Sunday, June 17, 2012

Thoreau on Endangered Species

Henry David Thoreau quotes, endangered species, biodiversity

I've been reading Nature's Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology by Mark V. Barrow, Jr., a masterful summary of its subtitle. Unfortunately,  it's four days overdue at the library. In Chapter 3, Sounding the Alarm on Continent-Wide Wildlife Extinction, he quotes a great journal entry from Thoreau in 1865:

When I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here, --the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverine, bear, moose, deer, the beaver, the turkey, etc., etc., -- I cannot but feel as if I live in a tamed, and as it were, emasculated country... I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest messages, and mutilated its pages. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth. 
Look at that impressive list of megafauna that once lived in Massachusetts! Wild cats like cougars, panthers, and lynxes, none of which are were seen by Thoreau or have been seen since (though a webpage from the state lists lynx sightings in 1991). The wolverine was extirpated in Massachusetts in 1835. There are occasional bear and moose sightings, and deer are thriving, thanks to the decimation of wolves and coyotes, but it's hard not to think of the state as a "tamed, emasculated country". To think that we don't have the "entire poem... but an imperfect copy" is a tragedy not just from the actions of our ancestors but our present actions. I too "wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth." Before it's too late.

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