The Last Passengers

A hundred years ago today Martha died. She was a passenger pigeon and the last of her kind, the final living specimen of a race of birds once so numerous that their flocks would black out the sky for hours on end.

(And commemorating her, here are my photographs of zoo enclosures without animals.)

Zoo #1. No Hummingbirds

Zoo #1. No Hummingbirds

Extinction is natural. Species go extinct every day. But few species go extinct with such catastrophic vehemence as did the passenger pigeons.

When the Europeans arrived in the new world, there were billions of them – but not evenly distributed. No, they traversed the continent in a few enormous flocks. One flock observed in Canada in 1866 was said to count 3.5 billion birds. That one flock would have been 1.5 kilometres wide and over 500 kilometres long. And it would have darkened the sky for 14 hours or so. But even at that point the species had been in steady decline for over half a century. The decline was slow at first, but from 1870 to 1890 it was catastrophic.

Zoo #2. No Painted Terrapins, Narrow-headed Softshell Turtles, Malaysian Giant Turtles or Johnston's Crocodiles

Zoo #2. No Painted Terrapins, Narrow-headed Softshell Turtles, Malaysian Giant Turtles or Johnston’s Crocodiles

Their numbers meant they were easily hunted. One double barrel blast of a shotgun could net even an amateur 60 birds. When pigeon meat was commercialised as cheap food for the poor, hunting became a massive and mechanised effort. Birds by the tens of millions were killed in the Midwest and shipped east on trains.

Zoo #3. No Black Mangabeys

Zoo #3. No Black Mangabeys

Combined with habitat loss as European settlers hellbent on manifest destiny deforested vast areas of land, the birds who only laid one egg at a time couldn’t make it. In March 1900, an Ohio-boy names Press Clay Southworth killed a bird with a BB gun. That bird was the last recorded wild passenger pigeon. A few still survived in captivity. But on September 1, 1914, the very last died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Here’s to Martha.

These photographs are from San Diego Zoo, carefully framed not to show the animals.

Zoo #4. No Tigers

Zoo #4. No Tigers

Zoo #5. No Allen's Swamp Monkeys or African Spot-necked Otters

Zoo #5. No Allen’s Swamp Monkeys or African Spot-necked Otters

Zoo #6. No Visayan Warty Pigs

Zoo #6. No Visayan Warty Pigs

Zoo #7. No Giant Pandas

Zoo #7. No Giant Pandas

Zoo #8. No Pronghorns

Zoo #8. No Pronghorns

Zoo #9. No Klipspringers

Zoo #9. No Klipspringers

Zoo #10. No Red Kangaroos

Zoo #10. No Red Kangaroos

Zoo #11. No Clouded Leopards

Zoo #11. No Clouded Leopards

CAUTION! Statue may be HOT!

Caution! Danger! Stop! Keep off! Do! Don’t! Warning: this blog post may contain words and pictures.

Signs #1

Signs #1

It’s the little things. Travelling the US, there are of course quite a few things that sets the country apart from the one you call home. Like the fondness for melted cheese, Jesus and fireworks, for example. Or that strange belief in guns.

But when asked what’s really different in the US, I think of the little things. Like why are all shower heads wall-mounted and not fitted with a hose? And how come it’s so hard to get a small coffee? (12oz is a third of a litre and in no reasonable understanding of the word a small portion.)

And then – of course – you have that tendency of micromanaging banalities – that overwhelming abundance of useless signs.

Signs #2

Signs #2

Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate a good sign. When my girlfriend and my GPS are having one of their usual arguments, I very much appreciate an easy-to-read sign telling me the directions to where we’re supposed to be going. Or a proper warning sign, warning me of dangers I’d otherwise be ignorant of. Yup, they’re good. So sure, a useful sign is useful, no surprise there.

But oh so many aren’t.

Signs #3

Signs #3. Forehead sticker: “Do not feed me anything”

Signs #4

Signs #4. Nature – closed

Signs #5

Signs #5. Also eagles and attitude

Signs #6

Signs #6. Pets – don’t let them poo in the desert

Signs #7

Signs #7. Vast lands, suggested parking

Signs #8

Signs #8. Ram. Better dodge it

Signs #9

Signs #9. Nature – still closed

Signs #10

Signs #10. Don’t spoil the neighborhood

Signs #11

Signs #11. No officer, I’m just walking my rod

Signs #12

Signs #12. Some light tap-dancing might be okay, though

Signs #13

Signs #13. Better petkeeping through arbitrary rules

Signs #14

Signs #14. Et cetera

Signs #15

Signs #15. You’re welcome

 

Desert

noun \ˈde-zərt\ a barren area of land with little precipitation, hostile living conditions and lots of casinos.

Desert #1

Desert #1

This was the second year in the row we spent one month in the US. Last year was sort of a trial run. We did the East coast. And the Midwest. The South. And, yes, a bit of Canada. One lesson learned: driving 5,000 miles on the Interstates in a big SUV is boring. Also: plans are bad. I started this piece of writing while we were waiting for our laundry in a laundromat in Fort Bragg, North California. Where we were going that evening, we didn’t know, except that we should probably end up somewhere in the Bay area. That was our modus operandi for over four weeks. We arrived in LA knowing we would pick up a rental car for a month, that we should avoid the Interstates at all cost and – that’s basically it. Chance, coincidences, would bring us on from that. And having spent no time in LA at all, we went straight for the desert.

Desert #2. Mexican restaurant, Twentynine Palms

Desert #2. Mexican restaurant, Twentynine Palms

Desert #3. Freight train

Desert #3. Freight train

Desert #4. Restroom Stallion, Amboy

Desert #4. Restroom Stallion, Amboy

“I can’t for the life of me understand what appeal the desert holds with you guys,” said a casino employee in Nevada. I don’t know exactly what group of people he was referring to with “you guys,” except that I somehow belonged to it. Then again, I can’t for the life of me understand what appeal a casino holds with anyone either, so I guess we were on much the same level in our not understanding each other. Well, each to his own. Some prefer
air-conditioned slot machines. I prefer a lonely heatstroke.* A breakfast cook in California thought she had an explanation for this: “It’s the topography,” she said. Whether she meant the actual topography of the desert, or the mental topography of the Nordic traveller, I am not entirely sure, but I suspect it was a bit of both. She was the sort of breakfast cook that had a special understanding of those things.

Desert #5

Desert #5

Desert #6. Et cetera

Desert #6. Et cetera

Desert #7. Scrap yard guards

Desert #7. Scrap yard guards

Desert #8

Desert #8

Desert #9, #10

Desert #9, #10

Desert #11

Desert #11

Desert #12

Desert #12

Desert #13. Return on $20

Desert #13. Return on $20

Desert #14

Desert #14

Desert #15. Travel office

Desert #15. Travel office

Desert #16. Food! Quoth the raven

Desert #16. Food! Quoth the raven

Desert #17

Desert #17

Desert #18. Devil's Golf Course / End of the road

Desert #18. Devil’s Golf Course / End of the road

* Not really.