I see God in birds, and Satan in long words
I do a lot of reading. I’m a reader, what can I say! I read at work, I read when I get home. I read books, I read newspapers, I read blogs, I read magazines. I write about reading magazines. It would only make sense for me to write about what I read in those magazines. And I wanted to! I had a plan and all for a running feature, where I would link to a piece of long form narrative journalism, and highlight the attributes that I consider to be truly masterful. I was going to call it “The Craft.” But then, for all the usual reasons (foremost among them my insecurity about being able to actually comment intelligibly about what makes a piece of journalism actually good), I spiked the project. A secondary reason, though, was the problem of volume. It seemed like every week, I was adding another story or two to the pile of pieces I just had to write about. This led me to doubt my own judgment; ALL of these stories couldn’t be THAT good, could they? Maybe! But the fact remains, I couldn’t have written about one and ignored all the others (and let’s not kid ourselves, precious readers. I just don’t have the discipline to write more than one lengthy post a week about anything, let alone a smart piece of journalism.) So I scrapped the idea.
Then I came across a story that blew me away. The printout came to 22 pages, but by the third one, I knew this story was going to be something special. How did I know? Because it passed what I’m deciding to call, in homage to David Foster Wallace’s opus, the “Infinite Test.” I might be the only person who feels this way, but there are a few reactions that I get when I’m reading a bit of prose. A bad story, I’ll just let go, maybe without even finishing it, because meh. A good story, I’ll blow through as fast as I can, because I want to see how it ends! But a great story? Well, a great story, I’ll read a little slower, draw out a little longer. Partially to savor it, but moreso because I want to spend as much time as I can with more left to read. The piece is called “A Pigeon in Piketon,” by Geoffrey Sea, from the Winter 2004 issue of The American Scholar, and it took me three days to read. On its face, it’s a story about the infamous eradication of the passenger pigeon at the turn of the last century. Sea travels to Piketon, Ohio, where the last passenger pigeon ever seen in the wild was shot on March 22, 1900. A story about the passenger pigeon—a story of hubris and folly—would have been worth reading on its own, and indeed, Sea handles the subject of extinction with the reverence it deserves:
The passing of the passenger pigeon in a cascade of folly, brutality, and denial that stands as the exemplar of extinction made by man is, on the one hand, an episode in discretionary history: a causal chain of casual choices that seemingly could have been broken by any minimally decent decision at any marginally opportune time.
On the other hand, it’s an exercise in predestination . . . When the forest expanse of beech and hemlock and sycamore gave way to defended fields of corn and tobacco, the fix was in—a catastrophe itself bound up with those vast historical complexes that we call the American and Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions. And so we might follow backward, arbitrarily far, the infernal workings of the machinery of fate, until we’d say that the passenger pigeon was damned or (the same thing) doomed before the first bird ever flew.
But when Sea visited Piketon, it wasn’t just as a writer and pigeon historian: it was as a consultant to the union that represented workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, one of the largest facilities for the enrichment of weaponized uranium in the world. With deftness, Sea traces the historical and, for want of a better term, poetic synchronicity between Americans and the passenger pigeon, a species that was wiped clean from the face of the earth at the place where we came closest to planting the seeds of our own destruction.
It’s an incredibly rich story. In the process of telling the twin narratives of the last days of the passenger pigeon and the last days of the Piketon uranium enrichment plant, Sea gives a series of lessons in American history, geology, anthropology, ecology, physics, chemistry, technology, war, and language. I could block quote any of a dozen portions from the story here to illustrate the education that Sea endeavors to provide, but I really think you’re better served coming across them on your own. You might consider this to be a poor sell-job, but if you’ve ever believed me about anything, precious readers, believe me about this: you will learn something by the time you’re done with this story.
If I were to actually give this story the “Craft” treatment, I’d say that what sets “A Pigeon in Piketon” apart is Sea’s facility as a ship’s captain. Over the course of 22 pages, he takes the reader down every possible tributary of history, science, and psychology. The confluence, though, always ends up being the Sargents Grain Mill in southern Ohio, where 10 years ago one of the greatest engines of doom that man has ever envisioned finally wound down, and 100 years before that the only passenger pigeon on earth, in a hail of birdshot, breathed its last.
I dunno, guys. I thought it was a great story. I hope you do too.
“They naturally called it a wild pigeon, as they called us wild men. . . . If the Great Spirit could have created a more elegant bird in plumage, form, and movement, He never did.” —Chief Pokagon
This entry was posted on Monday, August 30th, 2010 at 11:21 pm and is filed under Reading and Writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.