Book of the week: Nature's Ghosts

Jules Pretty discusses humanity's tardy conservation efforts

October 15, 2009

We all dream of death, but not enough, it seems, of extinction. Until the 19th century, the prevailing European and North American view of the world was that it was static and not very ancient. What existed was simply a reflection of a longstanding natural order. The world was in balance, and this harmonious order had been created and determined by a greater being. If there had been losses, in the Great Flood, for example, then they were also divinely driven. How quickly this all changed.

Into this dominant paradigm came professional and amateur naturalists and geologists, whose detailed investigations of fossils and living plants and animals changed the world. Mark Barrow's welcome and fascinating book, Nature's Ghosts, tells stories of observation, wonder, recognition and loss. While its perspective is mainly North American, covering the past two centuries, it speaks for the world.

Species had to disappear regularly before the idea of extinction was accepted. If only our ideas had changed earlier, the great auk and dodo may have survived; if only oil had started to run out 50 years earlier, climate change might not be a major problem. Extinction is, of course, for ever.

Barrow expertly documents the rise of ideas about extinction that sprang from painstaking and regular fieldwork. There is no substitute for being out on the land. New disciplines emerged and fossil collectors turned into protectors. Committees became societies, and some of them later became internationally important. There were tragedies, too, and doubly so as some naturalists came to appreciate that they were actors in the extinction game.

Robert Thomas Moore, the eminent American ornithologist, had a collection of 65,000 birds neatly laid out in drawers in his office. William Brewster, curator of birds at Harvard University, continued to pursue the heath hen for his collection, even when the species was reduced to living on a single island off Massachusetts. Booming Ben, the very last heath hen, became a media celebrity in 1929. The Carolina parakeet, too, came to exist only in collectors' cases. Rarity, curiously, increases value, so yet again human perceptions drive species towards extinction, even if everyone says they didn't mean it.

Harold Coolidge wanted to make a name for himself, so in 19 he spent weeks in what was then the Belgian Congo, chasing the elusive and hopefully dangerous mountain gorilla. A specimen, once an individual of the forest, was shot in satisfyingly dramatic circumstances, and accompanied the proud Coolidge back to the US, where it remains on display at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.

Coolidge later helped form the American Committee for International Wild Life Protection, which, contradictorily, would not only seek rare animal specimens for exhibition and study, but also call for the preservation of living species in their natural habitats. Coolidge himself, in 1942, would pronounce wild flora and fauna to be "an immeasurable capital, a capital that ought not to be ruthlessly spent, but rather stewarded with care".

Even as the understanding that humans were the primary cause of modern extinction grew, development and the spread of civilisation increased its pace. The bison and passenger pigeon are well-known casualties, but the mind-boggling numbers are worth restating.

In the early 19th century, Alexander Wilson, the Scottish-American poet and ornithologist, saw a flock of passenger pigeons a mile wide that took four hours to pass: "I was suddenly struck with astonishment at a loud rushing sound succeeded by instant darkness," he wrote. "I took it for a tornado."

His near-contemporary John James Audubon encountered a flock so huge that "the noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse". But this awe did not alter a thing. The birds were shot, netted, poisoned and promptly lost before we had more than a rudimentary knowledge of their life history and behaviour.

The same thing happened to the poor old bison - great herds central to the lives of Plains Indians that took hours to pass in a train were slaughtered at a rate of up to two million a year. They too were gone, save for a few stragglers, by the 1870s.

It was commercial logging of the ancient cypress woodlands of the American South that saw off the ivory-billed woodpecker in the 20th century.

As logging spread, so the bird's home range shrunk, until it was formally declared extinct - until, that is, dramatic video footage of a flitting bird was revealed in 2004.

And here is one of my only quibbles with Barrow's book: it focuses almost entirely on professional experts. In Michael Steinberg's 2008 account of this elusive woodpecker, Stalking the Ghost Bird, he recounts that while professionals thought the bird was extinct, local people of the bayous and forests, mainly fishermen, hunters, woodsmen and their families, told a different story. If only someone had asked them, they would have learnt that the bird was very much living and breathing, although a rarity.

There were conflicts, too, among the professionals. The Californian condor narrowly escaped extinction. The largest bird in North America, it is often confused with aircraft from a distance as it soars to 15,000ft. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, collectors were taking both skins and eggs. One museum owner and collector, John Thayer, paid $300 for a single condor egg in 1908.

As numbers plummeted, calls for detailed fieldwork gained support. Carl Koford, the American biologist, undertook the most detailed work in the late 1930s and 1940s, and concluded in a 1953 study that the condor would fare poorly in captivity, should such a programme be the last resort.

He wanted it protected in its habitat with a light touch, as it was a sensitive breeder. Others differed and supported captive breeding. While arguments raged, the condor continued its decline to only ten wild birds in the 1980s. All were then brought into captivity, where they bred successfully and were later released. There are now thought to be a couple of hundred of them in the wild.

This, then, points to the heart of these extinction stories. Whose knowledge counts when it comes to making decisions? And how much does prevailing understanding shape our actions?

In 1973, the US Congress passed, with surprisingly little debate, the Endangered Species Act: in the Senate it was approved by a 90-0 vote, and in the House by 390-12 (who were the dissenters, I wonder?). But significant policies are easy to make after the horse can be seen bolting over a distant hill. How much cleverer would it be to change behaviour before an environmental problem adversely affects us all?

In 1869, naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace said: "Should civilised man ever reach distant lands, he will so disturb the nicely balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature to cause the disappearance, and finally extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and being he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy."

And yet it may well be our own extinction we should be worried about.

Barrow's concerns are for the pioneers who studied and saved species, who lived by glaciers and atop mountains in order to encourage their designation as national parks, who walked the land, who formed groups and eventually changed policies. It's a remarkable record, but you can't help wishing it did not appear to be so little, so late.


Mark V. Barrow, associate professor of history at Virginia Tech University, does not follow conventional routes to find his latest research. "I have taken to haunting eBay," he says. "I find all sorts of interesting things that reveal how Americans have thought about and interacted with that charismatic reptile, the American alligator."

Barrow credits his love of the natural world to his father, saying that he was "an obsessive collector of natural objects". Barrow admits that he "complained, sometimes quite loudly" when his father took him on field trips around his native Florida. However, they engendered in Barrow a love and respect for the natural world that he tries to communicate through his books.

He has recently taken up running, and has completed four marathons. He hopes to break three hours in a future marathon, but admits: "I'm not quite there yet."

Nature's Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology

By Mark V. Barrow Jr

University of Chicago Press

512pp, £24.00

ISBN 9780226038148

Published 1 October 2009

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