Journal of Writing & Environment

A Tribute On A Monument To The Pigeon

A century after the last one’s death, I strike out in search of a Passenger pigeon. Or at least what’s left of them—a stone monument in Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park. I drive south (spot an eagle, some tree sparrows) until reaching the park’s entrance, which has not been plowed, and poses a challenge for my front wheel drive. The car crawls to a halt near Long Valley Road, not far from an ice-encrusted volleyball net. The park is a freshly shaken snow globe—beautiful but desolate, not a person or pigeon anywhere.

My pilgrimage was inspired by Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold, whose 1946 remarks, “On a Monument To The Pigeon,” had—upon my first read—aroused within me such an unrelenting guilt that I found myself re-sorting the recycling bin three times through that week. Maybe it wouldn’t bring back any Passenger pigeons, but I’d sleep a little easier.

Once I arrive at my intended destination, I realize I’ve hardly arrived there at all. I don’t dare drive down the accurately named Long Valley Road so I get out and walk, instead. The problem, though, is that I’d been too cheap to pay for the full-day park pass, opting for the hour-long rate, instead. Which means I have to hustle, really hustle, or I might just miss my monument.

If you’ve never seen a grown man sprint through the trees, binoculars bouncing, I highly recommend it. That is, assuming you are not that grown man. Thankfully, save for a rabbit and a couple of deer, my tracks are the only tracks in the snow.

A few steps shy of experiencing a coronary event, I at last reach my monument. I recognize it from pictures—a miniature monolith upon which rests a plaque featuring an engraving of our departed bird. And just below, a line that will soon have me absolving myself once more in the recycling bin: “The species became extinct,” it reads, “through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.”

I am still breathless, frantic, checking my watch; my time here, I know, is short. But so was the Passenger pigeons’, once we began alighting their sky with our nets and our smoke and our bullets.

From my place on the bluff, I am at last eye-level with the birds. Though there are no birds, not today. What better reminder, I think, of our own mortality than a sky with no wings on the wind?

Ten minutes later, I retrace my tracks through the snow. Still, no one is anywhere—no people, no pigeons, certainly no snow plows. The solemnity afforded by the forest provides little comfort, just further proof of what I’d feared—that our past transgressions were coming home to roost; the echo of the emptiness is deafening.

The Unnatural History of Wisconsin’s First Mountain Lion

We’ve often searched the mountains for mountain lions, though perhaps we should’ve checked the bar, instead. Which is, in fact, where Wisconsin’s first (and for some time only) mountain lion was eventually found. The creature had been killed in Appleton in 1857, when a farmer lost a colt near Ballard Road. Upon his retrieval efforts, farmer and feline came face-to-face, a standoff that ended with a bullet.

Fast forward to Lawrence College, where the dead-eyed creature prowled the biology building for years, his skin clinging to a manikin. Decades passed, the mountain lion lost his luster, and one day, while caught up in the throes of spring-cleaning, an overzealous janitor tossed him to a trash heap.

It was only the lion’s temporary home, and thankfully, before the trash men came, someone had the good sense to salvage him from that heap. Unfortunately, that same someone also had the bad sense to display him as a bit of kitsch in a northern Wisconsin bar.

It was an indignity that could not stand for 20th century naturalist A.W. “Bill” Schorger, who, upon learning of the mountain lion’s death from an archived newspaper report, set out to retrieve his remains. Schorger—the world’s expert on the extinct Passenger Pigeon—knew the consequences of letting something so rare slip away. By the mid-1950s he’d tracked him to the bar, opened his wallet wide, then left that place with a mountain lion in tow.

I can’t say for certain that the lion sat shotgun that day, though I hope so. And he might’ve, because at last he had a keeper who cared for him. I prefer the version of this story where Schorger bear hugs his lion all the way to the car, then buckles him in as the barflies watch on; the one where, on their drive home, Schorger assures his lion that it won’t hurt one bit when they strip his skin from the manikin, as they scrub the smoke away.

Schorger reduced his lion to skin and skull, then placed him in a cabinet in the zoology building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It seemed the safest place for a long dead lion, and the place where I’d find him myself half a century later, his ancient fur rumpled but clean.

As I stroke him, it’s hard to imagine that this is the skin that once shrouded the animal that met his fate on Ballard Road; the one who was tossed to a trash heap, displayed in a bar, then rescued by a man in need of something to save. Each of his deaths was the result of a single misstep: the audacity to transcend one’s habitat.

Others lions have left the mountains since, the most famous of which cut through Wisconsin in 2010 during a 1500-mile migration west.

What if, I think, the latter lion was finishing the former’s route? Skulking through the midnight snow until the night his eyes caught in the headlights.

The driver was not Schorger. He never stood a chance.