THE BLOG
08/31/2014 11:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dearly Beloved: 100 Years Ago the Last Passenger Pigeon Died

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A hundred years ago, Martha died. At 1 p.m. on September 1, 1914, the last individual of a wild blue dove whose flocks once numbered billions and blackened the American skies for days fell over dead in her Cincinnati zoo cage.

With the magnitude of her race's extinction, the American story - which is particularly the story of people on the land - ripped deeper into loss.

Almost no part of early American life went untouched by the passenger pigeon. Nearly 40 percent of all North American birds were passenger pigeons. The fact that most people today never heard of them shows how quickly we get accustomed to poverty.

Not confused with the city pigeon (an invasive species from England), the passenger pigeon was our continent's blue-winged exclamation - sleek, larger than a mourning dove, incredibly beautiful with an hourglass neck, iridescent blue body, apple breast, and white underside. In their billions - and they needed huge numbers to survive - they migrated north and south, creating their own wind and weather.

Integral to native peoples, it's likely they also touched Esteban the Moor, the first African in Texas and former slave of Moroccan descent, who washed ashore with failed Spanish conquistadors in 1528. Thomas Jefferson ate them, as did most people in American colonial times. Look closely inside Toni Morrison's A Mercy to see passenger pigeons mentioned for dinner. You could shoot once into a flock and kill several. Tecumseh, 1768-1813, the legendary Shawnee prophet and leader in the old Ohio Country, who tried mightily to bring Indian people together to protect their way of life, lived in the passenger pigeon's heartland.

I sometimes wonder what enslaved blacks working in the cleared fields of Georgia or Kentucky thought as the gargantuan flocks flew overhead. Did they stop and look up as the first living thunder approached?

Did that bird's wind seem like the blue breath of God as it pushed against their stiff clothes?

Before the gunfire of Gettysburg, were young, recently fledged passenger pigeons roosting and feeding in the oak and pigeonberry hills, their brand new feathers gleaming?

As a child in Ohio, I was likely already a goner by the time I read of the passenger pigeon. But when I learned of how they shook the world, right where I stood that now was so emptied of life, it perhaps gave a tipping point to my trauma.

I read how the term "stool pigeon" came into common lexicon. Hunters would sew a live passenger pigeon's eyes shut then tether him to a stool, where his flapping would attract a flock to be shot or netted. When they'd nest in massive colonies, millions were killed by burning sulphur pots beneath them, shooting them, smashing them with poles, and more, to ship them to markets via the new railroads, at the same time their ancient oak, beech and hickory forests and tallgrass prairies were being destroyed. Advancing telegraph lines helped detect the last nesting colonies.

Recently, in Washington, D.C. for the launch of the Diverse Environmental Leaders National Speakers Bureau, we were given a private tour of Ford's Theater, where President Lincoln, who hailed from part of the passenger pigeon's northern homeland, was shot.

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Afterwards, a friend took me to the Smithsonian, where Martha and two unknown dead male passenger pigeons are exhibited for their extinction centennial.

It was unnerving to have my body so close to theirs, just separated by a glass wall. The brilliance in feathers is faded.

As James, my friend, pulled me away, I lingered, my head crooking backwards. A white father and his two kids stopped and stared into the glass exhibit. Then a black father and his pigtailed daughter came and she jolted "OOH!" at the sight of the stuffed dead bird on his back. I thought: How tender and new this child was, not yet exposed to the world.

In Toni Morrison's Beloved, which so hauntingly imbues us with the American story of people on the land, of motherhood, and grief, and the pungence between the three, Sethe struggles barefoot through Kentucky wilderness and human danger to get across the Ohio River to freedom.

It's the same route passenger pigeons took north for millennia to their primeval nesting grounds.

At one point in the book, Sethe's throat-cut daughter appears to return from the dead. Her neck is crooked and disjointed. The daughter's gravestone merely says Beloved.

Today some people are trying to resurrect the passenger pigeon, mashing DNA strands with biotechnology.

But when they're conjured back from the dead, made from cells and pieces, to face us in a world they don't know, will their necks be crooked too?

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Note: The painting at the top of this column is an original from artist Adrian Torres, first published in the author's first book Ghetto Plainsman.