Hope is the Thing with Feathers

February 23rd, 2011 | Meera

I confess. I think Emily Dickinson is wrong about hope.

She says it has feathers, but she never sees it fly. Instead it rests, and chooses for its perch a place where it is bound to be battered. Its tune is sweet, she promises, but what it sings has no lyric—no signification—only the form of an abstract and unreasoning melody. It will never change its tune, or learn from circumstance. And it will never cease, she thinks—unless perhaps it will, in the sorest of storms. All-admiring, she tells us it feeds on nothing. Not even a crumb. How then can it grow strong? On air? What manner of dumb, lofty hope is this? It doesn’t act like any bird I’ve ever met.

Feeling as I do, you may understand the little twinge of chagrin that pricks me every time I look down at Christopher Cokinos’s Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. During the week and a half I was reading it I found myself assailed by the urge to hide its cover, or cluck at it under my breath. Emily’s line seemed, and still seems to me, a fatuous title for a book that tells the extinction stories of six North American species. I know I don’t appear irritated in this photograph, but we might attribute that in part to the fact that I was sitting in paradise at the moment it was taken.

2011.6. Hope is the Thing with Feathers (Christopher Cokinos)

Not only sitting in paradise, but listening to the persistent five-note dirge of Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and watching them vibrate into and out of my friend Sarah’s back yard like nervous specters. (Until recently, Mourning Doves were believed to be the closest living relatives of the Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) Cokinos chronicles in the second section of his book, and although genetic analysis has now changed that designation, there is an undeniable visual similarity between the two species. Both have long tails, bluish-gray backs and rusty breasts; but the Mourning Dove’s coloring is altogether paler and less audacious than its extinct counterpart—a fitting uniform for a ghost.)

Ghostly interactions of all kinds permeate Cokinos’s book; he leans on them heavily to lend resonance to his urgent plea for us to “save what is left and restore what we can.” Many of the apparitions he conjures are deeply affecting, especially when they surprise him as much as they do us. What first sets him off on his journey through annihilation is just such a pair of startling ghosts: two escaped Black-Hooded Conures fleeing a Sharp-Shinned Hawk above the watery landscape of a Kansas marsh. The shock Cokinos feels upon seeing the brilliantly colored conures, so incongruous in the vast, featureless skies of the eastern United States, leads him to the discovery of another “exhilarating smear of green.” Native sons, not accidental immigrants, the now extinct Carolina Parakeet once occupied the same space. From this phantasmic starting point, Cokinos crafts a sincere and exhaustive portrait of the life and death of Conuropsis carolinesis, as well as of the sportsmen, naturalists, plumage-hunters, egg-collectors, and farmers who extirpated it from one breeding ground after another. I know I complained about his title, and I shall go on to complain about his ghosts—but this is nothing if not a thorough and impressively researched book, absolutely loving in its approach to its subject.

Cokinos fascinates the most when he offers remarkable and concrete details about the complex interplay of human and bird behaviors that rendered each lost species vulnerable. He explains, for instance, that when fired at, the gregarious Carolina Parakeets refused to break their flock to flee but only “swarmed in disbelief” around their fallen peers. Some shooters found it “inglorious” to continue hunting the birds under these circumstances, but these were few. Most, rather, took advantage of their targets’ collective desolation. It is an arresting set of images—a single shot, what appears to be a confused, bereaved throng, a convenient massacre—and Cokinos offers it gracefully, without descending too far into the realm of the maudlin. I was hungry for this kind of specific insight.

The extinction of the Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) is perhaps the most poignant of all the melancholy losses Cokinos reviews, because it is the only one that took place in spite of a dedicated (if somewhat less then perfectly formulated) official effort to prevent it. In the late nineteenth century, Massachusetts declared thousands of acres on Martha’s Vineyard—the bird’s only remaining habitat—a reserve area. It outlawed poaching. It created a small management team to maintain the surviving Heath Hen population. But those who were sworn to protect the bird misunderstood the forces that were whittling down its numbers; they believed predation to be a much greater threat than it actually was, and failed to recognize the loss of genetic diversity among the small number of Heath hens that remained. Many of the final few birds, rendered susceptible by inbreeding, were ultimately devastated by a highly infectious parasite.

Cokinos’s fastidious research habits infuse this desolate story with extraordinary richness; he tracks down the copious and often contentious correspondence between the ornithologists, conservation officials, and game wardens charged with saving the Heath Hen, visits the site of their last home, and recounts each recorded sighting of “Booming Ben,” the very last Heath Hen. (Ben hung on for years after the deaths of his relatives, and was watched for and videotaped fanatically by birders and scientists alike.)

Unfortunately, this preoccupation with last specimens—though perfectly understandable, given how much import we all associate with even the most trivial lasts in our lives—tends to detract from the larger significance of Cokinos’s message. He ruminates for pages over the minute contradictions between multiple reports of the last sighting and last shooting of a Carolina Parakeet. And he grows so obsessed with Press Clay Southworth, the little boy who supposedly killed the last wild Passenger Pigeon, that he spends months pestering county officials and librarians for access to old census records and land titles in a romantic attempt to figure out where the tragic event took place. Having done so, he makes strange, oddly banal and self-indulgent pilgrimages to what he has determined are the most likely spots. He even tracks down and interviews Southworth’s daughter.

It is these ghosts—the ones that Cokinos forces into existence in the hope of reaching epiphany—that move me the least. When he pursues them, he veers dangerously close to what feels like a lewd, almost pornographic relationship with these lost species. He seems half aware of this himself when he visits 16 skinned specimens of Carolina Parakeets at the University of Kansas and, gazing down at them, is “caught in a matrix of awe, grief, disgust, and desire.” The beauty of their viridian plumage strikes Cokinos as “obscene” against the white tray on which they lie; yet he wants desperately to steal a tiny bit of feather, to own a piece of the ghosts that remain. What I find lewd is not that desire itself—how could I, when I myself am so drawn to the beautiful physicality of the dead that I work with collected specimens week after week—but his shameful reaction to it. Wanting the feather fills Cokinos with an immediate sense of self-loathing. In that moment, he seems like nothing so much as an ascetic terrified of a single sinful thought. Isn’t it when we harbor fear of our very nature that we are the most in danger of succumbing to it?

In the end, I am less interested in chasing down ghosts than in understanding how we may keep species alive. Clearly, that is true of Cokinos as well—but the latter is a far more difficult endeavor, and much less poetic. So the hope he promises in his title is, like Dickinson’s, a flimsy affair. It consists, in part, of a discussion of the frankly fantastical possibility of resurrecting recently extinct species through DNA cloning techniques. Though Cokinos allows that the scientific difficulties involved in this endeavor are probably insurmountable, he finds comfort in the thought that we, as a species, “are nothing if not dogged in our cleverness. We imagine. We pursue.” I am less comforted—or perhaps less convinced of our cleverness.

The other half of Cokinos’s hope comprises weak admonishments to write to politicians, volunteer with conservation groups, and engage in what he rather self-deprecatingly calls “the rote chores of the perpetually guilt-ridden”—recycling, riding bikes, eating locally and organically, forgoing child-bearing. Even he seems frankly more depressed than invigorated by these efforts, admitting that sadness is a natural, and useful, first response to the pain of extinction. But, he urges, our second response ought to be hopeful. We ought to give back some of the “life, beauty, and solace” that the world offers us.

He does not explain—at least not to my satisfaction—how we might accomplish this.

I suppose he is in good company.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

5 Responses to “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”

  1. Your blog is filled with the beautifully lyrical writing I remember so well, and am happy to have rediscovered. But I have a rather mundane question. When it is determined that a species has become extinct, is it done so with absolute certainty? Are there cases in which birds were believed to have vanished, but later appeared alive and well? This is a fascinating topic, but one I’d never given much thought — until now. Thank you, Meera!

    • Meera says:

      Nothing is absolutely certain in science. So yes, it does happen, although as you can imagine it’s quite rare. Cokinos’s book includes a chapter on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, which you may remember being in the news some years ago after a sighting or two that came from ornithologically “reliable” sources. There was never any definitive proof, though, and I think there isn’t much hope remaining now for the Lord God Bird. Most often when a species like this is rediscovered, it’s very far from well, even if it is alive—since its numbers are likely to be critically small. You might find this proposed framework for defining “possible extinction” interesting: bi154.dhcp.ttu.edu/extinction/butchart+al06.pdf

  2. Tom says:

    Meera, Thank you again for passing on your book to me. I’m more than halfway through (I’m a slow reader), and am learning a lot. These stories make me think of current species under threat. Is it too late for certain species? Have they reached their tipping point towards extinction? At the same time, this book is a nice reminder about the variable causes (not only human actions) that can lead to the demise of a species.
    I’m also motivated by the actions that people will take to protect wildlife. Most people don’t care, but if one individual is passionate enough, that might be enough to save lives. Thank you.
    Tom.

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