Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South

Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South

Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South

Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South


The American South is generally warmer, wetter, weedier, snakier, and more insect infested and disease prone than other regions of the country. It is alluring to the scientifically and poetically minded alike. With Mockingbird Song, Jack Temple Kirby offers a personal and passionate recounting of the centuries-old human-nature relationship in the South. Exhibiting violent cycles of growth, abandonment, dereliction, resettlement, and reconfiguration, this relationship, Kirby suggests, has the sometimes melodious, sometimes cacophonous vocalizations of the region's emblematic avian, the mockingbird.

In a narrative voice marked by the intimacy and enthusiasm of a storyteller, Kirby explores all of the South's peoples and their landscapes--how humans have used, yielded, or manipulated varying environments and how they have treated forests, water, and animals. Citing history, literature, and cinematic portrayals along the way, Kirby also relates how southerners have thought about their part of Earth--as a source of both sustenance and delight.


Back in the halcyon days of comparative history centered on the American South, C. Vann Woodward brilliantly addressed opportunities (and deep problems) presented by the works of the Brazilian scholar Gilberto Freyre, who had been educated at Baylor and Columbia and who cherished the plantation patriarchies of his own Old North and of our Old South. Woodward generously supported analytical studies of plantation societies around the globe but rightly suggested cautionary perspective. “The culture contrast,” he wrote, “suggests setting a flock of gray and white mockingbirds down in a tropical jungle filled with gaudy parakeets.” New Englanders, he averred, may have found “life along the James, the S[u]wannee, or the Lower Mississippi … lushly exotic and outlandishly bizarre. But set side-by-side with life along the Amazon, the colors of antebellum society in the Old South fade to temperate-zone grays and russets and muted saffrons that went well enough with magnolias or Spanish moss, but were not quite the thing for promenades under palm and breadfruit.”

Conceded. Yet confined to our own continent, we may still legitimately think about, say, New Orleans (pre-Katrina) versus, say, Bath, Maine. Both are lovely riverside cities, Bath much the cleaner but with few promenades (of which the French Quarter and Garden District have many) and scarce mockingbird sighting. Woodward’s juxtaposition of tropical “gaudy parakeets” with mockingbirds as avian symbol of the South was simultaneously appropriate and wrong. Appropriate because of traditional, popularcultural allusions that include the nineteenth-century song “Listen to the Mockingbird” (reportedly a favorite of Abraham Lincoln, who also liked “Dixie”) and innumerable associations of the birds with (as Woodward wrote) magnolias and Spanish moss, in print and film. the mockingbird is also the official avian of five southern states: Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Florida. Yet this creature, a resident, nonmigrating animal, is found over most of the contiguous United States except the Pacific Northwest, northern Idaho, and western Montana—although, it is true, mockingbird counts are always highest in the South and Southwest.

Gray is indeed the mockingbird’s predominant color, particularly on the head and upper parts. Under parts are whitish, and the bird has a long black tail with white on the outer feathers, black legs, white wing bars, and yel-

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