Archive for Rants
One of ornithology’s first “power couples,” the Allens would have celebrated their hundredth wedding anniversary this past August 17.
Though both made estimable and lasting contributions to their chosen science, posterity has treated them very differently. Arthur A. Allen is still famous today, almost fifty years after his death. And Elsa G. Allen is virtually forgotten.
Ask yourself this, though: When was the last time you read a single one of the many words written by the male Dr. Allen over his long career? Hm? I’m guessing that for most birders the answer is, “Never.”
In contrast, the female Dr. Allen’s published work remains indispensable. Her “History of American Ornithology Before Audubon” is still cited as widely and as frequently as any other study of the emergence of that discipline. Elsa G. Allen single-handedly plucked Mark Catesby from two centuries of oblivion, and most of us wouldn’t even know the name Vieillot if not for her research. But while Elsa Allen’s husband merited a ten-page obituary (with a full-page portrait) in the Auk, Arthur Allen’s wife got barely a dozen words in the Wilson Bulletin.
Unequal in death, yes, and unequal in life.
In 1954, Kenneth C. Parkes honored both Allens in the names of two newly described populations of the Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, a rather variable, sparrowy thing found over great stretches of Central and South America. Parkes named the form from the mountains of Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua for Arthur Allen, while he commemorated Elsa Allen in the name of the birds found in Costa Rica and western Panama (where the photo at the top of this page was taken).
It was a kind gesture of respect to colleagues then in their early 70s, but the asymmetry in Parkes’s naming is dazzling. The subspecies honoring Arthur Allen he called alleni. And the one honoring Elsa Allen? That one would be elsae.
It might seem a trivial snub, but transfer it to a social situation. Imagine that Alison and I are at a party (we do get invited once in a while), and that we are presented to the other guests:
“May I introduce you to Professor Beringer and Rick?”
Hrmph. Parkes should have named the Chiriquí brush-finch allenae, or the Honduran bird arthuri.
I don’t think he could get away with this bit of infantilization today. Or maybe he could.
Yesterday morning, as I was writing about the return of the Wild Turkey to New Jersey (and our feeders), I recalled Stacia Novy’s recent rant in Winging It. I smiled when I first read it, but it’s started to rankle, this odd notion that “re-introduction”
literally means “to introduce something again.” The Peregrine Falcon [for example, or the Wild Turkey] was never introduced to North America at any time in history, nor was the species foreign or alien. Therefore, by definition, the species cannot be reintroduced to that region….
Stacia relies for her etymological argument — always dangerous — on the mistaken idea that the prefix “re-” means only “again” or “again and again,” citing an actual dictionary — always dangerous — in support of her case.
Every elementary school teacher and every elementary school pupil knows better. The prefix is polysemic, as reading a little farther on in the dictionary would tell us. “Respond” doesn’t mean “to answer again and again”; it means to answer back. “Rescind” doesn’t mean to “take again and again”; it means to take back. “Reverse” doesn’t mean to “turn again and again”; it means to turn back.
And “re-introduce” doesn’t mean “to introduce again”; it means to introduce back, which is precisely what we have done with condors and falcons and turkeys and otters and elk and on and on. We have “led” them “back” “in” to their original range, if we want to be pedantic and etymological (and right) about it.
Stacia’s recommended alternative, “repatriation,” is silly enough that there’s no danger of its ever catching on. But I still find the arch pedantry of her argument (“It’s hard to expect the general public to use proper terminology on such topics when the experts fail to do so”) troubling, and there is a small risk, I suppose, that less confident souls could be led to worry that they’re not using the term “re-introduction” properly — even though all of us members of “the general public” really are.
I’ve taken a firm resolve to use the word “re-introduction,” in its current and correct meaning, at least once a day for the next week. Says the OED:
To return (a species of animal or plant) to a locality where it was formerly native, with the intention of re-establishing it in the wild.
My dictionary’s better than hers.
And what about that hyphen? Well, I once sat next to someone on a plane who was reading a book titled “Reengineering,” and it took me most of the flight to figure out that it wasn’t Dutch.
This species — known to English-speaking birders as the Bohemian Waxwing — is having a good winter in western Europe, and so are the Dutch pestvogelspotters, “to the great dismay of local residents,” who find themselves overcome, “terrorized,” by the masses of birders who have descended like a plague onto their neighborhoods:
I’m a big animal lover myself, perhaps even more than that. I understand your interest in the waxwing and that you want to document these numbers with all your gigantic telephoto lenses. But you aren’t entirely seeing the other side. Meanwhile an average of about twenty people are standing here in front of my door from sunrise to sunset. You’re going up and down past all our new cars, with scratches as a result, you’re taking up parking spaces, parking bikes right up against the cars, and so on. All in all you’re creating a big nuisance for the neighbors…. You’ve had a whole week to document the birds and I sincerely hope that both the waxwings and the neighborhood will get some peace now. [my translation]
And you can imagine how the discussion continues: it’s photographers, not birders; it’s just a few bad apples; it’s a public right of way; your car isn’t all that new, and it isn’t scratched, and it was already scratched when I got there. And on and on in tones familiar from every e-brouhaha to have ever erupted in any birding community.
The situation is even more resonant, though, given the Dutch name of these beautiful birds. “Pestvogel” means “plague bird,” and the association of these winter nomads with the equally unpredictable visitations of pestilence seems to have been historically widespread in western Europe. Suolahti writes of the species’ former German name:
Furthermore, the unexpected occurrence of certain birds in the vicinity of houses or their sudden appearance in a given region inspires uncanny notions. In particular, the occurrence of northern species that travel in great flocks, such as waxwings, bramblings, and redwings, is considered a bad omen, and so they are called “death birds,” “plague birds,” or “war birds.” [my translation]
Suolahti finds the German name “Pestvogel” — plague bird — attested from Austria, Swabia, Switzerland, and Westfalia; he quotes Aitinger‘s 1631 tract on bird catching to the effect that these birds are seen in some areas no oftener than every fourteen years, and that many people are of the “remarkable opinion” that when they do appear, they bring with them “war, pestilence, hunger, and inflation” (watch out, Euro Zone).
it was not until the very end of the sixteenth century that Ulisse Aldrovandi first drew the connection between the waxwing’s appearance in unexpected localities and a biological cause for such displacement, even though the concept of certain species’ migrations during the harsher season was already beginning to be perceived, thanks largely to wintertime trips to the southern Mediterranean, on which observers recognized some of the birds present in Europe during the summer. But the mental horizon in which that discovery is rooted means that several different interpretations can still co-exist for one single fact. And for a long time the occurrences of waxwings were related to other exceptional phenomena, among them meteorological or cosmic phenomena, still interpreted as signs or warnings of divine origin. [my translation]
Myself, I would observe that for many of us l’horizon intellectuel hasn’t lifted that much: Who doesn’t shiver when suddenly the feeders are aswarm with a tightly packed, ferociously gobbling flock of Dark-eyed Juncos — or should I say snowbirds?
Many thanks to Kenn for suggesting this topic —
A “facebook friend” of mine reports being e-chastised for her “failure” to use four- or six-letter codes in her reports:
The most negative one was how inexperienced as a birder I appeared. Then there was the one offering to ‘teach’ me the abbreviations since I obviously didn’t know them….
I’ve been guilty over the years of letting an “AMGO” or a “MODO” or a “PISI” slip past my lips, but like most birders I know (and want to know), I make a very careful effort in the field to use the full, official, unambiguous names of the birds I see. It avoids confusion–who doesn’t remember Bill Oddie’s riff on “the red-throated“?–but more than that, and more importantly than that, abbreviations and cutesy nicknames create yet another barrier for the new birder, the beginning birder, and the casual birder.
It can be hard enough when you’re starting out to figure out what that fluffy-tailed little duck is without having people around you shouting “peebie-jeebie.” Save the endearments for the bedroom, and give the good people birding with you or near you the information they need to understand what you’re seeing and to learn more about it later when they sit down with a field guide.
Even if it’s a Middendorf’s Grasshopper Warbler, or a Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, or even a Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Please.
For those of us from the temperate north, there could hardly be a more exotic habitat than the wet tropical forest. Dark and sultry, the jungle unnerves as much in its long silences as in its sudden mad bursts of activity, and the whole experience is, for most of us, simply indescribable. No words can capture the wildness, the threatening abandon, of these places, and in speaking of them, we reach inevitably for metaphor. One image recurs more than any other: the jungle is like a vast florist’s shop, a rank and out-of-control greenhouse without the glass.
As it turns out, aware of it or not, we’re in good and ancient company when we draw that comparison. After an August walk on the Brazilian coast, Charles Darwin, famously overwhelmed by his experience of the American jungle, wrote:
The land is one great wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by Nature for herself….
This description was long ago pointed out as a specimen of the naturalist’s “unstudied and simple language carried by the force of warm impression and perfect joy in nature to a level of singular beauty.” And it is indeed a pretty turn–one so pretty that these words have over and over again been lifted out of their very precise context in Darwin’s Beagle to serve purposes literally foreign, and pressed into dishonorable service to mean the over-simplified opposite of the profoundly complex force they have in their original geographic and textual setting.
The Beagle left “desolate” Ascension Island in July 1836, and arrived in Bahia, on the Brazilian coast, on August 1; the expedition spent a total of four days there, leaving the ship’s young naturalist plenty of time to stroll through the area’s “exquisite natural beauty” of a landscape so different from Europe’s that to Darwin it seemed almost the “scenery of another planet.” His repeated walks on those days were, he says, the attempt “to fix in [his] mind for ever the impression … of the thousand beauties … which unite … into one perfect scene,” and the words in the Beagle with which he describes his impressions have the same purpose: to preserve the memories of things seen and experienced in a specific time at a precisely defined place, the Atlantic rainforests of Bahia.
And so it is a species of literary and historical dishonesty that finds Darwin’s words wrested from their geographic and temporal peculiarity and applied, willy nilly, in description of other far-flung places. There is no better measure nowadays than a google “search” to assess the currency of a thought. Typing in the simple words “Darwin untidy hothouse” produces some forty-seven million results–and the startling observation that, at least on the first several pages, the naturalist’s singularly beautiful phrase is only rarely adduced in connection with Brazil. Instead, it is Borneo–again and again, Borneo–that Darwin is said to be describing. I do not know who (no doubt inspired by the shared pattern B-vowel-consonant-vowel-vowel) first substituted that island for Bahia, but Darwin’s words have come to be so firmly fixed to the great Wallacean island that they are now a virtual cliche. Look at nearly any tour itinerary (not, I hasten happily to add, the itinerary put out by WINGS), and you’ll find the suspect words prominent and early on in the text, correctly attributed to Darwin and incorrectly divorced from his days in Brazil.
Just as arbitrary, and just as indefensible, is the use of the quote to describe Panama’s Barro Colorado, site of the Smithsonian’s venerable Tropical Research Institute. But it gets worse.
Readers with a good memory will have noticed that my quote from the Beagle above is truncated, and in precisely the way that it is abridged in all those spurious descriptions of Borneo and Panama. By neatly omitting half of Darwin’s original sentence about Bahia, the intellectual pirates have transformed his words into a virtual encomium of untrammeled wilderness. But that’s exactly what Darwin was not talking about when he described the coast of Bahia. His actual words:
The land is one great wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by Nature for herself, but taken possession of by man, who has studded it with gay houses and formal gardens.
What Darwin praises is not the untouched tangled wildness of a Borneo or a Barro Colorado, but rather the picturesque combination of a “wild luxuriance” with “the artificial labour of man.” He remarks on the boats on the Bay, their shining sails visible from a distance, and on the “peculiar and rather fantastic style” of the houses and churches. Even the plants that this passage names–oranges, coconuts, palms, mangos, bananas–are, with the single exception of the tree-fern, fruits of culture, taken over from nature, to be sure, but an example more of the intimacy between the grown and the growing than of the wild. Darwin’s image of the hothouse needs to be seen in the same way. Humanity is in possession of this land, and has adorned–perhaps even improved–its nature with houses and gardens, creating a prospect that is neither tame nor original, too wild to be purely human, but too much “taken possession of” to be entirely edenic.
The quote pirates falsify not just the geographic particularity of Darwin’s account but utterly destroy its profoundly modern intellectual complexity, transforming it into just one more nostalgic look back at wilderness and depriving it of its ability to provide a prism for us to look at our own, infinitely more complicated world. A shame, in every sense of the word.