The story of the countercultural courage and persistence that shaped the modern ecological conscience.
BY MARIA POPOVA
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 bears 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.
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 whom she held uncomfortably accountable would deride her as “a very hot 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 things many of us are living — did not yet exist in the popular lexicon: dissident, activist, citizen scientist.Rosalie Edge by textile artist Leotie Richards from her American Folk Heroes quilt portrait series.
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 own 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.
One night while traveling in Europe with her family, 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 very nation had taken for its symbol and spirit animal: the North American bald eagle.
Edge’s family summoned her for dinner, but she kept pacing the room in fiery disbelief, later recalling:
For what to me were dinner and the boulevards of Paris when my mind was filled with the tragedy of beautiful birds, disappearing through the neglect and indifference of those who had at their disposal wealth beyond avarice with which these creatures might be saved?
As soon as she returned to America, still thinking about the eagles, Edge turned her wakeful intellect and indomitable passion for justice toward the broader fate of feathered beings in the hands of the thumbed.Eagle-owl from The Royal Natural History, 1893. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
On the eve of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Rosalie Edge, in her dress and her greying bun, walked across Central Park to the twenty-fifth annual gathering of the National Association of Audubon Societies. There, she calmly rose from the back to hold its leaders accountable for the practices revealed by the pamphlet. After a stunned silence, various men in power took turns with defensive stabs at her credibility, then derided the rhetorical style of the pamphlet without addressing its substance.
To Edge, this was only evidence that something was amiss, that she must persist until it is righted.
And so she did. Over the years that followed, Rosalie Edge “stood up very often,” as she later recalled. After seeing a photograph of hundreds of dead hawks neatly lined up on the Appalachian forest floor, she traveled to Eastern Pennsylvania to witness the barbaric tradition that had occasioned the horror: recreational hunters gathering every autumn to shoot thousands of migrating hawks, having stalked out the perfect summit from which to intercept the migration path and perform the mass slaughter…