Lofty language

The California condor has inspired some rich rhetoric. In this post I share a half-dozen examples from the latter 19th- and early 20th-centuries.

To be clear, I am not denigrating the words or authors below. The condor is an inspiring bird and I appreciate those who can put that inspiration onto a page. Further, in the case of the oldest examples, the language was not atypical for its time.

In the 1850s, the US government sent expeditions to the Pacific Coast to explore possible routes for a transcontinental railroad. The resulting reports were comprehensive and included much detail on the natural history of the West. My 1st examples of lofty language about the California condor come from these government reports. The 2 authors were members of the expeditions; both medical doctors who doubled as naturalists.

From J. S. Newberry:

A portion of every day’s experience in our march through the Sacramento valley was a pleasure in watching the graceful evolutions of this splendid bird. Its colors are pleasing; the head orange, body black, with wings brown and white and black, while its flight is easy and effortless, almost beyond that of any other bird. As I sometimes recall the characteristic scenery of California, those interminable stretches of waving grain, with, here and there, between the rounded hills, orchard-like clumps of oak, a scene so solitary and yet so home-like, over these oat-covered plains and slopes, golden yellow in the sunshine, always floats the shadow of the vulture.

A. L. Heermann was also impressed by the condor:

This species, the largest which our western fauna possesses, was observed occasionally during our survey sailing majestically in wide circles at a great height and ranging by its powers of flight over an immense space of country in search of food.

Clearly, reading government reports from 150 years ago is a more pleasant task than reading recent reports.

A. M. Shields was convinced that the California condor would soon be extinct and so offered this in The Nidiologist in 1895:

Why nature has decreed such a fate to this noble bird no one can even conjecture; but certain it is that her decree is being carried out with alarming precision and rapidity.

Shields’s article includes no awareness of the irony that such thoughts should appear in an article that describes his hiring a pair of men to collect a condor egg from a nest. (This egg collecting contributed to the decline of the condor population in the late 19- and early 20th-centuries.)

In 1896, in a newspaper article about a deer-hunting adventure, T. S. Van Dyke made brief mention of the California condor:

… and far in the dome of heaven the great dark form of the condor was floating on that silent and mysterious wing whose power no philosophy can fathom ….

At the end of the 19th century there was, in fact, considerable scientific debate about the soaring flight of birds (a subject for a future post).

William Leon Dawson, author of The Birds of California, a multi-volume treasure published in the 1920s, included this in his detailed entry for the condor:

… for me the heart of California lies in the Condor country. And for me the heart of mystery, of wonder, and of desire lies with the California Condor, that majestic and almost legendary figure, which still haunts the fastnesses of our lessening wilderness.

Anyone who has read many articles and books about the condor is likely to have encountered these oft-quoted lines by Dawson.

Chester Newten Hess concluded a 1930 magazine article about the California condor with these words:

But though his enemies, natural and otherwise, destroy his mortal existence, they cannot rob him of his immortality. For he is woven into an imperishable fabric of fancy and fable, narrative and song. He belongs with the griffin, the basilik, the dragon and the unicorn, a deathless figure in the world’s folklore.

Some have said that he may have been the roc that transported Sinbad the Sailor to the land of wealth. And yet the California condor is a flesh-and-feathers bird, existing in reality though seemingly destined to soar into an empyrean from which there is no descent. It will be as though he never truly existed. His mythical and legendary identity will long survive his material entity.

I do not share Hess’s view that, if the California condor had gone extinct, the species would have been long remembered in any sense by very many people.

Having considered these 6 examples of lofty language from decades past, I will be on the lookout for more recent examples to share in a future post.

Newberry, J S. Report upon the zoology of the route. In Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, …. Volume 6. Part 4. US Senate. 33rd Congress, 2nd session. 1857.

Heermann, A L. Report upon the birds collected on the survey. In Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, …. Volume 10. Part 2. US Senate. 33rd Congress, 2nd session. 1859.

Shields, A M. Nesting of the California vulture. Nidiologist. July 1895.

Van Dyke, T S. The deer held the cards. Los Angeles Herald. 5 January 1896.

Dawson, William Leon. The birds of California. South Moulton. 1923.

Hess, Chester Newten. King condor. Touring Topics. August 1930.