by Denny Olson, Conservation Educator
“Who has the right to decide that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it would be a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight. The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power.”
— Rachel Carson, Author of Silent Spring
“Birds are important because they are a window that mirrors our own humanness. By observing bird behaviors and learning the details of their lives, we learn about ourselves and what it means to be both fully human and fully alive.”
— Grrrl Scientist, Evolutionary Ornithologist and Blogger
“Birds have always been our biological barometers. From the ‘canary in the coal mine’, to weather prediction, documentation of climate change, monitoring habitat health, urban noise, and the introduction of spring.”
— Carla Dove, Forensic Ornithologist, Smithsonian
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all, and sweetest in the gale is heard; and sore must be the storm that could abash the little bird that kept so many warm.”
— Emily Dickinson
It is hard to ignore the long relationship between women, girls and birds. Genevieve Jones was a contemporary of John James Audubon, knew of his work, and decided to augment his paintings with paintings of the nests and eggs of birds. Most critics (including myself) think her art was superior to Audubon’s (and she didn’t have to shoot her subjects), but she died from Typhoid at the age of 32, and her work was less than half done.
Harriet Heminway and Minna Hall were fed up with the late 19th-century feather and plume trade, and when women began to wear entire preserved birds on their heads, took the clairvoyant step of forming the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the very first of hundreds to come, and stopped that practice.
Florence Bailey wrote and illustrated the first bird guide in 1889, forty-five years before the first Peterson field guide. Rachel Carson took the “land ethic” of Aldo Leopold into positive action, originating the concept of environmental connectedness and conservation action by publishing Silent Spring in 1962. She was, of course, considered audacious and socially revolutionary – certainly in part because she was a woman. Meanwhile, Fran Hamerstrom almost single-handedly saved the Greater Prairie Chicken from extinction.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the entire concept of ‘nature study’ was invented and carried by women, primarily Liberty Hyde Bailey and Anna Botsford Comstock. The theme was to make education “direct” by studying nature (accessible and all around us) not books (abstract and indirect). Perhaps consciously, these early women recognized an educational relationship between retention and direct experience, because learning needs to have an emotional component to be long-term. This fit especially well with the approaches of women teachers, and learning styles of girls. The Campfire Girls organization was founded in 1910 as a direct outgrowth of the nature study movement. At the time, men were seen as “object-oriented” (concerned with things) and women.
more “relationship and process-oriented” (concerned with how things fit together).
Social power structures being what they were, the nature study proponents were branded as “overly romantic and sentimental” by male critics. The gender issue was forcibly imposed on the nature study movement in order to make way for specialization and a more mechanized approach to education. After all, it was started and practiced by women.
The specialization into disciplines and sub-disciplines led to amazing advances in technology, medicine, engineering and artificial intelligence – eventually enabling us to land human beings on the moon! It was precious irony that the breakthrough in orbital mathematics was provided by an African-American woman, whose work was accepted grudgingly by the male engineering establishment. (per movie Hidden Figures)
Also ironically, when astronauts did land on the moon, the most poignant images we gathered there were of a little blue ball on the lunar horizon. It was one incredibly unique place – our place – and it was finally seen as small and fragile. Suddenly there was Earth Day, nature centers popping up, and refocused attention to ecology, a science that took all the disparate disciplines and refocused on the connections between those disciplines, and on the consequences of all actions in a world that was finally recognized as seamless. The women of ‘nature study’ were likely dancing in their graves.
So, despite being named after a male, Audubon Societies owe a good share of their existence to forward-thinking and courageous women. And, from what we now (finally) know about the value of big-picture nature education, they were most certainly ahead of their time. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, bonding to the only planet we have – these will be our over-arching survival issues — demanding the big-picture approach to solving. And, in all humility, I do think it will take women “in charge” to fix the mess. You go, Girls.