The bed is pushed up against the wall. We are kneeling on the bed and gazing out the window at something called a “front yard.” Thanks to my dad’s leading men in combat in the Pacific Theater, and the GI Bill, we are able to have this front yard. I wasn’t confronting a slag heap, hundreds of feet high, that glowed blue day and night. I wasn’t choking on smoke and sulfur. My family has escaped Scranton’s coalmines. I have this yard that smells of grass. Better-off New Jerseyans would laugh at the postage-stamp tininess of our pride and joy. But this yard is sports field enough for the three smallest of us to play color tag. It is capacious enough to accommodate my peasant-born mother’s love of green and growing things. There is an azalea, a pink rose of Sharon, red roses, bergamot, lavender, and two Norway spruce.
I am young. How young? I don’t know, but I’m about the size where any adult could pick me up and sling me on to his shoulders and carry me around, and never mind the weight. My mother is young, too. This is the last day she’ll be young in my memories.
There are creatures scattered across the grass. “Sparrows,” my mother says. I am in breathless wonder. “Sparrow,” I repeat to myself, inside my head, not daring to speak aloud the word that unlocks the mystery of these creatures bobbing lightly. And then they lift, take flight, and disappear.
“In the beginning was the Word,” wrote Saint John. “And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “All things were made by” this Word, and without this Word, “was not any thing made that was made.” According to the second chapter of Genesis, the very first thing a human being ever did was name all of God’s creation.
“Sparrows.” No longer remote, unknowable, mysteries. They had a name, and, presumably, like all named things, they had jobs and habits and likes and dislikes. I could discover all these because I had the magic of the word. You couldn’t say to someone, “Blurry brown things on lawn.” And even to say only that much you’d have to have words. With “sparrow,” in your toolkit, you could discover everything that was known about sparrows. And you could discover new things and share that knowledge with others.
Depending on criteria, that is, if you want to count birds that show up every couple of years or so or just the birds who regularly nest here, there are between seven-hundred-and-some and nine-hundred-and-some bird species to be found in North America. Here’s an amazing fact: the English language has outfitted every single one with a name. Not amazed by that? You should be. I’ve spoken a couple of languages, one an African language, Sango, and one an Asian one, Nepali, that can’t name every bird species in the lands where those languages are spoken. These languages can’t even name not just every individual species, they can’t even name every family. I tried to talk to educated, science-oriented Nepalis about birds, and I did have good dictionaries, but words for less common, less obvious birds were remote or non-existent. In these conversations, we hit upon no word at all, to differentiate, not just one species from another, but, in some cases, an entire family of birds from another. Sango can name only a fraction of bird species in the Central African Republic. To talk birds, you have to borrow many words from French, and even then, you’d have to resort to scientific nomenclature.
Americans who aren’t birdwatchers, like Central Africans and Nepalis, are impoverished by their own lack of vocabulary. Americans will call a turkey vulture an “eagle.” Vultures and eagles aren’t just different species, they are in different families. That’s an understandable mistake for someone who isn’t a birder to make; vultures and eagles are both big, dark, living things high up in the sky. I look up at that dark dash hundreds of feet above Paterson and note the dihedral posture of the wings and the bird teetering from side to side, and recognize a turkey vulture. On another day I see big, broad wings held in a horizontal posture and a bird that appears motionless in air and I recognize a bald eagle. Civilians will call a heron a “crane.” To me, that’s fingernails-on-blackboard. Herons are common birds that fly with bent necks; cranes are rare birds that fly with straight necks. Every child should know that! It makes me crazy when someone wants to get all Edgar Allen Poe and he calls a crow a “raven.” I think calling a crow a “raven” should be at least a misdemeanor.
The difference between one bird name and another may seem trivial to civilians, but these differences mean everything to conservation. There are about fifty-three species of warbler in North America. They are almost all small, colorful birds that feed on insects in high treetops. Every spring Garret Mountain in Paterson is populated by birders, rising before dawn, delaying work, traveling miles, and craning their necks for hours, trying to differentiate between a yellow warbler and a Wilson’s warbler.
Here’s why the difference matters. Each species works its own niche. Cerulean warblers’ scientific name encapsulates their great beauty and their eating habits that help to preserve the trees on which they feed. Setophaga cerulea means “heavenly-blue moth-eater.” Ceruleans prefer to feed and nest in “white oak, cucumber magnolia, bitternut hickory, and sugar maple.” They eat “flies, beetles, weevils, and caterpillars,” the very insects that feed on those particular trees. Cerulean warblers are endangered. The knowledge of what makes this warbler different from another warbler will help to preserve them. To protect these birds, you wouldn’t just plant any tree. You’d plant the trees they prefer.
The point is not that every American knows the names of nine hundred species and can differentiate them. The point is that if an American cares a lot about birds, and wants to watch them, discuss them with others, and, most importantly, protect them here in the Anthropocene epoch, when human choices determine which species survive and which disappear forever to extinction, English, unlike most of the world’s languages, provides the linguistic tools to further those loves and that life work. Think about how far an engineer could advance his plans if he and his colleagues were limited to communicating in a language that lacks the words “gear,” “lever,” “flange,” and “piston.” He could be the greatest engineer since Archimedes, but before he could erect another Wonder of the World, his first task would have to be coining words. Words are magic.
Some birds are named for their song. The grasshopper sparrow’s song is an insect-like buzz; thus he is the grasshopper sparrow. The bobolink is said to sing “bob o Lincoln.” Chickadees say “chick a dee dee dee.” Whippoorwills say “whip or will!” As for kiskadees, ils parlent Francais. “Kiskadee” sounds like the French “qu’est-ce-qu’il-dit,” or “What is he saying?”
Some names communicate more than one fact. The ruddy turnstone is ruddy colored and it turns stones over to find prey hiding beneath. The belted kingfisher feeds on fish. Her plumage includes a rusty “belt” across her middle. The yellow-bellied sapsucker has a yellow belly and it sucks sap.
The linguistic richness of bird nomenclature reveals much about development of the English language and also about human perception. The names go back centuries and sometimes millennia. How humans, centuries ago, named birds, tells us what these humans were looking at and thinking about, what humans were valuing and what humans were ignoring, and what humans were completely misunderstanding, to their own detriment.
Forty-six percent of the world’s population speaks an Indo-European language as a first language. Millions more speaks one as a second language. Six-thousand-five-hundred years ago, on Eastern European steppes, the cultural ancestors of these billions of living people spoke something called Proto-Indo-European. The sun never sets on speakers of descendant languages of Proto-Indo-European. China has a proud, ancient, and continuous culture, in many cases very different from the culture of the West. Even in China, though, an Indo-European language exercises influence. “It’s hard to exaggerate the role English has played in changing China’s social, cultural, economic and political landscape. English is almost synonymous with China’s reform and opening-up policies, which transformed an impoverished and hermetic nation into the world’s second-biggest economy,” the New York Times reported in 2021.
Some of the words we use for birds are ancient. These words, or their ancestors, have been spoken by human mouths for perhaps six thousand years. At some point one of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European took time out from herding sheep and cows, domesticating horses, capturing slaves, and smelting copper and tin to cast bronze, and noticed a small, drab bird that knows how to sing. Ever since, we have had the word for “thrush.” “Goose” is said to be the oldest bird name. There are “goose” cognates in Proto-Germanic, ancient Sanskrit, and in my last name, meaning “little goose.”
Some of the words we use for birds are like shards of pottery found in an archaeological dig. These words meant something in the past but that meaning has been discarded in the rush toward the future. We turn these artifacts over in our hands and struggle to fathom what they meant to our ancestors.
What, exactly, is a “bunting”? A “start”? A “chat”? An “indigo bunting,” clearly, is deep blue. A “snow bunting” is going to be white, of course. A “painted bunting” is multicolored. But what is a “bunting”? “Bunting” is of Medieval origin; it may come from the Welsh for “big-assed.” The twentieth-century produced Sir Mix-A-Lot, a rapper who confessed, “I like big butts.” The Middle Ages gave us a Welshman who looked at small, colorful songbirds and focused exclusively on their rumps when christening them “buntings.” Similarly, the wheatear is not a bird that listens to wheat. Rather, his name comes from “white arse.”
The redstart presents a similar dilemma. Clearly, the thing is red, but a red what is a “start”? “Start” goes back to Old English, when it meant “tail.” A yellow-breasted chat is, of course, yellow, but what is a “chat”? It’s a talkative bird, and it’s been called a “chat” since the 1690s. “Curlew” might come from an old French word for “running,” though, truth to tell, curlews are not the best runners; think only of the roadrunner, nemesis of Wile E. Coyote. Whimbrels may have been named for what humans hear as a “whimper,” for their plaintive call. The very simple one-syllable bird name, “jay,” as in blue jay, may go all the way back to the name Gaius, common in the Roman Empire. Orioles share with the word “ore” a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “gold.” Loons are supremely elegant birds; their exquisite black and white plumage puts the priciest red-carpet tuxedo to shame. But loons are almost completely aquatic; they can barely walk on land. Humans are terrestrial, so we judged the loon, not on its ability to dive two-hundred-fifty feet and stay underwater for five minutes. Rather, we uncharitably dubbed these master anglers “loon,” related to “lummox,” or “clumsy.”
And then there is the titmouse. Go ahead, make the predictable jokes. But please consider that “titmouse” has an interesting etymology. Take it all the way back to its Proto-Germanic roots, and you get two words meaning “small”: tit and mase. “Mase” became extinct, so speakers stopped saying “mase” and started saying “mouse,” a still living word. The titmouse is a tiny, or “small, small” bird. That’s how speakers of Old English, with a more limited vocabulary than ours, communicated the tiny size of the titmouse – through repetition of the words they had on hand: “small, small.” Old English had a vocabulary of only about 60,000 words. Today’s English has about a million words. We no longer have to repeat words for emphasis. The question is, though, how to pluralize titmouse? Purists insist on “titmouses”; more relaxed persons say “titmice.”
Not only does every North American bird have an English name; each one has a scientific name. These names often combine Latin and Greek. The first term is the genus, that is, the other living things to which the bird or other life form is most closely related. The second term is the species, the unique name for a unique life form. Humans are Homo sapiens from the Latin words for “man” and “wise.” We are related to extinct species like the Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus.
If you have ever lived anywhere in the contiguous United States, you have almost certainly heard a killdeer’s insistent call, “kill deer!” Their name, Charadrius vociferus, takes us all the way back to Ancient Greece, where a “kharadrios” was a bird that nested in river beds. Nowadays killdeer may nest on the flat rooftops of big box stores. These roofs often have gravel covers; the gravel mimics the gravel of a riverbed. “Vociferus,” the killdeer’s species name, from the Latin for “voice,” is a reference to the volume and frequency of their “kill deer!” call.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a reading list and book club staple. Mockingbirds are real creatures and they really are amazing songsters who imitate the songs of every bird they hear. Thus their name is Mimus polyglottos, or multilingual mime. And then there is perhaps the most gorgeous scientific name of all, Aix sponsa, for the resplendent wood duck. Their scientific name translates to “waterfowl in wedding raiment.”
The yellow-breasted chat’s scientific name evokes human cognition as well as perception. Icteria virens is a reference to the chat’s coloration. “Icteria” is from the Greek, not just for the color yellow, but also for jaundice. In The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer describes a Hindu ceremony. A priest washes a jaundiced patient while three captive yellow birds are tied to the patient’s bed. The priest would verbally “banish” the yellow color, and illness of the patient into the bodies of the yellow birds.
Here’s one more bird name story, and after this I promise I’ll stop. The evening grosbeak is an eye-poppingly gorgeous bird, especially when seen against snow, and it often visits feeders in winter. Evening grosbeaks have a chrome yellow swoosh above their eyes, yellow breasts and back, black and white wings, and black tails. Their seed-crushing beaks are large, conical, and the color of ivory. Those beaks are so strong they can break open cherry pits that require 125 pounds of pressure. So “grosbeak” – from the French for “large beak” – makes sense. But how about the “evening” part of their name? Where did that come from?
The story begins on April 7, 1823, in what is now Michigan, when an Ojibwa lad shot a bird dead with a bow and arrow.
A year earlier, in 1822, Henry Schoolcraft began working as the U.S. Indian Agent in this boy’s area. Schoolcraft was one of those tireless, industrious polymaths of the founders’ generation who made America possible. He was an explorer, author, linguist, geographer, geologist, and ethnologist. In 1832, he would mount an expedition to the source of the Mississippi River. Of that expedition, Schoolcraft wrote, “Congress … passed an act for vaccinating the Indians. This … enabled me to take along a physician and surgeon … Dr. Douglass Houghton, of Fredonia, who, in the discharge of it, was prepared to take cognizance of the subjects of botany, geology, and mineralogy.” It wasn’t enough for Houghton to be a physician capable of vaccinating thousands of Indians against smallpox. Like so many in that era, Houghton also had to be a polymath, who would take note of plants and rocks.
In 1851, Schoolcraft would begin publishing a six-volume Indian Tribes of the United States. In 1823, during his work in Michigan, he married Jane Johnston, also known as Bamewawagezhikaquay, meaning, in the Ojibwa language, “Woman of the Sound that the stars make Rushing Through the Sky.” Schoolcraft and his wife published their literary works together. Jane Johnston Schoolcraft would come to be known as “the first Native American literary writer, the first known Indian woman writer, the first known Indian poet, the first known poet to write poems in a Native American language, and the first known American Indian to write out traditional Indian stories.”
Schoolcraft let it be known among the Indians that he wanted to study local flora and fauna. The young Ojibwa archer brought the dead bird to Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft sent the specimen to the naturalist William Cooper of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York. Schoolcraft called the bird by its Ojibwa name, “paushkundamo,” or “berry-breaker.”
While the Ojibwa did have a name for the evening grosbeak, it’s safe to assume that tribes to the east did not. Evening grosbeaks, previously a western species, only began to move east in the 1850s, possibly because settlers planted box elder trees. Settlers chose box elders because they grow quickly in newly settled areas and are drought and cold hardy. Evening grosbeaks like box elders because “the abundant seeds of the box elder persist on the tree through the winter, providing a stable food supply.”
Around the time that Schoolcraft sent the specimen to Cooper, Schoolcraft was visited by Major Joseph Delafield. Delafield was in Michigan establishing the border with Canada. Delafield was also a soldier, lawyer, diplomat, author, businessman, mineral collector, and map-maker. Listen, is it just me, or do you shrink when you read the biographies of America’s founding generation? They got so much done, without electricity, indoor plumbing, and only goose quills as pens! Delafield was born in 1790; one of his grandsons became president of the Bank of America and died in 1976 – a very long-lived legacy. Delafield and Schoolcraft shared notes about the paushkundamo. Delafield moved on to continue his border-establishing work.
One night, Delafield was camped in a “dense cedar swamp northwest of Lake Superior.” He saw more of the paushkundamo birds that Schoolcraft had introduced to him. The birds’ “mournful cry about the hour of my encamping [which was at sunset] attracted my attention … this bird dwells in such dark retreats, and leaves them at the approach of night.” He sent this observation to William Cooper, the New-York-City-based naturalist to whom Schoolcraft had previously sent the specimen collected by the Ojibwa boy. Cooper, attentive to Delafield’s notes, named the specimen “Fringilla vespertina,” or evening finch, which is a lovely name, but wrong.
Evening grosbeaks, contrary to Delafield, are not crepuscular; they are diurnal, that is, active during the day. Ornithologists have been noticing the incorrectness of Delafield’s observation for a long time. The name lingers, though.
This story encapsulates many aspects of science. A polymath hired as an “Indian Agent,” Henry Schoolcraft, is also a naturalist, and wants to catalog every life form he can. Native people bring him birds, plants, flowers, frogs; he records them all. He is in touch with others so committed. Observations are made; some are wrong. Future observers correct them.
This is one example of how nine hundred species of birds got their names, and how those names, images, and life stories came to be recorded in field guides for enthusiastic amateurs like me. One observer after another, some trained scientists, some dedicated amateurs, observed birds, talked about birds, and shared their specimens and their observations with others, hundreds of miles away. They created records. They invited feedback and correction. They housed collections and archives, open to others for study. What we call birds, what we know about birds, didn’t just appear out of thin air. It was produced through hard, disciplined, continuous, shared work.
Schoolcraft was described as a man of “insatiable curiosity.” Schoolcraft was a man; I’m a woman. He lived in the nineteenth century; I live in the twenty-first. But I, too, am intensely curious. In a lot of life, I have been punished for my “insatiable curiosity.” “You shouldn’t ask that; it’s not polite … You don’t want to know; it’s too upsetting … You can’t say that; it will ruffle feathers … Oh, I wish you’d just shut up.” In science, the insatiably curious, no matter their gender, age, or ethnicity, are brothers and sisters. You can ask questions. You can ruffle feathers. The process begins with names and naming.
To name something accurately is to perform a risky, courageous act. Courageous? Yes. Call a turkey vulture a “bald eagle” and birdwatchers will humiliate you so mercilessly you never repeat the error. Take the same process of accurately naming and perform it in relation to human society. Accurately naming includes some and excludes others. The word “woman” for example, applies to some humans, and not to others. Using the word “woman” accurately today may well get you fired from your job; may well get you death threats.
I first learned of the Woke assault on birdwatching back in 2014. “National Geographic Alleges that Birdwatching Is Racist,” was my first, and, I naively thought, my final attempt to address the hysteria. The accusations of racism have only grown since then.
Not just birdwatching is racist. In the 2021 article, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Camping,” Elizabeth Segran reports that “racism” and “colonialism” have made it impossible for non-whites to camp. “The Great Outdoors Was Made for White People,” reported The Nation, also in 2021. On June 18, 2023, Char Adams at NBC News alleged that black people who attempt to camp require protection from “Trump flags flying everywhere.” Those frightened by Trump flags have joined “The Outdoorsy Black Women” network, with fifteen chapters nationwide. Adams reports that her own family and friends dismiss camping as “white people stuff.”
Hiking is racist. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Hiking” was the headline of a 2016 Sierra Club article. “Decentering Whiteness in Hiking and Fostering Inclusivity Outdoors” appeared in January, 2023. “White People Like Hiking” was a peer-reviewed, 2016 article.
Kayaking is racist. “If you Paddle a Canoe, You Might Be Racist?” outdoors enthusiasts asked after Professor Misao Dean alleged that kayaking and canoeing are cultural appropriation. Hunting is racist. “Is Hunting Too White?” hunters asked in 2019. “Where Are All the Hunters of Color?” The Nature Conservancy asked in 2022. “Notes From an Angry Black Hunter: Guns, Genocide, and the Stolen Ground You ‘Own'” is a rant from a self-described “Angry Black Hunter” who is sick to death of America and Americans because “in the United States, the story of the land is written in the blood of native people and centuries of forced labor by kidnapped Africans.”
Fishing is racist. Angling Trade is “Reading the Water for Racism in Fishing,” according to a 2020 article. The organization entitled Brown Folks Fishing promoted the Angling for All Pledge. “White males” choose “racist” names for fish, scholars at the University of California, Davis, reported in 2021.
Environmentalism, the very effort to preserve the environment, is racist. The New Yorker exposed “Environmentalism’s Racist History” in 2015. “The Environmental Movement Is Very White; These Leaders Want to Change That,” National Geographic mourned in 2020.
Walking your dog is racist. “Every Dog Walk Is an Opportunity for Casual Racism,” Medium reported in 2020. “Being black in America means having an ‘Is This Racist’ algorithm running in the recesses of our minds. This process is carried out by the part of our brain that manages breathing and heartbeat,” wrote Shane Paul Neil, who relates dog walking to white supremacy. In Mother Jones’ 2020 piece “Let’s Make Dog Parks Less Racist,” black woman Jamilah King writes, ” I hate most dog parks: They’re so unbearably, unapologetically white … I started asking friends … if they went to dog parks. Two were Black, one was Puerto Rican. Every single person said they just didn’t feel comfortable. It was always too white.” And of course your dog is racist; black dog experts share their wisdom here.
If this is all just too much, and you just want to go out under the night sky and gaze up at the stars, just acknowledge that you are racist. The term “black hole” racializes astronomy, Cornell University teaches its students. Astrophysics is racist according to Professor Natalie Gosnell. Sky and Telescope did its part by voicing “unequivocal support for Black Lives Matter.” Because of the obvious racism inherent in stargazing, “It’s no secret that backyard astronomers are overwhelmingly white,” Sky and Telescope confessed.
If you in your white fragility are so overwhelmed by being forced to confront your inner systemic racist, and you just want to retreat to your home and focus on your garden – yes yes you know what I’m going to say, don’t you? GARDENING IS RACIST. “Weeding Out Horticulture’s Race Problem: Even in the Garden, There’s Bigotry to Be Found,” The Guardian revealed in 2020. Gardeners are “seemingly friendly and mild-mannered.” Only a naive fool would be taken in by that facade. In 2014, a gardeners’ radio show, “Gardeners’ Question Time,” was revealed to be “‘layered with, saturated with, racial meanings’ … gardening and its lexicon are vehicles for racism and nationalism … According to Dr. Ben Pitcher … the use of common gardening terms like ‘soil purity,’ ‘native species,’ and ‘non-native (or ‘invasive’) species’ encourages racist, xenophobic attitudes.” Garden plants are racist. Wisteria, a popular flowering vine, has been condemned as racist.
And of course birdwatching is racist. To remedy birdwatching’s white supremacy, names had to be expunged, and replaced with glorious, new, Woke names. Birds, you see, were named by or after white people. Zach Schwartz-Weinstein writes, “The ornithological practice of naming species after dead white people … is fundamentally an index of ornithology’s complicity with the history of European imperialism and settler colonialism.” “Inside the Movement to Abolish Colonialist Bird Names,” cheered Outside magazine in 2021. Stripping the names of birds would make racist birdwatching “inclusive,” reported National Public Radio in 2021: “To Make Birding Inclusive, Some Birds Will Need New Names Without Colonial Roots.”
The Woke erasers of history started with the McCown’s longspur. Back in 2021, in Front Page Magazine, I wrote that the McCown’s longspur, a small bird with a limited range “is named after John P. McCown, the man who first collected a specimen for scientific study. McCown was also a Confederate general, and, thus, his natural history work must be expunged. McCown also served in the 1858 Utah War against Mormons. No one has a problem with McCown fighting Mormons. In the Woke ethical economy, Mormons are expendable.
In fact, McCown was ‘indifferent to Confederate success.’ He wanted to retire from the military and ‘go home and plant potatoes.’ The Confederacy relieved McCown of one command, called him back, and then court-martialed him. In turn, McCown denounced the Confederacy as ‘a damned stinking cotton oligarchy … gotten up for the benefit of Isham G. Harris and Jefferson Davis and their damned corrupt cliques.’ Isham G. Harris was the Tennessee governor who dragged Tennessee into the Confederacy, against the wishes of the majority of the population, who voted to remain in the Union.”
John P. McCown was the camel’s nose under the tent. It was easy to write him off as evil because he was a “Confederate general,” and to memory-hole his condemnation of the Confederacy and his contributions to ornithology. The McCown’s longspur was low-hanging fruit. The bird breeds in the Great Plains of Canada, Montana, and Wyoming. It’s easy to change the name of a bird with whom few people have any emotional relationship. The Woke no doubt also want to change the name of the Northern Cardinal, a bright red bird named after the color of the vestments of the “princes of the church.” I can hear the Woke now. “This bird is named for two thousand years of Catholic oppression! We must rename it the ‘Bolshevik banner bird!'” They want to do that, but they know doing that now is too risky, so they began with an easy target.
George Orwell emphasized the importance of language to totalitarians. “The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.” Language is used to redefine reality. “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
Leftist totalitarians had begun raping language centuries before Orwell. The Terror wasn’t just about murdering tens of thousands of people. It was also about murdering language. There would be no more lundi, Monday. There would be “primidi.” There would be no more janvier, or January. There would be “Nivose.” Notre Dame de Paris became a “Temple de la Raison” or a “Temple of Reason.”
Those changing the name of the McCown’s longspur insist that their goal is to make birding’s future more inclusive. They are lying. Their goal is power. Milan Kundera, survivor of the Soviet Empire, wrote, “People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of interest to no one. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.”
Now that John P. McCown’s historic contribution to ornithology has been erased, Woke’s war on birding is moving on to larger targets. The Woke are shoving down the memory hole John James Audubon himself. Audubon was a giant. He was a groundbreaking ornithologist. His contribution to the field cannot be overstated. Woke, like a parasitic wasp, has deposited its eggs into the body of the Audubon Society. Woke larvae are now eating the Audubon Society from the inside out. Accounts of the Audubon Society’s destruction by Woke can be read here, here, and here.
Woke doesn’t just demand the changing of bird names. It demands the compete erasure of the man whose name stands for ornithology, birdwatching, and environmental protection. Local chapters are dropping the name “Audubon.” The New York City and San Francisco branches have voted to memory-hole the name “Audubon.” It goes without saying that none of the Woke revisionists has ever contributed as much to birding, to science, to art, or to conservation as the man they wish they could un-person forever.
My ancestors gave our name, Slav, to the international word, “slave.” We were merchandise, in Muslim Spain, the Muslim Middle East, and North Africa. We were slave laborers, more recently, under the Nazis. In this country, American racist Madison Grant described us as slaves. Grant’s testimony to Congress facilitated the immigration acts that shut the door on my mother’s relatives trying to enter this country. Hitler called Madison Grant’s work his “bible.” Henry Fairfield Osborn claimed, in the pages of the New York Times, that Polish people of achievement were not Polish at all, but were racially superior “Nordics” who had gotten lost in Poland.
Grant and Osborn were two of the most important names in the sciences in the early twentieth century. Madison Grant helped to prevent the extinction of the buffalo and of the redwood tree. He helped to create the Bronx Zoo, an institution I cherish and where I once worked. Henry Fairfield Osborn was president of the Museum of Natural History for twenty-five years. Every New York City area kid, like me, who loves nature loves this museum.
Henry Schoolcraft, who collected the first evening grosbeak to be scientifically studied and classified, sounds like someone whose papers the Woke would approve. He married and promoted a prominent Native American author. He lead an expedition that inoculated thousands of Native Americans against smallpox. Think again. The Woke will bury Schoolcraft, too.
After Schoolcraft’s first wife died, he married Mary Howard. Mary Howard Schoolcraft, like Henry’s first wife, was a writer, but with a difference. Mary was a Southerner and an apologist for slavery. Clearly, Henry Schoolcraft was a flawed human being. Clearly, we must rename the evening grosbeak, just as we had to rename the McCown’s longspur.
I love and honor my Polish and Slovak slave, peasant, and serf ancestors. They bequeathed many invaluables to me, including my life. They could not give me birdwatching. To be a birdwatcher, I needed binoculars. Binoculars are the fruit of centuries of scientists, including Dutch, Italians, and Germans. I needed a field guide. American women with names like Parsons and Merriam pioneered field guides. Chester Albert Reed and Roger Tory Peterson developed the concept. I needed nature writing. Nature writing, like field guides, like binoculars, is largely the product of people of northwestern European descent, people like Gilbert White, William Bartram, Charles Darwin, Susan Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson. I needed preserved natural places. Again, the preservers of natural places in the US have largely been people of northwestern European descent.
Woke claims it erases history that is not “inclusive.” By Woke’s criteria, birding’s history is exclusive of me. I can’t think of a single Polish or Slovak peasant or immigrant who made a significant contribution to the invention of optics, or fieldguides, or the preservation of landscapes. Woke’s identity politics are wrong. This history is inclusive of me. Insatiably curious people; people who love nature; people dedicated to its preservation; people who call things by their true names: I am one with them. I don’t need Roger Tory Peterson to be renamed Roger Tory Peterson-ski to recognize him as my brother.
People of my ethnicity did contribute to birding for me. Through the GI Bill, my dad was able to buy a house with a lawn and a bird feeder. Unlike him, I didn’t grow up in “Skunk Hollow” outside Scranton, on top of a slag heap, sulfur filling my nose. My mother was a brilliant, bilingual woman who insisted on teaching me words. My brother gave me my first pair of binoculars. My older sister drove me to Great Swamp. I am so grateful.
Madison Grant, who described my immigrant ancestors as subhuman “sewage” fit to be “obliterated” incapable of civilization, who voiced the philosophical foundation for Hitler’s inhuman crimes, also preserved nature I cherish. I would not remove one jot or tittle from this history. Truth is higher than my grievances.
My ancestors were serfs, too busy with bare survival to name and vivify the life stories of nine hundred species of birds. People like John James Audubon, Henry Schoolcraft, and John P. McCown bequeathed birdwatching to me. They bequeathed words to me. They bequeathed images and life histories and thousands of years of human observations. The Woke, envious, spiteful, manipulative, petty destroyers, have given me nothing of value. I am eternally grateful to imperfect men.
Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery