the nation’s “freedom from the trammels of tradition and immunity from the handicap of obsolete ideals of architecture, as well as to that liberal policy of progress which is the comfortable equation of public subsidy and private generosity.”

Inside Beebe’s bird house visitors participated in a game of identification.

Beebe’s contribution to this mass “expression of American ideals” opened, fortuitously, on July 4, 1905. The House for Perching Birds stood grandly on Baird (now Astor) Court at the center of the zoo. “From an aesthetic and utilitarian point of view,” boasted Beebe in the NYZS’s Bulletin, “there is no doubt that it excels most other buildings of its kind in the world.” The enclosures lived up to the zoo’s overall goals of providing ample and aesthetically pleasing space for its animals. Its ceiling was equipped with movable glass panels to allow ventilation and light. The openness of the space and its high ceilings exemplified Aflalo’s idea of an American obsession with “immensity.” The specimens were abundant and diverse. Inside was Beebe’s pride and joy–a small flying cage (36 x 15 x 20 feet) including potted trees and flowering vines, an environment he described as “happily combining a profusion of flowers with brightly-colored song birds.”

Within the flying cage of the House for Perching Birds, a variety of species lived together. This break in traditional bird display was criticized by European aviculturalists. Generally, each enclosure housed just one species, which prevented conflict between birds and provided neat and orderly labeling of enclosures so visitors could be told exactly what they were seeing. In Beebe’s cage, however, all attempts to direct the viewer’s gaze were given over to randomness. Beebe provided visitors with picture-coded identification cards, which encouraged visitors to make a game of watching and naming various bird species as they flew around freely within the enclosure. Beebe believed that this exhibition technique allowed visitors to engage actively in their own experience with, and observation of, his bird collection.

The critical European aviculturalists were skeptical about Beebe’s endeavor. They complained that the glass roof would create climate trouble; the potted plants would attract mice and rats; and the mixing of species and introduction of new birds to already stable enclosures would lead to the intimidation and death of some birds. Additionally, they claimed Beebe’s exhibit would confuse the public. Visitors would be flustered by the picture labels and desire the straightforward labeling of one species in one cage with a single label. Beebe’s cage, said one, “can only have been conceived by someone entirely unacquainted with birds.”

While Beebe conceded that climate and rodents presented difficulties, he stuck by his other methods of display. He insisted the public was curious and interested in the active observation encouraged by his identification cards. He saw encounters between visitors and bird identification as “a fascinating game” that resulted in the acquisition of “considerable knowledge of several species of birds.” Mixing species encouraged a realistic picture of birds as they existed in the wild.

Excerpted from Maximum of Wilderness: The Jungle in the American Imagination (University of Virginia Press 2012).

Resources & References

Beebe, C. William. “History of the Bird Department of the Zoological Park,” Bulletin of the Zoological Society (June 1910).

Bridges, Gathering of Animals: An unconventional history of the New York Zoological Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Hornaday, William T. “Zoological Garden Nearly Completed,” New York Times, May 17, 1908.


Categories: Animals | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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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