Redeeming an Overlooked Pioneer of Conservation – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

It is 1928, and you are walking in Central Park, saxophone and wren song in the April air when you spot her beneath the colossal leafing elm with her binoculars. You mistake her for another pearled Upper East Side lady who has taken to birding in the privileged boredom of her middle age. And who could blame you? In some obvious ways — polished and traveled, born into a wealthy New York family to a British father whose first cousin was Charles Dickens — she takes the markings. In some invisible ways — in the strata of personhood that our unchosen surfaces and accidents of birth are apt to conceal and shortchange — she is anything but.

Redeeming an Overlooked Pioneer of Conservation – Brain Pickings

Within a quarter-century — a span in which she would change the course of culture and the vitality of nature for centuries to come — she would be celebrated on the pages of the nation’s most esteemed cultural journal as “the only honest, unselfish, indomitable hellcat in the history of conservation.” Those she held uncomfortably accountable would deride her as “a boiling potato” and a “common scold” — but that accountability would revolutionize policies and mindsets. She would become things the words for which — words all of us now live with, for something many of us are living — did not yet exist in the popular lexicon: dissident, activist, citizen scientist.

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Rosalie Edge (November 3, 1877–November 30, 1962) was well into her fifties when she became invested in the plight of birds after reading about the slaughter of 70,000 bald eagles in Alaska. She would later write:

Thousands of people who had within them a yearning toward nature, a deep-seated need to preserve its beauty, had been, in very truth, asleep. I know, for I was one of them.

Until that point, her fierce wakefulness to justice had been channeled toward the plight of half of her species, which culminated with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. But the multigenerational triumph left Edge — who had spent years composing pamphlets, delivering speeches, and serving as secretary-treasurer of the New York State chapter of the Woman Suffrage Party — with the postpartum hollowing of spirit that follows the completion of any project into which one has poured all of oneself.

But a person of passion and brilliance is never bored for long.

While traveling in Europe with her family, one night, Edge found herself reading and rereading a sixteen-page pamphlet — the era’s primary whistleblowing medium — titled “A Crisis in Conservation.” It exposed the ties the nation’s network of Audubon Societies had to gun and ammunition makers and the consequent withholding of protection from species hunters considered pests or targets — including the bird, which this nation had taken for its symbol and spirit animal: the North American bald eagle.

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