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Victorians and Meadowlarks:
Two Muir Letters Rediscovered

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall 1991)

[Editor's Note: Buried in an obscure clipping in the John Muir Family Collection at the University of Pacific are reprints of two long- forgotten letters John Muir wrote to Katherine Hittell in 1895. They are contained in an article on songbird protection by Juliet Wilbor Tompkins, a journalist from Oakland who later was an editor for Munsey's Magazine as well as a freelance writer and novelist. Too long to be fully reprinted, the article is indicative of the songbird preservation movement in the 1890s, which in the Bay area was led, not coincidentally, by outspoken feminists like Sarah McChesney, Mary McHenry Keith, and Katherine Hittell. The 19th century connection between feminists and conservation activists needs extensive study, as does the influence of the Bay Area feminists on Muir. Preliminary discussion of these questions can be found in R.H. Limbaugh, "Stickeen and the Moral Education of John Muir," Environmental History Review, 15 (Spring 1991), 25-45.

The excerpt below was found in Muir's clipping file and probably comes from The San Francisco Examiner in the spring of 1895. The two letters were not included in the 1986 microform edition of the John Muir Papers , and are reprinted here courtesy of the Holt Atherton Library and the Muir-Hanna Trust.]


If it be true that not a sparrow falls to the ground unnoted, what cumbersome records must be piling up to confront us! Watch the women that pass along the street and you will be appalled at the crimes that are committed in the name of vanity, for on nine hats out of ten balance the fragments of a drawn and quartered bird.... If the half-starved dogs and superfluous cats could be stuffed and used for millinery purposes, women might decorate themselves to the uttermost limits of their barbaric instincts, and not a protest would be raised; but these poor little airships of nature, who earn their own living and contribute more than their share to the beauty and harmony of the world, must they go?

That is not a merely rhetorical question. They are going fast, and if we want to save them, something must be done about it. Orioles are nearly extinct in California, humming birds are growing scarcer every year, and all the tribes who have been cursed with bright plumage are swiftly diminishing. As though it were not enough to lose those, the sweetest singers of all birdland are being slaughtered by thousands to serve the ignoble purpose of an entree....

A number of individual attempts have been made in California to check this wholesale slaughter. Great efforts were made a year ago to protect at least the meadow larks, who came into the markets by the thousand as soon as the quail season was over. It would be as fitting to split up celestial harps for kindling wood, but the tiny musicians brought a dollar a dozen and nothing else mattered. Among the people who resented this was Miss Katherine Hittell, a lover of all things Californian, and she, aided by Mr. W. C. Chapman of the Academy of Sciences and several others, brought up the question at the Sportsmen's Convention. The result was that a clause for protecting meadow larks was attached to a bill for shortening the open season for quail and sent in to the Legislature. A member from the country frowned at the clause. "What's the good of that?" he demanded. "The bird only gullups out a few notes, anyway. Strike it out." And so they did.

Gullups out a few notes! Well, if the honorable member preferred the strings of an accordion to that ecstatic little round of melody, perhaps he was more to be pitied than blamed. The friends of gulluper managed to pass a city ordinance forbidding the sale of meadow larks in the San Francisco markets during the breeding season, but such things are hard to enforce and the proscribed birds are defiantly smuggled in. At a certain boarding- house the guests feast upon them once a week, as once Nero did on the tongues of nightingales.

"Why, apart from sentiment, it is a plain question of mathematics," Miss Hittell said. "A meadow lark, cooked, gives one person pleasure for, at most, ten minutes. A living one gives pleasure to a whole community all its life long. It's a clear case of the greatest good to the greatest number.... One or two have suggested that the meadow lark was destructive of crops and fruit, but I have letters from some of the most prominent farmers and orchardists of the State, such as Mr. A.T. Hatch and Mrs. Buckingham of Vacaville, to prove that that isn't true, while Dr. Cooper in his 'Ornithology of California' claims that the meadow lark is a valuable friend, who eats destructive insects. And, anyway, if so many birds are protected every year for the men's pleasure, it seems to me that just this one might be saved for the women. If The Examiner takes this up I will help in any way I can, and so will plenty of others."

That this last is true Miss Hittell has had plenty of proof, in such form as the following letters from John Muir:

Martinez, April, bird song month, 1895.

My dear Miss Hittell:

I heartily sympathize with you, as you know, in your efforts to save our songbirds. Better far and more reasonable it would be to burn our pianos and violins for firewood than to cook our divine midgets of songlarks for food. I am now stupidly busy writing a book and cannot do anything worth while in the way of writing for the larks. But the work of saving them by creating public opinion in their favor will have to go on year after year, and I hope I may still do something to help. I shall call the attention of the Sierra Club to the subject at the next meeting.

With best wishes,
I am very truly yours,
John Muir

Martinez, April 30, 1895.

My dear Miss Hittell:

Thanks for your information about the blessed larks. We will save them yet. Keep on pegging away at the divine work until the public sympathy is aroused. Civilized people are still very nearly savage, and much work must be done 'ere they see the brutality of their ways. I consider the meadow lark the best, most influential, most characteristic of all California song birds--the least earthy, the most divine and I could say no more were I to speak till Doomsday. Keep busy late and early. Next Legislature you will be more successful if you begin now. Let me know when I can help you.

Ever cordially yours.
John Muir

[The article ends with an eloquent call for public support.]

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