In the depths of the Great Depression, the Gazette’s legendary editor Henry Beetle Hough wrote a stirring obituary observing the passage of the last heath hen.
“We are looking upon the uttermost finality which can be written, glimpsing the darkness which will not know another ray of light,” he wrote in a 1933 editorial entitled, “A Bird that Man Could Kill,” taking the opportunity, as he often did, to scold humanity for failing to aggressively protect natural resources.
In some circles, at least, Martha’s Vineyard was not on the map until Mr. Hough made the imminent demise of the lowly heath hen a cause celebre.
What would the Vineyard’s most celebrated conservationist say about a provocative proposal before Islanders today to bring the curious booming bird back from extinction? Surely he would have seen bigger environmental challenges than reviving a modest bird that may have been in decline as early as the 18th century.
Yet Mr. Hough was eminently practical, a man who believed in the value of science and the power of symbols even as he engaged in a ground war to preserve the Vineyard. Why, he once wondered, weren’t western prairie chickens imported to crossbreed with the heath hen, a concept that may have seemed as radical at the time as genetic engineering is today.
We can’t know what Mr. Hough might think about the proposed de-extinction project, but we would do well to be reminded of his leadership and willingness to think outside the box in defense of the natural world.
To be sure, the whole area of genetic biotechnology raises a host of ethical questions. But this science is moving inexorably forward elsewhere in ways that are far more frightening than what is proposed here. Cloning of animals and plants is now widespread, and scientists have already created living organisms with artificial DNA. Bringing back an extinct bird on an Island under controlled conditions has its risks, but these could be limited.
And though the impetus for the de-extinction proposal has come from the West Coast, we are persuaded that its proponents, Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan of the San Francisco-based Revive & Restore, who have been meeting publicly and privately with members of the Island’s environmental communities over the last two weeks, are sincere in their efforts to seek local support for the project before moving forward. Indeed, the project could hardly proceed without it.
By most accounts, the science involved in recreating the heath hen is the least piece of the project, which would also involve developing and maintaining a habitat that could sustain it. Since the heath hen went extinct in 1933, its native habitat has dwindled and predator populations, including skunks and cats, have multiplied.
But in many ways the project is not really about a bird.
As Mr. Brand, who has been thinking and writing about environmental issues since the 1960s, remarked at the Chilmark Public Library, just considering bringing back the heath hen raises the question, “How do you want to think about the conservation on your Island to get from where it is to some point where you want it to be?”
He added, “Maybe use some species from the past to enrich the future. I think that’s all that’s being talked about here.”
There’s no doubt that the Vineyard and the world face enormous, perhaps irreversible environmental challenges, but action need not be a zero sum game. We can crusade for more conservation land, address the causes of climate change, take steps to save not-yet-extinct species and invest in experimental science, carefully administered, that may — like the space program — yield benefits for scientific understanding wholly unrelated to its initial mission.
And as Henry Beetle Hough understood, a small bird with a booming voice can be a compelling symbol of something larger than itself.