So there we were, queueing outside London’s Natural History Museum.

Alfred Waterhouse’s lavish vision, inspired in part by the basalt columns in Scotland’s Fingal’s Cave,  has enough gothic detail to absorb children for ages: from the fish on the weather vane to the creatures who sit, so lifelike, high up and gaze down on their adoring public.

This building is a flamboyant celebration of all things natural, with Morris-like pattern on every pillar, surprises in every crevice.

It, in itself, is something to gawp at.

So we gawped. And we debated: we had just an hour: what would we head for?

Felix thought, the dinosaurs; and Maddie requested a visit to that most unfortunate of exhibits, the dodo.

An hour, and a gaggle of monster ‘saurs  later, we were heading for the birds section.

The dodos stand not far along on the left hand side. They are all that is left of a catastrophic piece of decision-making from the dawn of the seventeenth century.

Jacob Corneliszoon van Neck was a Dutch naval officer who was rather good at his job. As a consequence he was given the job of leading the second Dutch expedition to Indonesia.

On his travels his route took him to an uninhabited paradise of an island, south-east of Africa’s long nose: Mauritius.

The expedition arrived in 1599: and met with the strangest birds they had ever seen.

Imagine a bird which has no predators; why would it need to fly? It would thrive on the natural bounty of the island, sublimely happy in its paradise. It would grow fat and unconcerned as nature dictated.

But Paradise was to be lost. Mainly because dodos tasted nice, and had no idea what the consequences of tasting nice could be.

Huge birds with the docile temperament of a pigeon, they were sitting ducks for the men who arrived to explore this brave new world.

The men  thought the world and its wonders would continue indefinitely, like the sea seemed to. Who, in those heady early days when each island was new potential empire –  when booty could be scooped up and transported back to civilisation – who would have imagined a stretched earth, struggling to preserve its tired resources?

And so plunder was the name of the game.

Great lumbering fowl, weighing 50 pounds, with tasty breast and stomach meat? They would not last five minutes with a rabble of exploring sailors.

Willem Van West-Zanen wrote in 1602: “They caught birds called by some Dod-aars, by others Dronte.”

“These were given the name Walghvogel during Van Neck’s voyage, because even with long stewing they would hardly become tender, but stayed tough and hard with the exception of the breast and stomach which were extremely good… The sailors brought 50 birds back to the Bruin-Vis, among them 24 or 25 Dod-aarsen, so big and heavy that scarcely two were consumed at meal time, and all that were remaining were flung into salt.”

Phil and the family sat contemplatively munching sandwiches in the atrium of his offices. He loves the dodo: he mourned its fate, but the exquisite irony of a big-bottomed bird, a walking sailor’s feast, touched his funny bone.

“Their very downfall,” he mused, “was that they tasted great, and they had no idea that they should run away.”

Dodos were real. Had someone checked the short-term stomach rumbles, had we made different decisions back then, and nurtured this strange race, who knows what might have happened?

“Dodos might have been an everyday reality”, Phil continued. “We might have been feasting on Christmas dodo with all the trimmings. There might be dodo farms.”

I would have had a pet dodo, I asserted. My daughter Maddie nodded vigorously.

But way back then, we were not mindful of the whole picture.

We perch on a man-made divide today, between one year and another. We do love our markers, and we make long lists of what we will definitely change the moment the chimes of Big Ben have faded away and the fireworks begin.

Lists are laudable things, as are resolutions. But they, like this strange before-and-after deadline of ours The New Year, are our attempt to control our environment.

Had men done a little less controlling, had they stood back to contemplate, my pet dodo might have been waddling around in my back garden as I type, ruling the dog with its intimidating stare.

And so this year, having  stared into the artificial eyes of a creature long extinct, I resolve just one thing: to relinquish some of that man-made control.

And to listen very mindfully indeed to the music of the spheres.

Picture source here


37 thoughts on “Dodo

    1. I know. Some of the original accounts from the opening 1600s make very sad reading. But if it hadn’t been Dutch mariners it would probably have been someone else. People seem simply not to have stood back and considered this amazing bird and its future for a second. They saw its novelty value – a handful were brought to Europe, and at least one to India – but not its place in the long term scheme of things.

      Poor old dodo.

  1. Your resolve to let things be is laudable, if only we could impart such non-control to those in position of governmental control. We seldom see a bigger picture and we behave no better today than our ancestors.
    I don’t make New Years’ resolutions, I just try to do a little better each day and follow the Golden Rule…not always easy, and I fail miserably on occasion, but, it’s the best rule I can think of.

  2. I fear that an insufficient number of mankind will ever learn to see the bigger picture . . . to stand back and contemplate; and, yes, there are too many in higher places to whom plunder is STILL the name of the game.

    As Lou, I do not set resolutions, but I do look at each New Year as a blessing and potential for new opportunities. (By the way, there’s truth to the rumor that those New Years roll around more quickly as the number we have celebrated increases.) 🙂

    So happy to have had the opportunity to meet you in 2011. May 2012 bring you and yours continued opportunities and blessings. I shall look forward to reading all about them.

    1. I believe that with each year that passes, we see our 24 hour clock reduced slightly, thus, we are only getting about 22 hours a day at our age. Ergo, it really does go by faster.

      This and other quantum physics theories are brought to you by the number 7.

      1. (:-D I believe the cookie monster has an excellent grasp of such quantum physics but he doesn’t like to shout about it, spoils his image)

        New Year: a huge blessing with bags of potential. I am rapidly expanding my list of new year positive perspectives 🙂

    2. Thanks for your words, Karen. It’s been lovely to meet you, and hear your perspective on so many issues. May you have a lovely New Year, and hope 2012 is just the potential for opportunity you relish 🙂

  3. A pet dodo. Such a glorious thing to contemplate.

    I used to categorize my resolutions by life area – money, career, relationship. You get the idea. Thank God I finally outgrew that behavior. What a dodo I was. 🙂

    Happy New Years Eve, Kate (and Phil, Maddie, Felix, Macaulay and Kit Kat.)

  4. One thing that’s certain is that your blog isn’t as dead as a dodo. I’ve enjoyed reading it and meeting you during the last year, and look forward to another year of fascinating facts and features.

    Here’s wishing you and your family a peaceful and happy 2012. Thanks for keeping us all engaged and enthralled.

  5. In my elementary school years, there was this illusive club we all sought to join. It happened when one entered the eighth grade and only girls could be in it. It was called the Dodo club. It was secretive, though every girl got to join. To do so, you just needed to look up the dodo in the dictionary and then swear not to tell anyone about it. That was it. Silly things that girls did in those days. I suppose they do them still. No harm was done, no one was left out, and, yet, no one else learned about the dodo, either.

    Thought provoking, as always, Kate, with a grand resolution for the new year, which I hope is happy for the entire Shrewsday clan. Best wishes.

  6. Terrific post, Kate. Maybe we can recreate the Dodo via cloning technology?

    Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do. ~ Wendell Berry

    The Dodo is dead . . . long live the Dodo! 😀

    1. Love that Berry quote, Nancy. Funnily enough, most of our lunch yesterday was taken up discussing how one might re-engineer a dodo. It would take a while, apparently: introduce dodo DNA to something living – say, a pigeon – and gradually breed all the pigeon out of it so that only dodo is left.

      I can wait 🙂

      Happy New Year…

  7. Have you read the excellent Jasper Fforde? His re-imagined England is a steampunkish literary police-state, in which Dodos have been genetically rebuilt as just what you suggest… pets!

    And with that, I resolve not only to write more words this year, but to *read* more in the coming year–there’s sphere-music in a good book, for certain!

  8. a lifelong and life-oriented resolution – well done

    poor dodos, like so many spoecies, just gone as man assumes that he is to be obeyed in all things and to dominate regardless of the cost to others

    will we ever be wise enough as a species?

  9. I thought the dodo disappeared in some prehistoric purge. Your post made me 1) sad and 2) mad enough to shake someone till his teeth rattled, if I could just figure out who that someone is.

    Possessing one of those jiggly brains, I jumped directly from dodo to passenger pigeon and came up with this note about Clive Ponting’s ‘A Green History of the World,’ (Penguin, 1992):
    “Rather than concentrate on the irrelevant history of Kings and Empires, Ponting writes about societies’ effect on the ecologies they exist in. It’s one of the most powerful yet succinct books that I have ever read.” You, being literate, have probably already read this; I, being a Yank (Southern style), have to put it on my TBR list.

    Kings and Empires irrelevant? Shocking!

    1. Ah, but Ponting championed the untold stories, didn’t he, Kathy? Poor pigeons: astounding to have gone from trees almost falling down from the weight of flocks to extinction in a matter of a few centuries, to fill the stomachs of men. Thanks for that, Kathy. Sad stuff.

  10. Kate, your resolve makes you one of my heroes. Do you think we can pull this off? With all the increases to our dimensional levels supposedly coming this year, the time for us is now. Wahooo.

  11. I had no idea Dodos were that large. Interesting view of history. So sadly true about the plundering mindset, of course, and I deeply appreciate the mindfulness of this post, Kate. I’m not much for resolutions, but I’m strong in areas of assessment and evaluation, and I rely on listening to the music of the spheres to maintain a humble sense of my place in the world. You said it so much better than I, but I am most assuredly in agreement. Blessings to the Shrewsday’s for a healthy 2012. Debra

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