The day I chose for the start of this project just so happens to coincide with a personal holy day that I observe: a memorial day for the Passenger Pigeon. Extinct birds, or, as They seem to prefer, Ancestor Birds, are the People that I serve as a spirit worker. It’s something I’ve discussed a little bit before on this blog, but I don’t generally share a lot about it since Grundsau Burrow is Deitsch and Urglaawe focused. (But the Passenger Pigeon would have been known to our Deitsch forebears, even though I’m not aware of any folklore regarding it. If anyone is, please let me know!)
It also just so happens that the Passenger Pigeon is a native species of my home region, and its breeding range overlapped us too. This land holds the bones of Passenger Pigeons, back for more generations than we can count. The land, too, was shaped by them: their numbers were such that their droppings made the land far more fertile, their weight broke down the branches of older trees to let younger ones step into the sun, and they spread seeds, such as their favorite American Chestnut, far and wide. My home state of Pennsylvania owes its beautiful forests and fertile farmlands, in part, to those many generations of birds.
American Chestnuts were decimated due to blight introduced by invasive Chinese Chestnuts, and that itself was a factor in the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. This goes back to the Zusaagpflicht–we did not care for our forests as we should, and with the loss of the trees came the loss of the birds. With the loss of the birds came the loss of forest management, fertility in the land, and chestnuts as a food source. As a result, chestnuts themselves aren’t too easy to get a hold of where I live. I can only ever seem to find them in stores around the Winter holidays, and when I do, they’re imported from South America. Looking at the bulk section of the local specialty foods store, the most similar looking nuts I could find for offerings were walnuts. Things like acorns and such don’t show up out here until later in the year, as we’re still currently baking in too-hot-even-for-Summer temperatures, but in the past I’ve offered these substitutes too. The reaction I seem to have gotten so far from the Passenger Pigeons is that it’s truly the thought that counts. In the future, when I have land of my own, I hope to plant some of the blight-resistant American Chestnuts that have been bred to help restore this species, as a way of honoring my Passenger Pigeon allies. Bringing these trees back would help restore some of the native forests here too, although of course replacing the old growth will take more than one human lifetime can hope to encompass.
There’s so much more to Passenger Pigeons than just their extinction. At one point in time, over a third of all birds in North America were Passenger Pigeons. Their flocks numbered in the billions–with a b!–and took several days to pass over any given location. Their spirits know about living and cooperating in such an enormous community, and living in balance with the land. The ways in which they shaped the land still influence how you and I get to eat today, if you live in, or buy agricultural products from, the eastern half of the United States.
Today is the 102nd anniversary of the physical extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, with the death of Martha, a female Passenger Pigeon living in Cincinnati Zoo. But the spirits of the Passenger Pigeons are still very much alive. I hope that today and in the future, people will be moved to share the story of the Passenger Pigeons, raise a stein in their memory, or simply say a brief prayer of thanks to their spirits. What is remembered, lives. Heel!