A Lament for Martha: Passenger Pigeons and Psalm 78

We had to go to the basement to see her—off the escalator and to the left, the docent had told us.  There was none of the dark, evocative lighting of the dinosaurs, the fun electric interactivity of the insect displays, the hushed wonder of the gems.  Here were the recently extinct birds of North America—two small display cases under fluorescent lights, tucked in the extra space between two gifts shops and a museum café at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

It was a well put together display, meticulous, but obviously sure that few would care to come and look at a few stuffed birds.  There was a Bachman’s warbler, a bird that had once haunted the canebrakes of the South.  An Ivory Billed Woodpecker that likewise had lost its life to the draining of the wetland forests and cutting of the Cyprus swamps.  There was a Great Auk whose feathers made for good pillows, and a Carolina Parakeet, a bird with the misfortune of being beautiful and easy to shoot at the time of women’s feathered hats.  The specimens of these birds were anonymous: collected by a shotgun ornithologist before anyone knew the birds would be extinct.  But the bird we were coming for had a name—Martha.  She was a Passenger Pigeon and she was the last of her kind when she died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

Less than century before her death the sound of a passing flock of Passenger Pigeons was described like that of a train.  There were reports of the birds blacking out the sky for hours, in some cases as long as three days as they passed.  They were most certainly the most numerous bird species on the earth, traveling in flocks that numbered in the millions and even billions.

As settlers began their move west the birds became a ready food, but their numbers tempted even more wanton destruction than meals required.  They were killed indiscriminately, thousands left to rot in fields.  Nests were robbed of their young, the tender meat of the squabs a delicacy.  Their abundance met a kind of ravenous craving that the species had never before seen and it led to their demise.  Once their numbers began to dwindle their ecology unraveled.  The species was designed to live in large flocks and when those flocks were no longer around, the Passenger Pigeon experienced a collapse.

There were attempts to breed the passenger pigeon in captivity.  Martha was offered various mates, but she never nested with any of them.  She died, the last of her kind, a hundred years ago—one more story of human ignorance and greed leading to destruction and suffering.

Martha was small and beautiful, the full color of her iridescence lost over the century.  She looked like a slightly large morning dove, but a little more beautiful, at least in the paintings that accompanied her in the display case.  There was no way, with this single bird to get a feel for the vastness of her kind—a species that could never be captured in a lone bird.

As I looked at her through the glass, my two-year-old daughter and her toddler cousin laughing and playing behind me, I thought of Psalm 78.  It is a poetic account of the Exodus from Egypt, of God’s continued care for the people and their continued rejection of the gifts that he provided, always wanting more than those gifts.  In verses 27-30 the poet recounts the provision of quail that God provided after the people complained of their steady diet of manna:

He rained flesh upon them as thick as dust
and winged fowl like the sand of the sea.
He let it fall in the midst of their camp
and round about their tents.
So they ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they desired.
But they did not stop their craving;
their food was still in their mouths.

That the people did not stop their craving even though the food was still in their mouths echoes the condition that led to the Passenger Pigeons extinction; it names the condition that is now driving us towards climate catastrophe.  This condition is wanting more without limits, it is a craving for self-sufficiency rather than trust in the gifts of God. We are filled with the bread of heaven and yet we also want meat; when we get what we want we aren’t satisfied even though we haven’t finished chewing.  The temptation is always to go to some god that we can manipulate to serve our wants when God doesn’t—Baals of fertility, a Golden Calf, The Economy.  And so we kill more birds than we need to and the species goes extinct, we deforest hillsides and over water our lawns and the aquifers dry up, we make the land produce more than it should, without any Sabbath rest, and we end up with crop failures and drought.

Looking at Martha, the last of her kind, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of lament and rage, and yet I knew that I too was a part of the culture of craving that is the legacy of her demise and adding to the number of extinct species more rapidly than ever.  The only place I could find comfort was in returning to Psalm 78 and remembering my favorite line, verse 39 where God decides to be merciful to the wayward people:

For [God] remembered that they were but flesh,
a wind that passes by and does not return.

Like Job meeting God in the whirlwind, learning again that humankind is not the center of the universe, we can find hope in returning to the truth that we are but flesh. A life turned toward humility, toward the truth of that we live from and toward the soil of the earth, is the only hope we have in facing the ecological catastrophes of our age. It is time to cover our heads with dust, remembering that that is what we are—dirt.  It is time also to fast in order to remember that we are filled, not by the Invisible hand, but by God alone.  In dust and waiting is our hope.

About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline and a contributor to the book Sacred Acts: How churches are working to protect the Earth’s climate. Ragan’s articles and essays have appeared in a variety of magazines including Triathlete, The Oxford American, and Books & Culture. He works to live the good life with his wife Emily and daughter Lillian.


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