Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale/And he stoppeth one of three...

It's July 25th, the death day of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge is most famous for penning "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", an epic romantic poem most notable for the fact you can sing it's words to the tune of the "Gilligan's Island" theme. 

The poem's most enduring image, of course, is the albatross, the dead bird hanging about the neck of the accursed mariner.  The Library Society was all about live birds this week, as Jim Elliott of the Avian Conservation Center delivered a great lecture at the dedication of the James B. Lasley Ornithology Collection. This collection of hundreds of books on birds and birdwatching represents a major addition to the Library's natural history collection.

Jim Elliott with Aplomado falcon in the Main Reading Room

Jim discussing the Avian Conservation Center, and an entertaining owl

A close up of the Aplomado falcon. 

There's something strangely appropriate about an owl in a library...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

From the collections: watermelons for a Founding Father

Happy July 12th, the birthday of the Medal of Honor, poet Pablo Neruda, and the death day of Alexander Hamilton. 

Hamilton is remembered as many things: scholar, economist, and first Secretary of the Treasury, but rarely do we note that he's largely the reason Thomas Jefferson became President. Hamilton's meddling, in support of his friend Charles Coatesworth Pinckney, had severely weakened the Federalist Party and opened the door for Democratic-Republican victory. Remember, however, that at this time only the Presidency was up for election: the Vice President was just the guy who came in second place. So when there was a tie for votes between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, the House of Representatives had to decide which man would become President, and which Vice President. 

Hamilton and Jefferson were political enemies, but Hamilton and Burr were personal ones. After thirty-five rounds of voting, none of which gave Jefferson his needed majority to win, Hamilton threw his weight behind (and some led some complicated political machinations in support of) the Man from Monticello. Sometimes referred to as the "Revolution of 1800", this stunning defeat of the Federalists was significantly (if inadvertently) caused by Madison, the Federalists' greatest strategist.

In this 1802 letter to Pinckney (from the Library Society's manuscript collection), a dejected Hamilton reflects on life outside of politics, stating "A garden, as you know, is a very usual refuge of a disappointed politician" before He then asks Pinckney to send him some melon seeds from his Charleston plantation to start a crop at his new country house. Hamilton could never stand to be outside politics for long, though, and about two paragraphs after discussing melon farming, he begins to give his opinions on American expansion into the West. Within two years from the writing of this letter, the political and personal fight between Hamilton and Burr would culminate in the famous duel that killed him. (Though, on a happier note, it is the direct inspiration for today's blog post.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Awk-ward ramblings

A brief bird story for July 3rd, the 168th anniversary of the death of the last Great Auk (pinguinus impennis). The Great Auk was like a giant puffin, about two-and-a-half feet in height and ten pounds or so in weight. With a range that spanned the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to Scandinavia to the south Atlantic coast of France, the Great Auk was given the double curse of being both tasty and covered in an exceptionally soft down.

Cover him in barbecue sauce, or use him like a pillow!

This led to many auks becoming pillows, or auk burgers, or even just used as fishing bait. By the late 18th century, the Auk was dying off. In a move of environmental protection the US Fish & Wildlife Service could only dream of, a 1775 statute in St. John's, Newfoundland allowed for the public flogging of those caught taking the eggs or feathers of the Great Auk.

Such radical environmentalism was not enough to save the bird: in the early 19th century, as more scientists and museums realized the bird was rapidly disappearing, they launched a struggle to secure specimens for their collections with a drive and intensity not unlike some parents' holiday bloodlust to secure a Tickle-Me-Elmo for their pleading progeny. 

Or Cabbage Patch Kids. Or Razor scooters. Or THIS memorable guy...

The last Great Auk in Britain was found on a tiny island off the Scottish coast in 1840.  Locals caught it, tied it up, then beat it to death shortly thereafter. [In their defence, they were convinced the bird was a witch.] The last known breeding pair of Great Auks were captured in the act of incubating an egg and effortlessly strangled in 1844, their bodies stuffed to be entered into a private collection.

Your loyal blogger hopes your love of birds leads you to not kill them. In fact, we hope it leads you to celebrate them, and there's no better way to do that than to join us at the Library Society on July 24th at 5PM for a reception welcoming the Lasley Ornithology Collection to the Library.

In mid-May, we received a unique library of almost 200 ornithology books from the collection of the late James Bernard Lasley. The Library Society and the Lasley family will host a reception to welcome this wonderful addition into our Natural History collection. Jim Elliott, founder and Executive Director of the Avian Conservation Center will speak, with a reception to follow. As always, call 843.723.9912 or email us at rsvp@charlestonlibrarysociety to reserve your spot at the event.