Survival of the fittest

Posted by | June 9, 2011

“In the courthouse yard a great congregation of Sparrows was rioting over scraps of bread and cake crumbs strewed round the benches by the afternoon concourse of babies and colored nurses of the day before, and in the distance could be seen a cloud of Pigeons drifting and whirling round the upper windows of a storage warehouse, where sweepings of grain lay thick. The Gray Pigeon looked at both gatherings a while, and then inquired, ‘I wonder if every city has as large a feathered population as Chattanooga?’

“‘And if they are always made up of Pigeons and Sparrows mostly?’ added the White Pigeon.

“‘I don’t know about Pigeons,’ said the Sparrow, expanding his round little breast, ‘but Sparrows go everywhere and can live anywhere.’

“‘But the Robin, who winters in the south, says that in Florida towns, away below the frost line, their place is taken by harsh-voiced Blackbirds, called by the negroes Nassau crows,‘ said the Gray Pigeon. ‘And that traveler, the Swallow, says that in Dayton, O., the Sparrows are becoming fewer every year.’

“‘What for?’ demanded the little fellow, in alarm. ‘I never heard of my kind leaving a town where they had once made a home.’

“‘The Swallow says it is because the new civic administration allows nothing to be scattered in the streets which ought to be put into garbage cans. Then, too, there are but few horses in use there; their place has gradually been taken by automobiles. Because there is nothing left for them to eat, the Sparrows are rapidly disappearing.’

“The Sparrow’s feathers dropped. ‘That’s what this clean-up movement means–as if we were rats or flies!’ cried the little chap, disgustedly. ‘They’ll be posting Swat the Sparrow bills yet! However, the suburbs we have always with us.’ He hopped into the magnolia and thence flew away, while the Pigeons looked after him in amusement.

“‘The distribution of the English Sparrow over the United States,’ said the Fireman, ‘is a phenomenon comparable to that of the rise and growth of Israel in Canaan. In their native country the struggle for existence kept them down to a certain numerical limit. The competition between creatures of the same species, always severe and keen in older lands, hindered their multiplication. But when they were brought to the new continent they found different conditions of living; there was plenty everywhere, and problems generally not so hard. Their hardy nature and bold, aggressive ways and, even more, their familiarity with man, enabled them to overlive and drive out the native species of size comparable to theirs. Hence their extraordinary spread and increase.

“‘Something like the same thing happens when European plants are brought to the shores of this continent; innocent and pretty enough at home, they soon become in America so plentiful as to be a nuisance, a weed. The daisy, the smallest variety of dock, and the Japanese clover are a few out of many examples. The rapid multiplication of rabbits in Australia is another instance of the disturbance of the natural balance of life by the introduction of immigrant species.

“‘Only under such exceptional circumstances can a species increase. The animal population of the earth is self-balanced, automatically held at a stand. Only one pair of young can grow up to replace the pair, male and female, which have launched anywhere from twelve to a hundred thousand individuals into existence. The command to increase and multiply was never given to the lower creatures, but to man alone.’

“‘How is it, Fireman,’ asked the Gray Pigeon, ‘that man’s race increases constantly, while his birthrate is lower than that of any other creature?’

“‘That is easily answered,’ declared the Fireman. ‘It is simply due to the survival of the fittest. A thing that is fit is a thing that fits. Man, producing fewer young than any animal, alone multiplies because of his lower death rate. He survives, he lives, by fitting himself into any environment as no animal can do.

“‘Meeting with extremes of heat and cold, he changes his dress, his food and his housing accordingly. He is not dependent on a fixed diet; if vegetables cannot be obtained, he can exist after a fashion, or temporarily, on meat–in arctic regions, for instance. He can also subsist on vegetables and fruit. Of course, there are limitations set to his omnivorousness. Yellow men can live principally on rice, and black men thrive on mealies, but the white man must have wheat as a main article of diet.’

The Pigeons looked intensely interested, for they, too, are eaters of grain.

“‘The recent rise in the price of wheat,’ the Fireman went on, ‘I mean the gradual upward trend of the past few years, is not, as some thoughtless observers suppose, a transitory result of market manipulation and corners, which do sometimes force the price of necessities up to an unnatural level. It is due to perfectly natural and irresistible causes. For the first time people are beginning to feel the effect of a great natural process–the race which started away back yonder, between the population of the world and the growth of the world’s wheat supply. Of course, the population is steadily gaining. In spite of the opening of vast new wheat-producing areas in Canada and the Argentine, there is a total growing shortage.’

“‘I don’t believe the Redbird, who told us about the harvest, would admit that,’ said the White Pigeon.

“‘Maybe not. But there will come a time, nevertheless, when the world will lack bread. Bread is the staff of life; wheat, in proportion to its price, is by far the best and cheapest of all foods. A permanently higher price for it is a calamity that must be faced.’

“‘But, Fireman,’ protested the Gray Pigeon, ‘Man was here before ever he cultivated the wild emmer of Egypt and made it a grain, wasn’t he?’

“‘Not such as we know Man today, nor even as later Egypt knew him,’ said the Fireman. ‘Other races of men, vastly superior in numbers, but differing widely in material and intellectual development from the one we know, can live well enough on corn, rice or millet; but none of these grains has the food value, the concentrated health-sustaining power of wheat. And all the time the reckless exhaustion of the soil is helping forward the day of reckoning.’

“‘What will he do when it comes?’ asked the Pigeons.

“‘He might, perhaps, learn to fix the nitrogen in the atmosphere in forms on which the plant can feed. They will have to do something of the sort, or the Caucasian race will be squeezed out of existence by races to whom bread is not the staff of life. A method of sowing the bacteria which have power to utilize nitrogen of the air is already in practice in some sections. And the Mendelians promise varieties of wheat having more grains to the stalk. But, for all that, to Sparrows, microbes or men there must come a day when the Good Gray Mother can feed no more.’

*****

Emma Bell MilesFrom April – June 1914 The Chattanooga News paid Emma Bell Miles $9.00 a week to write “Fountain Square Conversations.” The “Conversations” cleverly combined her naturalist’s knowledge and her social commentary. They featured birds and other creatures on the square conversing under the shadows of the human statues. Miles (1879-1919) is remembered primarily for “The Spirit of the Mountains” (1905), the first comprehensive study of Southern Appalachian culture.

sources: www.phoebeclaire.com/miles/fsc25.htm

http://community.berea.edu/appalachianheritage/documents/pdf/fall_2005/emmabell_miles.pdf

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