In Honor of Maya Angelou: The Caged Bird Sung and Sung

Maya Angelou was raped as a child. Visiting her aunt and uncle, she was frightened to tell them about the rapist for fear her uncle would hurt this man. She decided to use her voice; she decided to tell. Some time afterwards a sheriff knocked on the door to report that they found the man dead. Maya, at age seven, concluded in her child’s mind that she was responsible.

In response to the “deadliness of her voice” she decided not to speak. She didn’t use her voice for over six years. While I don’t think she killed this man; I do think there was immense power in her voice. Anyone who listened to her couldn’t help but be profoundly moved. The unfolding and life-giving power of that voice would change the course of millions.

In her silence she created an alchemical chamber where the power and absolute beauty of her voice unfolded and flowered. Her grandmother, whom she called “mama” never tried to correct Maya or “heal” her from her wound. Instead, mama kept telling Maya that she would be a great teacher someday. Mama knew something that very few would even consider — that the soul, spirit, and nature of this young girl were transforming and needed to be held in a radical faith and love. Maya suffered great insult not speaking as a youth — she was teased, criticized and mocked as she wrote her words for others to see instead of using her voice. She spent much time under mama’s porch feeding on poetry, both black and white.

One day, six years later, mama said, “You’ll never appreciate those words until you hear them rolling off your own lips.” [1] She took Maya to church to speak before the congregation. Maya let some poetry pass over her lips, but it was not a black poet as most would have expected. Here are her words:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

This is Sonnet 29 from William Shakespeare. When asked why she didn’t recite a black poet, why she recited Shakespeare, she said, “I knew that was written for me.”

Maya knew, as a black girl, a silent child, what it meant to be in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes; I’m sure, often, she “alone bewept her outcast state.” But she also knew that nature made her, even in her trauma, more than a king.

The first time I saw Dr. Angelou she was in her 60s. She told the story of her rape. Some people and counselors thought that she needed to let this part of her story go, but I was inspired that she didn’t ‘heal it away;’ instead, she made it into something. Life, mama, and Maya made that story into something gloriously human with all the potential we all have to make the deepest humanity out of our pain and suffering. I can hear her saying, “I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.”

The next time I saw her was around 10 years ago; I suppose she was about 76-years-old. She asked to be introduced as Dr. Maya Angelou. She had earned her doctorate, spoke seven languages, and had many honorary doctorates as well. She said something that amazed me — that it was not easy for her to ask others to use the label “doctor” to refer to herself. It was easy for mainstream America to see her as a poet, an author, and a dancer, but to see her as a doctor – many were still having to get over their prejudices to be comfortable calling a black woman “doctor.” I think this is still true. Here was one of the grandest intelligences America had to offer; here was a black woman six-feet-tall, wearing heals and a sleeveless blouse, standing before thousands who came to hear her speak and still she was growing into her full self, her full powers. What a model!

The last time I saw Dr. Angelou she told a story of a white woman who came up to her after one of her talks. The woman thanked her saying that her daughter was suicidal but changed the course of her life after hearing Dr. Maya Angelou speak. And then the woman did something unexpected; she said that she was surprised to learn that this influence on her daughter’s life looked like her — a black woman. My eyes teared; my gut cringed; how would this model of humanity respond? I imagined she would see this woman for the ignorant child she was. Instead, Maya said that she went home and cried much of the weekend. She cried; even though we “shouldn’t take people personally,” “Shouldn’t suffer fools,” etc. She cried; that meant that I could also. I was in law school at that time; I was in my early 40s. I cried many evenings after class. Maya told me it was ok.

I remember reading an interview she did with Dr. Cornel West where she told the story of being on the set of the film Poetic Justice. A fight ensued between two men and threatened to become violent. People on the set backed off wanting to protect themselves. She stepped in, put her hands on one of the men, and said, “Let me speak to you. Let me talk to you. Do you know you’re the best we have? Do you know we don’t have anybody better than you? Do you know everybody has paid for you, and they’re all dead?” [2] The man started to cry and she walked him away from others so he would not be ashamed of his tears. She didn’t know at the time that the man was Tupac Shakur. When asked in an interview years later why she did that, Dr. Angelou said sometimes we have to put our hands on another person and remind them how precious they are; to remind them that they are the best we have.

In honor of Dr. Maya Angelou, may I say in my own voice, a voice empowered by hers, you are the best we have; each of us are the best we have.

[1] Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Bantam Books, 1969).

[2] Cornel West, Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 199.

Robin and Linda Williams with Garrison Keillor and Richie Gorski on the synthesizer…


Across the Blue Mountains

One morning, one morning, one morning in May
I heard a married man to a young girl say
“Go dress you up, Pretty Katie, and come go with me
Across the Blue Mountains to the Allegheny.

“I’ll buy you a horse, love, and saddle to ride
I’ll buy myself another to ride by your side
We’ll stop at every tavern we’ll drink when we’re dry
Across the Blue Mountains go my Katie and I

“Well, up spoke her mother, and angry was she then
“Sayin’ daughter, oh dear daughter, he’s a married man
And there’s young men aplenty more handsome than he
Let him take his own wife to the Allegheny”

“Oh mother, oh mother, he’s the man of my heart
And wouldn’t it be a dreadful thing if we should have to part
I’d envy every woman who I’d ever see
Go ‘cross the Blue Mountains to the Allegheny”

(Well the last time I saw him, he was saddled to ride
With Katie, his darling, right there by his side
A laughing and a singing and thankful to be free
To cross the Blue Mountain to the Allegheny)

We left before daybreak on a buckskin and roan
Past tall shivering pines where mockingbirds moan
Past dark cabin windows where eyes never see
Across the Blue Mountains to the Allegheny




Past dark cabin windows where eyes never see
Across the Blue Mountains to the Allegheny




river rock collection spot near harrisonburg









My last travel in life with my husband was across these mountains to a new home together.

It lasted for another twenty-five years.  I am so glad we made the trip and took the chance.

We did it about the same time that this recording was made and I much remember going with him to hear Robin and Linda sing together in a lovely Virginia venue.

One of our many cherished memories.

Most of these photos were taken on our travels through the Allegheny Mountains and through the Shenandoah River area which is also captured here.  The first photo were taken in the Allegheny mountains in May and the two river pictures were taken of the Shenandoah, also in May.

The Feathered River

In the early 1800s, a naturalist named Alexander Wilson was traveling in Kentucky when the sky suddenly became dark. Wilson believed, he later wrote, that it was “a tornado, about to overwhelm the house and everything round in destruction.”

When Wilson got his wits back, he realized the sun had been blotted out by passenger pigeons.

The journals of many early explorers contain similar passages. The passenger pigeon would sweep across the eastern United States in vast flocks, feeding on chestnuts and acorns as they traveled. As Wilson gazed at his passenger pigeon flock, he tried to figure out how many birds it contained. From one side to the other, it was a mile wide. It streamed overhead like a feathered river for more than four hours. Based on that information, Wilson guessed that it contained over 2.2 billion birds–”an almost inconceivable multitude,” he wrote, “and yet probably far below the actual amount.”

In 1914, the passenger pigeon became extinct, likely thanks to industrial-scale hunting. In his book  Nature’s Ghosts, Mark Barrow notes that our eradication of such a populous species came as a tremendous shock–one that helped the world appreciate nature’s true fragility.

Because the passenger pigeon disappeared before modern ecology came of age, scientists don’t know much about its natural history. They’ve had to rely mostly on the reports of witnesses like Wilson–reports that encourage us to leap to a fairly simple story: vast flocks of passenger pigeons, followed by a few stuffed corpses preserved in museum.

But in recent decades, some researchers have argued that the history of passenger pigeons was more complicated. In 1985, for example, the archaeologist William Neumann pointed out that Native American archaeological sites don’t contain many passenger pigeon bones. If the birds were blot-out-the-sun abundant for thousands of years, you’d expect Native Americans to have feasted on them. Neumann argued that the nineteenth-century swarms did not reflect the long-term reality of passenger pigeons.

Now a new generation of scientists are tackling this question with a new line of evidence: DNA. It turns out that some stuffed pigeons stored in museum collections still retain some decent-sized chunks of genetic material.

In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Chih-Ming Hung of National Taiwan Normal University and colleagues report how they got DNA from the toe pads of three passenger pigeons–two caught in Minnesota and one in Pennsylvania. They managed to get anywhere from 57 to 75% of the entire genome of each bird.

Painting by Louis Agassi Fuertes/National Geographic

When scientists can study that much DNA from an animal, they can learn a lot of things from it. They can learn, for example, how big the population of its ancestors was in the past.

Scientists can manage this feat thanks to the variation in each animal’s genes. If you compare a collagen gene in your DNA to someone else’s, the two copies may be a little different. That’s because mutations arose in the gene as it was passed down through the generations.

In a big population, there will be a lot of these variants, which will get passed down to future generations. A small population, on the other hand, doesn’t have the necessary size to contain many variants. The individuals in that population will pass down their meager genetic variation to their offspring.

The genetic variation in a population today can thus serve as a clue to its size in the past. Even if it later swells up to huge proportions, it may still only have a small amount of variation, because its origins were so modest.

Strictly speaking, scientists can’t measure the true size of an ancient population this way. Only a fraction of individuals in each generation end up reproducing, and so we can only look at the variation of their genes. Scientists refer to this smaller group of reproducers as the “effective population size.” It’s useful to know the effective population size, however, because it can serve as a rough guide to a true population. (Typically, the effective population size is about a tenth of the true population.)

When scientists first began to measure effective population sizes, they would do so by comparing a particular gene in a lot of individuals. In recent years, they invented a neat reverse trick: they can now estimate the effective population size by looking at a lot of genes from just a few individuals. If many of those genes are different from one individual to another, their difference tells scientists that those animals came from a big population in the past. If the genes are very similar, the population was small.

What’s especially remarkable about this method is that it lets scientists track the size of a population through time. That’s because scientists can compare how long ago the variants of each gene arose from a common ancestor. If a lot of gene variants can be traced back to one particular time, that suggests the population was small then. In 2011, Heng Li and Richard Durbin of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute used this method to reconstruct human history from just six genomes. They found that human populations shrank drastically between about 50,000 and 20,000 years ago, and then expanded tremendously.

Now Hung and colleagues have used the same method to track passenger pigeon population. Surprisingly, they found that the long-term average effective population size was only 330,000 birds. Scientists have estimated that the population of passenger pigeons in the nineteenth century was between 3 and 5 billion birds. In other words, the effective population size is a thousand times lower than you’d expect.

This mismatch hints that passenger pigeons had a much smaller population at some point in the past. And when Hung and colleagues reconstructed the history of the passenger pigeon population, they found that the birds have indeed gone through some huge fluctuations. About 120,000 years ago, the pigeons were abundant, but they shrank to a small population 21,000 years ago. They then rebounded after the last Ice Age, reaching another peak about 9000 years ago. Since then, they have been declining slowly.

This pattern fits the ecological history of the Ice Ages pretty well. About 120,000 years ago, the climate was warm, glaciers were at their minimum, and forests were widespread across North America. By 21,000 years ago, a lot of passenger pigeon territory was covered by ice, and much of the remaining habitat couldn’t support the oak and chestnut forests that the birds depended on for their food. Once the glaciers retreated, the forests returned, along with the birds.

But Hung and colleagues argue that these long-term climate changes are only part of the explanation for the small effective population size of passenger pigeons. They propose that the birds were like locusts, swiftly expanding when food supplies were good, but collapsing when times got bad. (Real locusts can reach 100 billion in an outbreak, but their effective population size is only half a million.)

In their new study, Hung and colleagues come to a similar conclusion to Neumann’s. The huge flocks that naturalists like Wilson saw in the nineteenth century were not an immutable fixture of the pre-industrial American landscape. Instead, Wilson may have simply been witness to an outbreak of birds.

It’s even possible that settlers from Europe may have been responsible for that outbreak. Native Americans may have kept pigeon populations low by hunting them and collecting acorns and chestnuts. By pushing Native Americans off their land, the Europeans may have allowed the birds to increase their numbers–and helped them even more by planting crops that the birds could feed on.

As researchers assemble passenger pigeon DNA, they also move closer to potentially bringing the bird back from extinction. As I described last year in National Geographic, they could theoretically use the genome of a closely related species, the band-tailed pigeon, as a scaffolding to engineer DNA with passenger-pigeon-specific mutations. Ben Novak of the University of California at Santa Cruz explained in this TEDx video how it might then be possible to breed birds with this DNA until they looked–and perhaps even behaved–like passenger pigeons of old.

Click to enlarge

Hung’s new study (and similar research being carried out by Novak and his colleagues) suggests that scientists might be able to get passenger pigeons back on their feet without creating the billion-strong flocks that Wilson saw. Even though they sometimes fell to far smaller numbers, passenger pigeons survived for hundreds of thousands of years before people started firing guns at them.

On the other hand, if we were to bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction, it may not stay at some steady population level. If the conditions were right, it might explode to higher numbers. And if we make life difficult for the birds–through climate change, for example–it’s possible that we could drive their numbers down again. The passenger pigeon may be able to do a good impression of a tornado, but it’s still delicately dependent on its ecosystem.

[Apologies for the typos in the original version of this post. I hope I've caught them all now.]

I am also reposting the article’s interesting comments….
  1. Shecky R
    June 16, 2014

    “The genetic variation in a population today can thus serve as a clue to its size in the pasta.” …as a replacement for meatballs I presume ;-) but seriously, fascinating stuff.

    [CZ: I think my auto-correct is just looking for ways to embarrass me in public now. Thanks.]

  2. Markk
    June 16, 2014

    The evidence for Native American usage of Passenger pigeons indicating a smaller number then, has been pretty thoroughly contested. I am surprised (or maybe not, ecologists and people who actually count the, in truth, large numbers of Passenger Pigeon bones in pre-Columbian sites don’t get the press). Several lines of evidence including analysis of dropping remains and beetle populations show that Passenger Pigeon populations were also quite large pre-1492. Of course there may be fluctuations over 10000 year time frames and this paper does give good results, there. Bill Shorger’s work at the University of Wisconsin int the 40′s and 50′s (a colleague of Aldo Leopold) gave a good picture of the size of the populations in the 1800′s that shows a very large number correlated with mast (acorn and beechnut) production rate until the convergence of rail, telegraph, and market caused the destruction of the nest grounds in a very systematic overkill.

    An “outbreak of birds” was not unusual but something that newspaper accounts from the time show occurred somewhere in the Northeast US and Canada almost every year in the 1800′s.

  3. Dwayne LaGrou
    June 16, 2014

    How wonderful it would be to be able to bring back an animal that, Without human intervention, Would most likely still be here. If we could start to “undo” the damage done by our short sightedness we could really be on to something special. Now I’m not talking about bringing back dinosaurs, But if we could repair some of the damage it could help heal the planet.

  4. Teresa Fitzgerald
    June 17, 2014

    I just saw the world premier of a wonderful documentary on this topic-”From Billions to None.” Look for it on PBS this fall.

  5. Anna-Maria
    June 17, 2014

    I don’t think that anyone can safely predict what impact the reintroduction of a former extinct species would have on the environment. Whenever new species are introduced into a new habitat (like Spanish leeches in central Europe or the Aga Toads in Australia) nothing good comes from it.

    Wouldn’t it be better if we actually focused on saving the threatened plants and animals still in existence? Being responsible for driving certain species into extiction is nothing we can wash ourselves clean of, yet this practice would probably only lower the awareness of conservation, since you could always argue that everything that’s being killed off can always be brought back a few hundred years in the futere.

    Conservation isn’t about raising the dead, it’s about the here and now. That’s what we should focus on.

  6. Steve Schaffner
    June 17, 2014

    You seem to have misspelled Heng Li’s name most (but not all) of the time.

    [CZ: Heng Li was only involved in the 2011 study on humans. Hung is the first author of the new pigeon paper.]

  7. sterling~bird
    June 17, 2014

    Nice article. I enjoyed reading it. The picture you posted is somewhat disturbing.
    P.S. My computer conspires against me every once in awhile. :-)

  8. Joe Stevens
    June 17, 2014

    This is kind of side ways look, but Charles Mann discusses this in his book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Before the English even made the scene, 90% of the native population had already been “removed” by the various diseases that the Spaniards and their animals brought with them. The native people of the time “farmed” beneficial nut trees in large groves; the mast was a very important food source. Without humans harvesting the mast, it was left for the animals and birds in the area to eat, creating a huge burst of animal populations.

    Lack of Indians is the cause of the massive flocks of passenger pigeons. Europeans were happy to shoot them both.


  9. Lamoka Ledger
    June 17, 2014

    It’s simply incorrect to say that passenger pigeon bones are not common in Native American archaeological sites. Nor should anyone be surprised that passenger pigeon populations fluctuated in size over time. I suspect the researchers amassed some interesting DNA data, but then went a bit crazy with their interpretations. Just look at the inconsistencies in your own description of these presumed population swings: the estimated 5 billion pigeons in the 19th century are the end result of a slow decline from an even larger peak 9,000 years ago, yet at the same time Native Americans (who supposedly didn’t hunt pigeons much) kept populations low by hunting them, but when Europeans came over and started hunting pigeons, that didn’t keep populations low?

  10. John Scanlon, FCD
    June 19, 2014

    Anna-Maria, “Conservation isn’t about raising the dead, it’s about the here and now.”
    But the genomes of the recently-extinct ARE still here, now, like remaindered copies of an out-of-print book. We can choose not to burn the last few copies of some of those books, after our ancestors burned all the rest. Don’t you dare tell me it’s bad to save them.

Photo: WORD FOR THE DAY -<br /><br /><br />
Sunday, Jul. 6</p><br /><br />
<p>You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.</p><br /><br />
<p>Thomas Merton<br /><br /><br />
(photo by André Rau)” /></p>
Sunday, Jul. 6

You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.

Thomas Merton
(photo by André Rau)



Photo: WORD FOR THE DAY - Tuesday, Jul. 1 I try to remind myself that we are never promised anything, and that what control we can exert is not over the events that befall us but how we address ourselves to them. Jeanne DuPrau The Earth House (photo by Werner Orac)

Tuesday, Jul. 1

I try to remind myself that we are never promised anything, and that what control we can exert is not over the events that befall us but how we address ourselves to them.

Jeanne DuPrau
The Earth House
(photo by Werner Orac)



Wednesday, May. 28

My brain is only a receiver; in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength, and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.

Nikola Tesla
(photo by A.T. Mann)

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory


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