Book Review: A Message from Martha
By Mark Avery
The tawdry, heartbreaking reality of species extinction showed itself on the first of September, 1914, when Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons, was found dead in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in Cincinnati, Ohio. Of all the sad anniversaries of 2014 – 100 years since the start of World War I, 25 years since the Tienanmen Square massacre, 15 years since Columbine – this one, the end of a species that only twenty years earlier had been one of the most mind-bogglingly numerous on Earth, is in many ways the quietest and the saddest.
The bird in question, a female named Martha, had been captive-bred and raised with a small group of other passenger pigeons. As Mark Avery puts it in his new book A Message from Martha, “they played out their lives without ever casting a shadow on the forests that were their natural home.” Outside the confines of that Cincinnati zoo cage, the incredibly huge flocks of passenger pigeons that had entered frontier legend were being systematically wiped out by settlers (Avery quite rightly calls them ‘invaders’), by loss of habitat, and even by disease – but technology was always the birds’ worst enemy; “The spread of the railroad and also the telegraph,” Avery writes, “allowed a deadly combination of events to unfold.”
A Message from Martha tells the story of that deadly combination of events as engagingly as any popular history of the subject as done. The book isn’t as comprehensive or grandly eloquent as Joel Greenberg’s A Feathered River Across the Sky from earlier this year, but it’s more winningly personal in many places, as when Avery fancies that some of the old-growth forests he encounters in his researches form a kind of living bridge between him and his vanished subject:
The men and women who knew the Passenger Pigeon are indeed gone, and they have not passed the remembrance down to their children and grandchildren because there are so many more important things to talk about than dead birds. But I am glad that I met some trees in Dysart Woods and the Johnson Woods State Preserve that will have remembered those flocks of birds snaking across the sky. Even though the trees could not share their memories, I felt a lot closer to those days having seen some small remnants of virgin forest looking much as they must have done in the heyday of the Passenger Pigeon.
A Message From Martha also has a more pointedly ecological aim than Greenberg’s book, made the more emphatic as Avery brings his discussion of extinction forward to the 21st century and discusses, among other things, the alarming disappearance of native bird species from his home in England. The “message” ends up being one he imagines in Martha’s own voice: “Please care. Please do better. Please start now.”
Inevitably when contemplating exterminated species, writers lose themselves in contemplation of what it would be like if those species had managed to survive somehow (for a memorably bittersweet version of this contemplation as applied to the other most famous extinct bird, the dodo, see Howard Waldrop’s fantastic short story “The Ugly Chickens”), and Avery is no exception:
If the Passenger Pigeon were still alive and kicking, would we have headed off to its nearest enormous colony to see the sight of millions of birds coming and going? Would we have seen skeins of birds racing across the New York skies and along the shores of Lake Cayuga? We might have done, as the Montezuma saltmarshes, where we saw flocks of shorebirds, Black Duck, Alder Flycatcher, and Marsh Wren, were favoured feeding places for the Passenger Pigeon. What would that day have been like?
In the sad reality, Martha’s body was packed in ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, where, as Avery puts it, “she is now hidden away from the public gaze.” Many years ago, a friend and I were given a viewing of the taxidermied body of the bird. We looked at it in silence for minute, then my friend said, “She was a very pretty thing, wasn’t she?”