Suzanne Fields

The end of summer makes melancholy babies of all of us. We're more nervous than usual this year. There's the muted anxiety for the young, shifting gears for back to school, and simply putting away the summer clothes reminds us all of the fleeting freedom of life in the sunshine.

But this year the whole world seems on edge. There's the chatter from the Middle East, which at last seems to bother President Obama. Beheadings of Americans will do that. We've all felt the deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff as personal loss and grief. Children were alarmed and grown-ups angered. Terrorism took on a human face, even if the executioner, hiding behind a hood, didn't.

The president hardly calmed anyone with his happy talk and the admission that he has no strategy against the Islamic State, or ISIS. Even if true, and there's no doubting it, why did he have to send that reassurance to Iraq and Syria?

The newspapers are full of news of another centenary, the hundredth anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. The bird captured more sympathy on its funereal anniversary than it ever did in life, and hit a nerve, a tangible emotional distraction from the rest of the bad news.

How could the most prolific bird in North America disappear completely? The passenger -- derived from a corruption of the French "passager," meaning "passing by" -- was once the most abundant bird on the continent. One flock in Southern Ontario was described as a mile wide and 300 miles long. We're not a cruel people. The demise of a whole species upsets us. How we treat animals tells us something about ourselves.

How it happened is a remarkable story, complicated and unfathomable in the present day, much more than "the largest-scale human-caused extinction in history," as the New York Times describes it. It's about more than an environmental "cri de coeur" though it's a cry from the heart, sure enough.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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