Posts Tagged ‘Don Marquis’

Migratory Bird Treaty, Part One

November 29, 2010

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, adopted by the United States in 1918, outlaws the “taking” of migratory birds,or their eggs, or their feathers, or their nests. As of the moment, 836 bird species are protected, although 58 are legally hunted as game birds. In part, the treaty was enacted in response to wide-spread killing of birds so their feathers and stuffed bodies could adorn women’s hats. In the first decade of the Twentieth Century huge hats with masses of feathers, and sometimes complete birds, were fashionable female adornments. Particularly wealthy women might even have a stuffed male hummingbird atop their finery.

American Actress Edith Lyle in 1910

Don Marquis was writing at the time and his type-writing cockroach Archy weighed in on the bird-adorned fashions of the day. By the time Archy wrote this poem, the fashion tide was turning the Migratory Bird Treaty crowned that efforts.

Remember that Archy was the fictional cockroach invented by Marquis. Archy could only type by throwing himself bodily on each key of the typewriter, so he skipped all punctuation. To get the full favor of the poetry, it is best to read it out loud. Or, if you’re someplace where that isn’t practical, this is one time when sub-vocalizing as you read makes perfect sense.

Poets are always asking

where do the little roses go

underneath the snow

but no one ever thinks to say

where do the little insects stay

this is because

as a general rule

roses are more handsome

than insects

beauty gets the best of it

in this world

i have heard people

say how wicked it was

to kill our feathered


in order to get

their plumage and pinions

for the hats of women

and all the while

these same people

might be eating duck

as they talked

the chances are

that it is just as discouraging

to a duck to have

her head amputated

in order to become

a stuffed roast fowl

and decorate a dining table

as it is for a bird

of gayer plumage

for a lady s hat

but the duck

does not get the sympathy

because the duck

is not beautiful . . . .

Being a cockroach, Archy favored the underdog in all situations. So Archy would be happy to know that the treaty lives on, protecting, “any species or family of birds that live, reproduce or migrate within or across international borders at some point during their annual life cycle.” Stiff fines can result from interfering with those life cycles even by knocking down a nest you don’t want under the eaves of your house. We’ll have more detail in our next migratory bird post.

Rachel Carson

April 22, 2010

Today is the 40th “Earth Day.” Over at the New Yorker, where they are celebrating the 85th anniversary of that excellent magazine, they are running a series of articles taken from those eighty-five years of publication. Today, they feature Rachel Carson. Her book, “Silent Spring”, marked the beginning of public awareness that Mother Earth requires attention. The Environmental Protection Agency has published an official history in which it says that its mere existence is the “extended shadow of Rachel Carson.”

Rachel Carson

The first publication of “Silent Spring” came in the pages of the New Yorker which ran three extended excerpts before it was published in 1962. In the first, Carson detailed what happened at Clear Lake, California. Clear Lake was a popular fishing destination that also constituted perfect habitat for billions of little gnats that annoyed the fishermen. Thinking it would be good to rid the lake of those pests, the authorities decided to spray the lake with DDD, a close cousin of DDT. Three times they sprayed and millions of gnats died.

Unfortunately so did the Western Grebes.

Western Grebe

“The following winter months brought the first intimation that other life was affected; the western grebes on the lake began to die, and soon more than a hundred of them had been reported dead. At Clear Lake, the western grebe is a breeding bird and also a winter visitant, attracted by the abundant fish of the lake. It is a bird of spectacular appearance and beguiling habits, building floating nests in shallow lakes of the western United States and Canada…. Following a third assault on the ever-resilient gnat population, in September, 1957—again in a concentration of one part of DDD to fifty million parts of water—more grebes died . . . .”

By now, we know the rest of the story. As Carson wrote,

“Water, of course, supports long chains of life – from the small-as-dust green cells of the drifting plant plankton, through the minute water fleas, to the fish that strain plankton from the water and are, in turn, eaten by other fish or by birds, mink, raccoons, and man himself, in an endless transfer of materials from life to life. We know that the minerals necessary for all these forms of life are extracted from the water and passed from link to link of the food chains.”

The DDD sprayed to kill the gnats went to the fish where it concentrated and then to the grebes which ate the fish and then died.

All this reminded me of archy the cockroach’s complaint in the poem by Don Marquis called, “Pity the Poor Spider.”

I will admit that some

of the insects do not lead

noble lives but is every

man s hand to be against them

yours for less justice

and more charity

Happy Earth Day.


The part of the Carson piece in the New Yorker that you can read without a subscription is here. The entire piece requires a subscription but it’s worth it. Subscribe to the magazine and you get access to the entire eighty-five years of the New Yorker, every article and every cartoon. We read around in back issues the way a dog eats dinner.

What’s more, the New Yorker remains true to its environmental concerns. Elizabeth Kolbert picked up the Carson mantle and carries it forward.

The Western Grebe photo is by Dominic Sherony and graciously made available through creative commons. The photo of Rachel Carson is her USFWS official portrait and is in the public domain.

The Hummingbirds Return

April 7, 2010


It is spring and we await our first hummingbird here at the Fat Finch. Hummingbirds, according to the Aztecs, were the reincarnated souls of dead Aztec warriors. There was a time, about a century ago, when many humans believed in  transmigration of souls into animals. The American writer Don Marquis used his fictional cockroach Archy to poke a little fun at the belief. Archy was a cockroach that lived in the newsroom at the New York Sun newspaper where Marquis worked. Archy had been a human who wrote free verse and, when he died, transmigrated into the body of cockroach as punishment. He communicates by throwing himself bodily on the keys of Mr. Marquis’s typewriter. He can’t capitalize anything because of the necessity of holding down the shift key on the typewriter at the same time striking the key of the letter to be capitalized. Nor did he waste energy or time attempting punctuation.

Aztec Jaguar Warrior on his way to Hummingbird Status

Marquis wrote during Prohibition, that time long ago when alcoholic beverages were banned in the United States. It was also a time of wide-spread belief  in ghosts and spiritualism.

But some things haven’t changed in the intervening century: We still love hummingbirds, even if fewer of us believe in ghosts. Here from his poem entitled “ghosts”

you want to know
whether i believe in ghosts
of course i do not believe in them
if you had known as many of them as i have
you would not
believe in them either
perhaps i have been
unfortunate in my acquaintance
but the ones i have known
have been a bad lot
no one could believe in them
after being acquainted with them
a short time . . . .

i remember talking to one of them
who had just worked his way
upward again he had been in the
body of a flea and he was going
into a cat fish
you would think he might be
grateful for the promotion
but not he
i do not call this much of an advance
he said why could i not
be a humming bird or something
kid i told him it will
take you a million years to work your
way up to a humming bird . . . .

Archy was not so ambitious as to try for a hummingbird. He was content with something less exalted:

personally my ambition is to get
my time as a cockroach shortened for
good behavior and be promoted
to a revenue officer
it is not much of a step up but
i am humble . . . .

The revenue officer Archy refers to is not the tax man but the revenue officer who spent his days and nights trying to eradicate boot-legged liquor in those far off days when the government tried to protect us from our vices.

Working our way up to hummingbirds, we’ve put out our feeders. Some Broad-tails have been seen on the outskirts of our city and we’re ready for our first visitors. They’ll arrive any day now. The seasons here march along; the Sandhill Cranes replaced by hummingbirds until autumn, when the cranes fill the void left by departing hummingbirds, the skies bringing year-round joy.

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