Senseless Displays of Death

gibbetting

One of my favorite poems about birds is “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire” by the American poet David Wagoner. It’s a short but powerful piece depicting in psychological imagery the clash of man with nature, specifically in this case a chicken farmer and the hawks he persecutes.

The poem (available from this link to the Poetry Foundation’s website) neither praises nature nor condemns it. Hawks kill animals and consume their flesh not out of choice but due to what the poem’s speaker refers to as an “ancient hunger.” To despise the birds for their livelihood is to misunderstand wildlife. The hawks are part of an ecological balance; they hunt not out of vengeance but from necessity. On the other hand, the farmer who shoots the hawks has options but acts with “nearsighted anger.” There are better ways to protect one’s fowl1 than by killing potential predators and hanging each out like a “bloody coat-of-arms.”

The Misguided Practice of Gibbeting

Displaying corpses as a deterrent, as the farmer has done in Wagoner’s poem, is known as gibbeting. It’s an ancient and barbaric form of intimidation that’s been inflicted upon both humans and animals alike.  The word generally conjures up morbid images of heads on spikes, impaled bodies, crucifixions, and hangings. Such brutality has occurred throughout history as a stark warning to enemies, criminals, trespassers, and undesirables: Beware, for you could suffer the same fate.

Similar treatment was once widely permitted for birds and other animals considered pests. (Roger Lovegrove’s Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation’s Wildlife and John Lister-Kaye’s Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-eye View of a Changing World are among the most recent books to discuss the horrible practice in Britain’s past of gamekeeper gibbets, vermin poles, and the like.) Landowners and their gamekeeper underlings, for example, used to shoot or trap unwelcome birds, especially raptors, hanging them on a line, fence, or board. Again, the basic idea was that exhibiting the corpses of so-called “vermin” would frighten away their living counterparts so that they would not harm desired game.

The problems with such approaches are many. One is that they are typically ineffective as deterrents. Even when the tactics initially work, the birds quickly adapt and return. This has been the age-old issue with traditional scarecrows. Recent real-world scenarios demonstrate similar results with the effigies of dead birds being used today to ward vultures off water towers2 and Canada geese away from ponds.3 Another problem is that many of the creatures killed and strung up in the past, such as crows, magpies, jays, kites, kestrels, and barn owls, posed little or no threat except to small birds and mammals.4

A Lesson in Empathy

Fortunately, wisdom prevails in Wagoner’s poem when the speaker invokes a dream upon the farmer, one in which he is transformed into a hawk that’s been shot and gibbeted. The turnabout in circumstances seems an almost apt illustration of the assertion from another poet (Percy Shelley) that “the great instrument of moral good is the imagination,”5 that is, to feel empathy toward another, one must dream of or imagine actually being that person or creature.6

We human beings do have the capacity for compassionate and reasonable response even when it involves beings outside our own kind, as demonstrated by the wildlife laws and regulations enacted to preserve endangered species and thwart harmful practices. By considering how these creatures live, as well as our mutual and often indirect impact on one other, we are able to reflect then act more skillfully. This process often begins out of a sense of wonder, and it can help us continue to cultivate an appreciation today for all wildlife, including for birds such as those despised in “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire.”

Sources:

  1. Hygnstrom, SE, Craven, SR, “Hawks and Owls” (1994). The Handbook: Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage. Paper 63. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdmhandbook/63.
  2. Drumm, S (Associated Press). “Town Losing Battle with Vultures at Water Tower,” 7/20/2014. The Washington Times: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/20/town-losing-battle-with-vultures-at-water-tower/.
  3. Seamans, TW, Bernhardt, GE. “Response of Canada Geese to a Dead Goose Effigy.” USDA National Wildlife Research Center – Staff Publications. Paper 384. Davis, CA: Univ. of Calif., Davis, 2004. pp. 104–106. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdm_usdanwrc/384.
  4. Watkins, MG. “The Keeper’s Gibbet.” Longman’s magazine. Vol. 7, Issue 40 (Feb. 1886). London: Longman, Green and Co. pp. 430–438. ProQuest, 2007.
  5. The nineteenth-century British Romantic poet Percy Shelley writes, “A man, [sic] to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” (See Shelley, PB. A Defense of Poetry. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977. pp. 487–488.)
  6. Obviously Shelley speaks of men in A Defense of Poetry, but the sentiment he expresses could apply to women, as well as to animals and other life-forms. After all, in his essay “On Love,” he writes of “the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man, but with every thing which exists.” (See Shelley, PB. “On Love.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. pp. 473–474.)

 

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Scarecrow Season

scarecrow

It’s a Halloween theme that never dies. With the change in leaves, we expectantly welcome back age-old superstitions involving haunted houses, campfire ghost stories, and horror-flick “Creature Features.” And to this lot belongs another perennial favorite: the traditional scarecrow.

Unlike those other things, though, hay-stuffed rags on sticks don’t really terrify people. Heck, scarecrows aren’t even good at frightening away birds. Our winged neighbors are quite smart and resourceful. In seemingly taunting fashion, crows and rooks will perch on these figures.

Nevertheless, many folks couldn’t care less that conventional scarecrows don’t work. With creative glee and fondness, people throughout the world display them during harvest festivals. Several years ago, one guy in the United Kingdom actually crafted one resembling Lady Gaga!

Making Them Scary (Sort of)                   

The best scarecrow is a living one. That’s why pre-adolescent boys were the optimal choice for guarding crops and shooing feathered pests away. However, the Black Plague changed this. By the fourteenth century, due to a scarcity of people both young and old, British farmers had no choice but to post more effigies (1). Scarecrows likely did little more, though, than give birds pause.

The use of these figures, of course, goes back long before the late Middle Ages. We find them in texts such as the Old Testament (Jeremiah 10:5) and Columella’s first-century De Re Rustica. Their forms varied from culture to culture. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, relied on wood-carved images of the agricultural fertility god Priapus (2).

In many cases, ancient straw men also served ritual purposes. Some folks, however, have further proposed that the burning of effigies were sacrificial harvest rites. These assertions, while influential, are not well supported. “It has become a standard assumption of romantic folklore that such figures are substitutes for ancient human sacrifices,” explains Juliette Wood, professional folklorist and faculty member at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, “but there is no solid evidence for this.” (3)

Perhaps inspired by these dark notions, America’s entertainment industry has added its own sinister interpretations. Most notable are the early villain of the Batman comics, the human cadavers maimed and bound like scarecrows in Stephen King’s 1977 short story Children of the Corn, and the vengeful figure of the 1981 made-for-television movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow. A slew of horror films have since followed, stumbling onto the big screen during recent decades.

A New Era

Just as society’s views towards scarecrows have shifted to the odd and creepy (for our own recreational purposes), attempts at frightening our avian counterparts have also continued. Straw man figures have entered the machine age. Some incorporate pyrotechnics, sound, and motion for better results; most of today’s farmers resort to an array of technological gadgetry (4, 5, 6) that looks nothing like the character in The Wizard of Oz.

So, bygone is the scarecrow’s “hayday,” as its longstanding popularity as an agricultural tool has declined. What remains of the stilted icon is just symbolic, a representation of the community harvest and simpler periods in agrarian history. Nevertheless, these traditional figures still make for cool Halloween decorations. And the birds don’t seem to mind.

Sources:

  1. Holyoake, G. Scarecrows. London, UK: Unicorn Press, 2006. pp. 22-29.
  2. Holyoake, G. pp. 14, 65, 66, 193.
  3. Wood, J. “‘The Great Scarecrow In Days Long Ago’: Gothic Myths and Family Festivals.” JulietteWood.com: http://www.juliettewood.com/papers/scarecrow.pdf.
  4. Holyoake, G. pp. 59-63.
  5. Marsh, RE, Erickson, WA, Salmon, TP. “Scarecrows and Predator Models for Frightening Birds from Specific Areas,” 3/1/1992. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Pest Vertebrate Conference: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/vpc15/49/.
  6. Baker, S, Singleton, G, Smith, R. “The nature of the beast: using biological processes in vertebrate pest management.” Key Topics in Conservation Biology. MacDonald, D, Service, K (editors). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. pp. 178-180.