Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Charnel House of Rationality

The Cincinnati Zoo, despite its relatively small size, has developed a national reputation over the years both for its creative use of limited landscaping to design animal habitats as well as its success in breeding various endangered species. The look of the place is constantly changing and evolving but a few old structures, such as the elephant house, remained carefully preserved as a tribute to the zoo's Nineteenth Century origins.

On a less traveled side path, there is a curious Japanese pagoda-style building. Built in 1875, it is one of the zoo's oldest remaining buildings and served as one of its early bird aviaries. I have always felt a certain dislike for it but I make it a practice to will myself into it whenever I pass by and see its doors open. It holds memories from the past and a direful admonition for the future.

The building no longer lodges any live animals, although one can still see cramped cages on the walls where birds were once kept. It is a National Historic Site because it holds the peculiar distinction of allowing us to know exactly where and when two species of birds became extinct. In 1918, the last Carolina Parakeet died there. But it was four years earlier, on September 1, 1914, that the building became immortalized in infamy. Because on that date a small bird named Martha died and the species known as the passenger pigeon passed into oblivion.

Passenger pigeons, along with mourning doves, were the two common pigeon species native to eastern North America. They were somewhat larger than doves with colorful blue/gray bodies featuring wine red breasts. Males had particularly long gray and white tail feathers. They liked forest habitats, eating a variety of nuts, fruits, grains, and insects. Despite the fact that they produced only a single egg/chick per nesting, they were unbelievably prolific – a characteristic that was accentuated by their tendency to travel and roost together in massive flocks.

It is estimated that when white Europeans first began arriving in North America, circa 1650, the total passenger pigeon population was in excess of five billion birds. That made them the most populous bird in the world. They traveled in flocks of as many as a billion individuals, one mile wide and three hundred miles long. Early reports from Virginia colonists, the Dutch in New York, and the Puritans in Salem describe them as blotting out the sun and often taking eight or more hours to pass overhead.

Audubon describes personally observing a flock of similar size passing overhead as he traveled through Kentucky in 1813. He wrote in his journal, "The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose."

From the first, European settlers had a paradoxical relationship with passenger pigeons, simultaneously hating them as pests and yet reveling in them both for their beauty and as a food source. The Plymouth colony of Pilgrims from our thanksgiving stories were threatened with famine in 1643 when a great flock of passenger pigeons swept through and ate nearly all the ripened grain. Five years later, the pigeons returned and provided the struggling colonists with an abundant source of protein, helping to save them from starvation.

Yet passenger pigeons and people lived largely in harmony with each other, without any dire effects, until the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, when the birds were reduced from the billions to a mere remaining quarter million. The reason for the sudden onslaught was simple – it was a combination of technology and free market capitalism.

New uses for pigeons suddenly abounded. Always a delicacy among settlers, passenger pigeons were now shipped back East in massive quantities to be processed as cheap meat for people such as servants and the new, growing underclass of factory workers. The meat and other body parts were also turned into hog feed and agricultural fertilizer. New York City alone was consuming one hundred barrels of pigeons a day, with each barrel holding five to six hundred birds.

The invention of the telegraph and steam railways made it possible for hunters and trappers to stay abreast of where the huge flocks were moving and get to their locations quickly. As a result, over a thousand men were employed as professional pigeon hunters by the late 1800s. Their very success led to their eventual disbanding. The last passenger pigeon nesting pairs were observed in the Great Lakes region in the 1890s and the last known bird in the wild was shot to death by an Ohio farm boy in 1900.

And then there was Martha, who died alone and largely unnoticed at the time but whose cage eventually became designated as sacred ground, although the thing it once held was as precious whether she was the last of her kind or merely one among billions.

Martha came to my mind today because it is Holocaust Remembrance Day. I do not mean to draw moral comparisons between the loss of birds and human beings. Yet the two events do have one important thing in common. We tend to think of them as acts of great evil, and rightly so, but there is nothing especially unique about the human cruelty associated with them. In fact, what makes them so notable is that both were possible only because of what we often laud as best in us.

We did not manage to kill billions of lovely birds in a few decades or extinguish six million souls in a few years just because a few human beings were especially evil. We did it because virtually all human beings are smart and inquisitive and natural problem-solvers. The mechanics of the Holocaust presented the Nazis with many seemingly insurmountable logistic problems, all of which some scientist or engineer cheerfully worked out with astonishing speed and incomprehensible effectiveness.

The ringleaders in these efforts did not destroy so much or so completely because they worked so much harder at it than anybody had done previously in history. Rather, they did so because the rest of us helped make it so very, very easy for them to do so. It is this that the Passenger Pigeon Memorial has come to represent to me on a more universal level.

I am not Jewish, so I cannot hear the whispered word "shoa" and feel the same dread and grief as if I were a Jew. Likewise, since I am not African American, I cannot hear the word "nigger" hissed at me and feel the same shame and anger as if I were black.

I am, in fact, a white man of largely German extraction. It was my ancestors, my cousins, my family and friends who netted the birds, who worked in the concentration camps, who fought to keep schools and neighborhoods racially segregated.

That is why I never pass that stone building at the zoo, so garish on the outside and so horrible on the inside, without forcing myself to step under its doorway's lintel. I need to face what it contains and I need to remember what it holds. For it was my people who built it and my people who filled it with emptiness. And, by that, I mean all people.

It is said that there is only the thinnest line between civilization and barbarism but there is an even thinner and more dangerous line that we cross frequently and – sadly – often willingly. It is more dangerous because it often never requires the descent into barbarism or at least saves us from its dirtier aspects.

It is the line between rationality and rationalization. It is the voice that tells us there had to have been good reasons to have done what we did. The voice that screams its justification ever louder to match the intensity of the grotesqueries we produce.

The Passenger Pigeon Memorial is a tomb but it does not hold the body of a bird. Instead it holds the dead future of what was once the living embodiment of fertility and abundance. It holds the stillborn tomorrow of a small piece of this planet's hope. It is the charnel house of rationality. And my people built it.

On this day of remembrance, stop and ask yourself what sort of a house that you and your people are building.

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