The passenger pigeon will not rise again – literature and lectures

BOOK IN DISCUSSION: American journalist Nathaniel Rich compiles his reports on human intervention in nature.

Marta, the last passenger pigeon in North America, died on September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. The species was declared extinct. Fifty years before Martha’s death, ornithologist Alexander Wilson observed a herd 1.5 kilometers wide and 500 kilometers long in Kentucky. Marauders followed him for days, Wilson said. He calculated that the swarm consisted of 3.7 billion animals. As late as 1880, four out of ten birds in North America were passenger pigeons.

“The sheer number of birds led people to slaughter,” writes Nathaniel Rich. They hunted passenger pigeons for meat, oil and feathers, or simply for sport. The pellet could bring 132 birds from the sky. When no one flew there anymore, even the experts were amazed at the accuracy of the human work of destruction. Unbelieving, they came up with bold theories about the whereabouts of passenger pigeons: they fled into the desert, into the pine forests of Chile or Australia.

Passenger pigeons had become an American myth that filled many elders, including Stewart Brand’s mother with sadness. Their stories shaped the environmental protector who was born in 1938. “He was captivated by the idea of ​​using modern genetic engineering to restore the species,” said Rich. On Brand’s initiative, 2012 at Harvard held the symposium “The Rise of the Passenger Pigeon” where experts in ornithology, molecular biology and genomic research discussed deextinction – the “deextinction” of a species whose end seemed to be sealed by Marta’s death.

The Second Creation contains ten readable reports, some of which have already appeared in American magazines. In the original, the book is more appropriately called Second Nature. People are not always constructive creators, but also destructive designers. The first text, “Poisoned Truth,” tells how the chemical company DuPont has been poisoning water around Parkersburg, West Virginia, with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) for decades. There are indications that the substance has been toxic since 1961. It is now associated with cancer, liver damage, and other health disorders.

Research by DuPont has shown that PFOA has settled far from the company’s headquarters. As early as 1984, the company’s medical team and legal department recommended that the use be discontinued immediately. Although a less harmful substitute would have been available by 1993, DuPont did not stop using it until 2013. For so long, people in Parkersburg had to suffer and die unnecessarily.

DuPont’s misanthropic greed reminds Rich of “the incontinence of an escaped convict enjoying his last drunkenness.” His comparisons are often exaggerated, but his stories are well researched and presented in a variety of ways. He writes very vividly and linguistically about people, animals and research. The son of an American butcher develops synthetic chicken nuggets in the laboratory. A researcher from Kyoto wants to capture people with the genes of rejuvenating jellyfish. The artist Eduardo Kac is considered the spiritual father of the organic and transgenic rabbit Abel species, which glowed green. Rich continues how starfish were massively killed off the California coast in 2010 due to a mysterious “hunger” or a methane pipeline leak that contributed to global warming in four months as much as two million cars a year in 2015.

Rich made his mark in 2019 with Losing Earth, his best-selling non-fiction book on the climate crisis. The “Second Creature” lacks a comparably thick red thread. The reports are fragmentary, but very fun, exciting and informative. It is based on the fact that people have always changed their environment: “Almost no stone, leaf or cubic meter of air has been drawn with our clumsy hand.” What has been lost can no longer be recovered. This also applies to passenger pigeons. Deextention cannot restore extinct species, it only creates similar substitute species, emphasizes Rich: “A passenger pigeon will not rise from the dead.”

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