Skin of Martha, the last passenger pigeon

On MLK day we went to the Boston Museum of Science with friends. We mostly hung out in the Green Wing with the New England birds and natural history displays. I enjoy studying the stuffed animal skins, the skeletons and fossils in their glass cases. No doubt some of my preference is due to the old-timey-ness, the absence of moving parts, sparks, recorded voices talking at you, and screens.  The MoS unfortunately does have  computer screens and games all over the place, and for this reason I prefer  the Harvard Museum of Natural History, specifically the upper floor, where the animals, frozen behind glass, are accompanied by small labels, often even just a number.

While most visitors over and under 8 were “interacting” with the screens, I came eye-to-eye with the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) and tried to understand why I am particularly attracted to these animal skins. It’s not like they look alive. The first thing we as eye-oriented animals seek in another is engagement with the eyes, and these eyes are invariably glass or plastic. They don’t fool us. In fact, the robin’s beady eye was like a bud from which the deadness blossomed to cover the entire animal.

The kids get this right away. One of the older girls (11) said she doesn’t like to see the stuffed animals because they’re dead and that’s “creepy”. She said she likes zoos instead. I offered that I don’t like zoos so much, because the wild animals are kept in cages and I think they might be unhappy. Another computer screen distracted her, so we didn’t get a chance to hash out this live-dead/free-caged/happy-unhappy tangle together. As for myself, I’d rather see a wild animal dead than caged and that’s because death is a natural state for a wild animal (eventually), but captivity isn’t*. I value life, so what attracts me then, in these stuffed bird skins, that I’d rather spend time with them than with their with living counterparts in zoos?


The same question from an another angle is this: what makes the skins different from skeletons? These birds are set up, not so that they look alive, but so that we can recognize them. These specimens get to stand in, quite convincingly, for their species, a class of animals we usually don’t see in their skeletal form when they’re tearing up our garden beds in search of juicy worms. As for the specimens of New England birds I don’t recognize because I’ve not seen them (yet), I try to memorize those, so that when I see the Northern Shrike in the wetlands next time, I’ll recognize it.

Is that the draw then, recognition? It’s part of it. To find what it is part of, there’s a test case, the case in the room that attracts me the most, the one with the extinct birds: the passenger pigeon (extinct since 1914) and, next to it, the heath hen (extinct since 1932). I look at them and part of what happens is recognition: in the passenger pigeon, I recognize the mourning dove that visits my feeders every spring. But something more happens…

Extinct. Steward Brand (TED talk) says that “extinction is a different kind of death. It’s bigger.” Who ever heard of such a thing? Let’s ask the children. Amie, when she was two-and-a-half, had repeated nightmares about a dinosaur. She woke up screaming and often would refuse to close her eyes again, because there was a dinosaur in the room, or it was coming. One evening we told her that the dinosaurs are dead. It was her first conversation about death**.

- What’s ‘dead’?

- Dead means the dinosaur can’t move, can’t walk. Dead means he can’t talk, or listen, or look. Dead means his body is lying in the ground somewhere, buried, often even crushed to pieces. So he can’t get up and come here.

- But this dinosaur isn’t dead.

- That’s not possible. All dinosaurs are dead. That’s why we name them with a special word: ‘extinct’. ‘Extinct’ means that all the dinosaurs, without exception, are dead. So no dinosaur can come here.

It was that simple:  Amie’s nightmares stopped. So clearly, extinction is a matter of quality (something different), not quantity (not just “bigger”). What makes the passenger pigeon skin different from the robin’s or the shrike’s skins might just illuminate my attraction to these bird skins.


Back at the museum, DH mentioned that scientists are very close to cloning or genetically manufacturing the passenger pigeon. This is called “de-extinction” and Steward Brand’s organization, Revive and Restore, mentioned in my last post, is a big part of that project. Well, I said to DH, these “revived” pigeons, they would die of fright and heartbreak. It is as for the insect egg that lies a hundred years in the soil, that by the perfect circumstance of light and temperature and humidity and ripeness bursts into life, only to find that all the plants it feeds on are long gone.

I’ll not go into my problems with Brand’s essay, “Why revive extinct species,”  which reeks of smokescreens. I’ll just evoke Martha, the passenger pigeon, who was bred into captivity in 1885 in the Cincinnati Zoo, where she died, the last of her species, in 1914. Did she feel lonely? I don’t know, but for a bird that evolved and lived in flocks of over hundreds of millions of birds, her life was at the very least as unnatural as its gets, in zoos.

With Brand’s first “new” bird, we’d be back to that situation.  But, Brand and his colleagues rejoice, not for long! What happened in the past – start with five billion passenger pigeons, hunt them so there are less and less of them, down to one, then none – will be reversed - they’ll be one, then more and more and so on, one presumes, to five billion again (?).

All is reduced to quantities (extinction is a “bigger death”) and after that easily reversed simply by adding something on the other side of the equation. Nature and evolution did the work at the left side, now man will do the work on the right side. Together, they will equalize to nothing. Something will be undone. I want to stress that, that de-extinction is not about adding anything to the world, but about cancelling out, undoing something.

Undoing what? Here’s Brand, in his TED talk, asking how extinction at our hands should make us feel: “Sorrow, anger, mourning? Don’t mourn, organize.”

Mourning is the experience of loss, a relearning of ourselves in a world where something is missing. We don’t mourn the death of a loved one, or the extinction of a species, we don’t even mourn them. We mourn their absence in our world. That is what brings us grief. Brand’s denial of mourning is therefore absolute, for he denies even the loss itself: we will not have lost, he says, it will no longer be missing.  We don’t have to mourn, we just have to make it like it never happened.

How does this reflect in the light of a story told by Weller, in the talk I referred to in my last post, of a man who asked him how he can be done with the grief for his deceased wife? Weller answers that he can’t: “This is your new relationship with your wife. This is the evidence that you chose to love.”


The 11-year-old who find that room at the Museum of Science “creepy” because it is full of death, gets it. The room is full of death and that is why I like it there. Because when I look at the American Robin with the plastic beads for eyes, I recognize Turdus migratorius as well as the fact that it’s dead, and I mourn the  loss of its unique way of being in the world. When I look at the passenger pigeon, I recognize and mourn the loss of its entire species’ unique way of being in the world. And I sit with my grief, accepting that death is the last refuge where the truth can simply offer itself without provoking the impulse to undo it, where I can let things be and accept that it’s not all about me and my species. That is loss, that is grief, and that is love.


- end notes -

 * Killing, whether for food or sport, is a trait humans share with many organisms. Humans are, however, the only species (or mammals, at least) who capture, cage and keep their captives alive. (There are probably insects and fungi out there who capture and keep other specie, like ants farm aphids. If you know of any others, let me know.)

** If you would like to read more about our conversations about death, read herehere and here.


{The following is an offshoot and distraction from another, much more difficult post, which can be read here.}

Via my studies of Stephen Jenkinson I found this talk on grief by Francis Weller,  In it, Weller likens the history of mankind to a 100 foot long rope. The first 99 feet represents humans in nature, hunting, foraging, defending themselves, making fires and clans. The last 10 inches represents agriculture, the last 3/4 inches the industrial age, and the last sliver, the information age. That sliver we call  “normal”  and by doing so, we  condemn ourselves to homelessness and deep, deep grief. The talk is full of gems and I suggest you listen to the whole thing.

Weller quotes Paul Shepard, whose fascinating book, Man in the Landscape, poses two theses that I find plausible and helpful. The first is that there is still, inevitably, a huge presence of that nomadic caveman, that hunter-gatherer in our primitive brains, in our very bodies. Even deeper:

The genes’…. environment extends from the immediate nucleoplasm surrounding them in the cell to the distant stars. It ranges from the colloids and membranes upon which they float to the light from the sun and croaking of frogs.


The idea of “remembering” our life in the trees does not mean recollecting a stream of day-to-day events. The human organism is its own remembering. The emergence of the past into consciousness is inseparable from awareness of ourselves.

Then, not allowing ourselves to engage that part of our identity – by not even making the movements that have kept us alive for millions of years, like throwing a spear or making a fire - we are starving our bodies, our minds, our culture, our world.

Now I understand why Stephen Jenkinson insists (in Homecoming) that the ancestors are still here, very much alive. How, I wondered, without some religious or mystical idea of a heaven or supernatural spirits, none of which I would invoke to explain anything? Well, here it is. My immediate ancestors, just one or two, exceptionally three generations deep, are still “here, alive” mentally, in my mind as memories. But they, and all the others that stand behind them are also literally, presently  alive: in my body, the way my organs and muscles evolved, in my brain, in my genes. Those and they are the immensely long taproot going immensely deep into time, still sucking nutrients from the rich earth and feeding them to me if only I will accept their food, if only I will not starve myself.  If only I remember and celebrate all the ancestors by letting them live in my body: the wild man and woman crawling through the late Pleistocene bottleneck, roving the forest and the grasslands with their fish eye, placing their hand prints in the Chauvet Cave 40.000 years ago, telling stories around the fire. To let them and the verdant world they are at home in “attract me into life,” as Weller says.
Today I recognized some of this when I opened the brand new issue of Orion Magazine and found the essay “The Great Rewilding,” in which George Monbiot writes:

My sense is that people like me are ecologically bored, that we possess the psychological equipment required to navigate a world that is far more challenging than our own—a world of horns and tusks and fangs and claws. Yet our lives have been reduced to the point at which loading the dishwasher seems to present an interesting challenge…  I think all of us have a sense that we’re not quite fulfilling our potential as the human beings who evolved in this really quite thrilling and exciting and dangerous environment, and that our lives are a bit too small and too constrained.

This movement, by the way, has caught the attention of the champions of de-extinction, like Stewart Brand of Revive & Restore, and National Geographic (see Brand’s  TED talk - for context, this the same man who advocates for nuclear energy and GMO’s). In the essay, “Why revive extinct species,” Brand writes: “The prospect of bringing back the aurochs is helping to boost the vibrant European “rewilding” movement to connect tracts of abandoned farmland into wildlife corridors spanning national boundaries.” This is only one of Brand’s misguided or rather misguiding statements, but I’ll not to into that here. Suffice it to say that Monbiot is not a fan - and neither are many who fear that de-exinction projects may undermine goodwill towards conservation of species now on the brink of extinction. This kind of “rewilding”,  then, is about as far from what I am talking about here as can be.
Then, the dream, which I am sure has something to do with all of this.

Several evenings ago, though the wood stove had brought the temperature in our house up to a balmy 67F (it’s usually 60F), I was shivering under my two comforters. “Are you okay?” DH asked, and I assured him I was not falling sick. It was the strangest feeling. Nothing was wrong, but I was cold, like there was a draft everywhere on my bare skin, despite the PJs, the two comforters and the two extra blankets DH piled on top of me.

That night, in that hot cave, I dreamed deeply. In the dream,

Amie, DH and I were with a group of strangers on a guided tour of some kind. We traveled in a plush bus, chatted in cafeteria line-ups, attended workshops. Aside from my daughter and husband, I knew only T, the tour guide/trainer, a woman whom I know as a trainer and love as a friend.  At some point the bus dropped us off at a Kafkaesque city/castle and I got separated from the group.  Running through a dark corridor to catch up, I abruptly came upon a big hole in the ground, an unfathomable deep cuboid of steps around a dark stairwell like the entrance to the Underworld itself. I teetered, in a panic, then discovered I was holding a broom for balance, and considered the slightest desire to fall anyway, but then recovered and stepped back. From there on the dream got darker. I walked around with the sure knowledge that the hole would get me anyway. Finally we all got on the bus to go home. DH, Amie and I were sitting up front so we saw the big river coming up in the flat landscape. The water was very high, almost as high as the road running right beside it, and on its flat surface the ice shone like silver under the sun. We were going too fast, but only we were aware of it. I tried to get T’s attention. I remember well T, standing in the aisle in the back, laughing and chatting, holding on.  Then the bus took the turn onto the river road and missed it. Two wheels touched the ice. A gasping silence fell.  The driver opened the door and DH, Amie and I jumped out onto the road. I looked behind me, the bus’ tires punched through the ice and the bus fell away from me. I remember all those faces staring at me in disbelief, or screaming, fists beating on the windows, and the wide-open hole of the door, empty. They fell away so neatly. The black river swallowed them up. We cried for someone to come out, but no one came out. The ice closed over the water.

On a warm and sunny day last week,  I let the chickens out in the yard. Amie came home from school just then and she joined the flock. For an hour she herded the hens around, nattering and scolding like a mama hen, with some marvelous life lessons (for chickens). What is the difference between needs and wants? She explained it to them. It is thus: If you need something but you don’t want it, it’s always a mistake. If you want something that you don’t need, it could be a mistake. It depends. Luckily, for chickens the factors aren’t too complex. In the end the chickens ran back into the coop out of their own volition, knowing full well what they needed.

Most of the snow melted.

Yesterday a snowstorm blew in and dumped a lot of wet, thick snow. The land is transformed again. The clouds above are fat and fast.


The cold is gone, for now, and there is sun and one can split firewood wearing just a sweater and gather eggs before they freeze. Last week, when it was still bitterly cold, DH, Amie and I bundled up and drove to an old, wooden bridge in town for the unobstructed view of the north. Looking for the Northern Lights. We didn’t see them, but it was magical, standing on the creaking bridge in the silent dark, the frozen, snowed over river (the Sudbury) underneath us, the tree-lined horizon, the crystal clear sky above us, sparkling stars and planets.

Place, our love of our place, is the antidote to the diffusing, confusing, medialized abstraction of globalism. It is the last land that rises above the ocean.

Speaking of geologists:

He dreamed about the subterranean lands he would endeavor to enter in the summer or fall, and of the distant lands he had entered elsewhere, and broken apart. He dreamed of the mineralization that binds sand grains together – sometimes calcareous, other times friable and porous, easily crushed. It was hard for him to imagine the specific processes that had given rise to those individual cementings below” hard to imagine the specific processes that had held an ancient land in place; but that night, in his dreams, he imagined that perhaps those old lands were held in place by a quietness and enduringness – a smoothness of fit. The way rain falls, the way snow falls. The way birds sleep. The way lichens grow in red and blue mosaics across damp boulders and old stone wall. The way a log rots.

The slow moths that emerge from the log’s orange rot.

If wolves howled that night, he didn’t hear them. The snow absorbed everything.

Rick Bass, Where the Sea Used to Be



This is the Riot for Abundance for the month of December 2013,  for the two of us for half of the month, and one for the other half (DH was in Europe for the whole month, Amie and I joined him there in the middle, and as of then we had a friend live at our house). Edson fixed the calculator: all go tither to crunch those numbers! And here’s another fun website for the mathematically inclined: Do the Math.

Gasoline.  Calculated per person. DH was away, and our house sitter is a die-hard biker, so one of our cars sat idle for the entire month, and the other for half of the month. Car-wise, then, we used up 6 gallons pp.  But we did fly: three round-trips to Europe. The Riot calculator doesn’t have air travel in there, so I don’t know how to reckon this in.

6 gallons pp.

14.6% of the US National Average

Electricity. This is reckoned per household, not per person. We cook on an electric stove. According to our solar meter, we produced 11918  kWh since the system was turned on in August 2011 and 70 (seventy!)  kWh over the last month (you can follow our solar harvest live here). That is the least we’ve ever produced. We make that much in two days in Summer! So, December was dark and gloomy and when there was sun it was cold enough to keep the snow and ice stuck to the panels.  As a result, we’ve had to buy 313 kWh from Nstar: our biggest bill yet. The good news is that apparently, the chicken’s water heater, which I installed at the beginning of November and which has been going non stop (and doing a good job), doesn’t seem to make a big dent in our energy consumption.

313 +  70 = 383 kWh per month

21.2 % of the US National Average

Heating Oil and Warm Water. This too is calculated for the entire household. It’s been cold. While our house sitter was at work the oil furnace worked to keep the house at 59F. Since also the solar hot water panels (installed in February) were ice-locked, the furnace also took care of most of the hot water. SunReports, which monitors our solar hot water system, reports that we generated only 53,414 BTUs in December (compare to 440,660 BTUs the month before!). Still, due to there being fewer of us and our house sitter being a kick-ass frugal environmental guy, we used only as much as we did last month, which wasn’t’ too much.

 16 gallons of oil / month

26% of the US National Average

Water. This is calculated per person. We did great!

404 gallons pp. per month

13.5 % of the US National Average

Trash. After recycling and composting this usually comes down to mainly food wrappers.

6 lbs. pp per month

4.4 % of the US National Average 

NOAA predicts -13 F or -25 C for tonight. I’ve been perusing the historical weather data for Massachusetts and that looks like a record cold. If we make that, we beat the low of -12 of 1957. This kind of cold was on my mind when I went out to give the hens a bowl of fresh warm water and a bowl of warm oatmeal, which they devoured. There is no electric heating in their coop, which isn’t insulated, but due to the deep litter method there is some heat (you can feel it when you hold your hand over it) and on cold nights like this, I close the coop hatch.

The powdery snow that fell last night (about a foot) creaked and crinched around my boots. The sun was already low in the sky and the air was dead calm. There was something eerie about it. It is that kind of big freeze that I wonder might set in and never end, not in my lifetime. That makes me half-remember that there’s something I may have to do to make it end, but that I’ve forgotten the old ways of making the sun come up in the morning, of making the world go on, the warmth return. I’m part curious, part terrified.

As I write this, the chickens they are hollering. They holler every evening when the sun sets. I used to think, like most, that they’re claiming their spots on the roost or reporting on their day. This interpretation doesn’t befit this evening, or any evening, come to think of it. I think that instead they’re lamenting the end of the world and voicing their doubt that there is anyone left willing and able to make it go again tomorrow.

Jenkinson says we need people to join the crew of pushing the sun up every day. The chickens are counting on it.

Yesterday night it went down to 9 F (-12.7 C) and tonight they predict 5 F (-15 C), -1 F with windchill. That’s cold. The two inches of snow that remain creak and crunch under your boots. Speaking of which, I shelled out for a good set of boots: MuckBoots, with steel toes. I read some reviews, especially Anna’s on the Walden Effect, and went for it. No more this:

DSCF9863 wet feet, frozen toes

Now I’ve got warm, dry feet in these:


But I am most impressed with my hens. They have no heating, no insulation in their coop, and I leave the little door to the first part of the run (which is predator proof) open at night. They are all healthy and energetic, not even a touch of frostbite on their combs. Unfortunately, yesterday when closing the larger coop (not predator proof, I forgot to check for eggs. So this morning I found this:

DSCF3737frozen egg

We are visiting my family in Belgium, so I’ll be off line for a while. We’ve got a friend house sitting, a marvelous arrangement for both him and ourselves that I might write about later.




 Glue gun where have you been all my life?!

Amie and I have been dreaming up a Tiny House. She would like a house of her own (she just skips the room of her own) and I am always looking for ways to populate the ole homestead in more comfortable ways. We often have lots of guests at the same time, and often guests for a long time as well (months)…

Recently we got the opportunity to think on our Little House a little. For school Amie had to build a model Pilgrim House, following up on their field trip to Plimoth Plantation. She had opted for building a Wanpanoag wetu, but too many students  in her class had done so, so the pilgrim house it was.

DSCF3730We left the other side of the roof open so people can see in

Since DH has been traveling, it was her and me and sometimes a friend in the same predicament. I’ve love every minute of it! It invited lots of interesting conversations. For instance, at first Amie and her friend kept stacking the popsicle sticks on top of each other, like they were building a European house, brick by brick. I kept reminding them of how houses are usually built in North-America, by framing with wood. Why would that be? Perhaps there were not enough trees in Europe? Then, once they figured out how to make sturdy and somewhat straight three-way corners (those lettered blocks in the garden beds), it was like they had just discovered the third dimension, and the houses soared.

Even the discovery of a detail, like how to place clapboards, was great. She was placing them, as she went up, one behind the one below it. I suggested we took a walk around our own house, and then she got it: if she placed them in front as she built up, they would shed the rains instead of funneling them inside. And where are the holes in a chimney so the smoke can escape? And why would the outside door close inward? We looked at our porch door, which is the only outside door that closes outwards, and she remembered immediately that that’s a problem in winter, when snow blocks the door.

We also discussed fences. In her memory of Plimoth she saw that the Wanpanoag village had no fences, not even around the garden, and that the Pilgrim village teemed with them – photos of the place confirmed this. This of course led to a conversation about the cultures behind that. And would she put plastic furniture in her house, or a little electric candle to simulate the fire? No, because they didn’t have those things yet…

DSCF3727You can take off the top floor and look into the ground floor

A wonderful project, with lots of time management and lessons on prioritizing and perseverance in the face of frustration and non-perfection. It made me wonder why the education at our elementary schools, here, is not more project-based. And then, I admit it, there were also Mama’s control issues. I never once said: “Hey, you’re doing that wrong!” Not out loud, anyway. They were all teachable, and often self-taught, moments. But, as a neighbor told me, too late: “You should have just built a house of your own.”

I’m planning to!

We’ll fill up the raised garden beds with potting soil so the blocks don’t show. But it’s alright that the glue shows, and the colored popsicle sticks.  That’s alright.



This is the Riot for Abundance for the months of October and November 2013,  for the three of us plus one (we had friends and family in law staying over and all together they count somewhat for one). Edson fixed the calculator: all go tither to crunch those numbers!

Gasoline.  Calculated per person. Though I’m still driving a bit more due to an uptick in activism-related trips, we did pretty well.

9.2 gallons pp.

22.4 % of the US National Average

Electricity. This is reckoned per household, not per person. We cook on an electric stove. According to our solar meter, we produced 11848  kWh since the system was turned on in August 2011 and 675  kWh over the last two months (you can follow our solar harvest live here). We still owe NSTar nothing, but that’s because we racked up a nice credit. In November we did, however, for the first time since April, consume more than we produced (by 105 kW), as evinced by this crazy informative chart on my bill:


That said, how much did we consume (irrespective of how much we produced)? Well, around 675 +105 kWh = 390 kWh per month.

390 kWh monthly average

21.6% of the US National Average

Heating Oil and Warm Water. This too is calculated for the entire household. It’s been cold, and though we’ve fired up the wood stove, we’ve also had guests, meaning higher thermostat settings and heating of the annex, where the wood heat doesn’t reach. We’ve probably also used oil to heat up some of the hot water, but it’s not possible to calculate how much of that was heated by our solar hot water, which was installed in February. I did get this interesting statistic from SunReports, which monitors our system:

We generated 440,660 BTUs in November and 972,255 BTUs in October.
Since joining, we’ve realized: 5,847,409 BTUs which accounts for

586.12 lbs Coal
726.82 lbs CO2
941.32 miles Driven

So, all in all, we’ve consumed of heating oil 16.5 gallons, which isn’t bad, considering the prevalent low temperatures.

16.5 gallons of oil / month

26.8% of the US National Average

Water. This is calculated per person. We had lots of people but we used very little water.

466 gallons pp. per month

15.5 % of the US National Average

Trash. After recycling and composting this usually comes down to mainly food wrappers.

6 lbs. pp per month

4.4 % of the US National Average