Commenting on the extinction of the Great Auk, the recently deceased Peter Matthiessen wrote: “It was a living creature who died needlessly . . . extinct by the hand of man . . . . The finality of extinction is awesome, and not unrelated to the finality of eternity.” Extinction is indeed the death of birth, the impossibility that a unique niche on the ladder of life can ever reproduce itself.
I was privileged last night, along with many others, to listen to the remarkably intelligent, informative and persuasive remarks of six panelists speaking about the possible “rebirth” of an extinct subspecies, the heath hen, a bird once so abundant colonial indentured servants refused to work if fed the birds too often. By the early 1930s, the heath hen had, in fact, become extinct, the last one disappearing here on Martha’s Vineyard, despite a heath hen reservation — now the state forest — established for their protection.
Due to the heath hen’s close relationship to the still existing prairie chicken and advances in genetics, there is a possibility the heath hen could be brought back to life once again. To do so would constitute a bold and difficult undertaking with myriad logistical, technical and economic obstacles. The panelists responsibly identified these challenges, but clearly seemed to believe it both possible and desirable.
Apart from the ecological reasons for restoring the heath hen, there are cultural and even spiritual reasons for doing so. It is about restoring the human spirit as much as restoring a singular biological entity. It is about redressing the harm we have so extensively inflicted on what Henry Beston once described as “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time . . . of the splendor and travail of the earth.” It is about atoning for previous grievous wrongs. Restoring the heath hen offers us the chance for a moral reawakening. It provides us with an affirmative opportunity to restore our connection to the earth and contribute to the healing and beauty of the land. It provides us with the chance to engage our relation to the world beyond ourselves of which we are a part. It offers Martha’s Vineyard the extraordinary opportunity to lead as an inspiring example to America of how by living in right relation to nature we may flourish and achieve an ineffable and deepening connection to the larger community of life.
Stephen R. Kellert
New Haven, Conn., and Vineyard Haven
The writer is Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus at Yale University.