Sign up for our free newsletter
Jennifer Price possesses all the prerequisites for employment as a cultural critic: multiple Ivy League degrees, an appreciation for television and kitsch, and a near-Germanic fondness for capitalized nouns, including “Nature,” “Artifice,” “Taste,” and “Reality.”
When practiced recklessly, however, cultural criticism risks losing its moorings. Price’s new book, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America, exemplifies both the best and worst of cultural speculation. When Price underlies her criticism with solid research in her doctoral field—history—her prose soars like the birds she lovingly documents. But when Price’s discussions become too theoretical, they plummet to earth.
To her credit, Price has organized her book with a pleasing simplicity, covering—episodically but defensibly—a century and a half of American history within five well-defined chapters. The first chapter recapitulates the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the latter half of the 19th century. The second resurrects the largely forgotten tale of how fin de siecle society women shamed their peers into ending the fashionable habit of wearing dead birds as millinery adornments—and how, in so doing, they helped give rise to the environmental movement. The third chapter reviews the cultural history of the plastic lawn flamingo. The fourth dissects how the Nature Company’s marketing genius packages and sells the natural world to willing consumers. And the fifth explores how television shows and commercials in the ’90s have increasingly chosen to appropriate nature as a way to appeal to their viewers’ sensibilities.
Price’s section on the demise of the passenger pigeon is undoubtedly her best. The passenger pigeon, a species by now extinct for more than eight decades, was a far cry from today’s common urban pigeon and, for that matter, from the carrier pigeon, a still-surviving species that transported messages for the military during World War I. The passenger pigeon’s distinction stemmed not from its superior attractiveness or skills but from the species’ habit of arriving en masse. Such occasions, which were most common before the first half of the 19th century, were literally earthshaking events:
They say that when a flock of passenger pigeons flew across the countryside, the sky grew dark. The air rumbled and turned cold. Bird dung flew like hail. Horses stopped and trembled in their tracks, and chickens went in to roost….A typical wild-pigeon roost blanketed hundreds of square miles of forest. The underbrush died, the trees were entirely denuded of their leaves, dung piled up inches deep, and century-old trees keeled over under the cumulative weight of the nine-ounce birds.
The last passenger pigeon—Martha, a resident of Cincinnati’s zoo—died on Sept. 1, 1914. (The species had taken its severest hits during the 1880s and 1890s.) Even with the passage of time and the dimming of generational memories, the dramatic extinction continues to prompt discussion among scientists and historians. Hunting, deforestation, and disease have been offered as explanations; most experts—including Price—would agree that some combination of all three factors was the likeliest cause.
Her mission here is to discern mankind’s specific role in hastening the pigeon’s demise. To her credit, she doesn’t settle for the easy, self-hating view, one encapsulated by the text of a plaque on a passenger pigeon memorial in Wisconsin: “This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.” Price’s strategy is, rather, to ponder what the pigeon “meant” to humans in different historical contexts. Although this sounds suspiciously like prof-babble, Price’s nimble mind and solid investigatory skills redeem her approach. She scours several centuries’ worth of historical records and finds a compelling diversity of human-pigeon interactions. As early as 900 A.D., the Senecas, an Indian tribe in western New York and Pennsylvania, feasted on passenger pigeons, killing them as eagerly and brutally as any of their Anglo successors. However, there was a major difference. The Senecas
ate and thought about nothing but pigeons for weeks, and enjoyed it immensely. A pigeon hunt was a large-scale social affair—not like the fall deer hunt and the maple forest in early spring, when the clans split into families. In fact, the Seneca sometimes used “pigeon time” to conduct tribalwide business, such as the allotment of planting ground to clans. In the evenings, people gathered to sing, dance and tell tales. Hunting pigeons was much more than the simple act of killing and eating pigeons. In Seneca society, too, the hunt was a featured economic, social and political event.
The pigeons, Price reports, also “meant” something important to the Anglo colonists. In “pigeon years,” settlers lucky enough to be visited by a horde of passenger pigeons would be able to shoot, trap, net, or roast alive as many of the birds as they wanted, at least until the horde moved on. For families living one bad harvest away from death, the pigeons were a welcome bit of good fortune. Moreover, as the Senecas had found, pigeon nestings offered good opportunities for community-building: “A waterfowl hunt brought together a few neighbors, but a pigeon hunt, which mobilized an entire county, enacted a more powerfully meaningful story about the social ties that knit these communities together.”
In time, demand for pigeon soared, thanks to both gentlemen who hunted the trapped birds for sport and owners of restaurants, which during the mid-1800s were just becoming well-established as an institution. A widespread taste for passenger pigeon meat (often baked into pies, sometimes with little pigeon feet sticking up through the top as an identification tool) helped create a class of itinerant trappers who worked, for relatively small pay in difficult conditions, wherever the pigeons happened to be roosting. In this way, money was the root of the pigeon’s demise.
Yet Price refuses to chalk up the extinction simply to man’s greed and ignorance. Unlike earlier generations, outsiders could now ride the rails to a pigeon convocation and sell them to speculative brokers, rather than leaving the harvest to a limited number of local citizens. Thus, pigeon trappers became, for the first time in history, completely divorced from the birds’ ultimate consumers; at the same time, the end consumers became completely divorced from the capture of their quarry. So, she contends, the birds didn’t become overharvested because they were valuable; rather, they became indistinguishable commodities, with neither suppliers nor customers willing or able to seize any accountability for their actions.
“The disconnection between meanings and natural history, and meanings and uses, had become very strange and decidedly modern,” Price writes. “Americans had converted the pigeons to cash, shipped the birds far from their oak and beech forests, and transformed them with epicurean visions. And in the course of the journey, pigeons had gone from being the most extraordinary bird on the continent—and in many people’s lives—to passable, ordinary, indistinguishable.”
This was a recipe for disaster (in some ways, quite literally). Moreover, it was a manifestation of the attitude that would shape Americans’ attitudes toward nature for decades to come. The relentless advance of technology eventually divorced all of us from the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the ultraviolet rays we absorb. This is one of the facts that environmentalists, to their credit, seek to remind us of. But Price’s take on this issue is more complicated and nuanced. Her tale is one in which brutal bird slaughterers such as the Senecas and the early colonists come off looking better than the seemingly more humane—yet also more misguided—bird-mourning environmentalists. It’s an original, stereotype-shattering essay.
Unfortunately, this essay also marks the high point of Price’s book. In the next section, she details a mostly forgotten subject—the fight to end the once-fashionable habit of attaching real stuffed birds to ladies’ hats during the late 1800s (a practice that gave new dimension to the notion of a Baltimore Orioles cap). The main actors in Price’s bird-hat saga are upper-class women’s clubs, a now-quaint institution that the author resurrects with gusto. Not only did such clubs provide stifled Victorian-era women with social outlets, they also helped channel their latent political impulses into constructive directions—most importantly for Price, into the nascent environmental movement. It is also true, however, that Price’s clubwomen offered only sympathetic rhetoric and avoided any mention of the less-than-civil behavior of the herons and egrets they sought to protect (which included larger chicks “peck[ing] smaller chicks to death and shov[ing] them from the nest”).
The bird-hat chapter falls just short of its predecessor, mainly because it tends to drag. Still, Price’s attention to history yields benefits. Her detailed research uncovers the valuable legacy of women’s clubs, which, to her, supplied the template for modern government itself—not only on matters of environmental protection but also for social welfare programs and pro-consumer regulation.
By contrast, the final three chapters are decidedly uneven. The chapter on the history of the plastic flamingo begins interestingly enough, with a discussion of 19th-century gardening fashions, and continues with enough dish on plastic lawn ornaments to satisfy most kitsch junkies. Still, Price’s conclusions are unsatisfying. Plastic lawn creatures—”gnomes, flamingos, pietas, Saint Francises and Donald Ducks—emerged as a nadir of the un-Real,” she writes. “As well as being fake, false, nonunique and ungenuine, they transgressed Reality publicly and brazenly, on the actual site of nature itself.”
Pink flamingos ironic? Stop the presses! Yet the following chapter, about the Nature Company and its marketing of the natural world, is even less enlightening, confirming expectations rather than shattering them, as the chapter on passenger pigeons does. The Nature Company, Price concludes, “constitutes a store-size contradiction between how we want to connect to nature and how we actually do, and between what we want Nature to be and what nature actually is.” OK, now tell us something we didn’t know.
Price’s last chapter redeems her observations of modernity somewhat; she chronicles the recent trend in television toward using nature to sell cars, clothes, and even the medium itself. Her musings on the role of nature in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Twin Peaks, and Northern Exposure are especially well-thought-out. Yet even here, Price’s conclusions are muddy and unsatisfying. The lesson is clear: For her next book, Price ought to head right back into the musty library stacks to find undernoticed historical tales. And by all means, she should stay away from the mall. CP