Laudato Si', Extinction, and the Passenger Pigeon

In his historic encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis writes:

“It is not enough…to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons relating to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right." (33)

Extinction is a hard thing for us to get our heads around.

Its scope and finality so dwarf us as individuals that we have a hard time feeling it, grieving it, and (as our present situation requires) repenting of it.

As always, a particular story can help.

My wife Jenna and I recently visited Wyalusing State Park in Southwestern Wisconsin with my Uncle Kevin. We hiked in the serene old-growth forests, and even did a little cave exploration, where we happened across a sleeping brown bat (myotis lucifugus, itself a threatened species according to the Department of Natural Resources).

Before we left to head home, Uncle Kevin brought us to Wyalusing’s monument to the passenger pigeon. The monument is perched on a cliff overlooking the valley where the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers converge. We learned that flocks of migrating passenger pigeons once filled the skies there, numbering in the millions. They were the most abundant bird species in North America, thought to be a near limitless resource. But through unregulated commercial hunting and habitat destruction their numbers dwindled—and in 1914 the very last passenger pigeon died.

On a plaque, we found the following excerpt from the speech Aldo Leopold gave at the monument’s dedication in 1947. I’ve found myself thinking about it almost daily since.

See page for author [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
“We meet here to commemorate the death of a species. This monument symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin. Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

It’s crucial that we hear these stories. As we hear them, may we feel the true cost of our narrow-minded and short-sighted economic activities. May we grieve for what we have taken and can never give back. And may we change our course.


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This is a very fine post, Alex. Thanks for sharing.
Alexander said…
The passenger pigeon will be back though...

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