I had never heard of the passenger pigeon, or I didn't remember. On Sunday I drove to Koreatown to see a performance piece called Gone: The Life and Demise of the Passenger Pigeon, a One and a Half Woman Show. Well, you know Chicken Corner wouldn't miss such an event. Pigeons, a woman and a half, and Industrial-age-style photographs featuring taxidermy (an aesthetic Yours Truly finds irresistible, for better or worse). Not to be missed. I was thinking homing pigeons; I was thinking dry-wit and irony. I got there early.
But it was heartbreak -- and industrial-scale amnesia. The passenger pigeon is extinct. A resident of northeastern North America, at the beginning of the 19th century it was the most numerous bird on Earth. Its "infinite" numbers impressed themselves on American consciousness in a guileless way: The birds lived in enormous flocks. We saw huge numbers in one place, so we figured they must be everywhere. We're only animals, after all. We believe what we see. We believe what we hear. We saw hundreds of millions of birds. In less than a hundred years, we gleefully killed almost all of them. The last of the species, a bird named Martha Washington, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
One of our collective myth-memories is of the miles-long darkening of the sky due to birds, the 14 hours it took for a single flock to pass a specific point. This memory of the sky-darkening flock of birds came back to me as Christian Kasperkovitz delivered her "lecture" in the manner of a late-19th century lecturist. Kasperkovitz's captivating presentation, co-written-produced by Tamar Brott (a friend of mine), was a thing of beauty, delivered in a manner that exists only in zoos, and performance spaces.
There seems never to have been any passenger pigeons in Los Angeles. Socal is, after all, a great place to forget things like Martha the last passenger pigeon. But we are haunted by the way they disappeared nonetheless. The past does have a way of spreading in all directions.