Destroy, Save, Repeat: A Conservation Story

March 6, 2024

A review by Megan Poole

Brown Pelican by Rien Fertel

Louisiana State University Press, 2022

101 pages, paperback

What does it mean to say that I come from the Pelican State? I consulted Brown Pelican to find an answer, and writer Rien Fertel did not disappoint. Apparently, coming from coastal Louisiana means that I suffer from a savior complex. The whole state does, and we get it honest: Right there on the Louisiana flag, our state bird, the Brown Pelican, pierces her breast, spills forth her blood, and sacrifices herself to save her starving young. This myth of the pelican as pious savior or, more broadly, as a symbol of being caught up between “the heavenly realm and this earthly life of suffering” is older than the state, of course. Fertel traces those origins back through the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Aesop’s fables, and early Christian texts into the present day where the pelican is less savior and more “badass,” the most “meme-worthy” of birds for internet audiences. In this way, Brown Pelican is less about the birds and more about us, or about how the birds serve as a mirror for humanity: If we look closely at them, we can understand the damage we have wrought.

This cultural history of the pelican offers an honest, gut-wrenching portrayal of the Brown Pelican as an indicator species, or bellwether bird, who testifies to the difficulty of living with humanity. Fertel sketches how humans alter ecosystems, and the headline is not what we come to expect from environmental texts—pesticides and petroleum. Pelicans autopsied after mass deaths tell of lethal DDT doses, sure, but the story does not start with chemicals. How humans alter ecosystems begins with our turning other beings into “pests,” never mind that their histories are older than ours, or with our fancying colorful plumage more in our hats than in the sky. The proof is in the pelicans. Often in Louisiana history the Brown Pelican has been on the verge of extinction, once in the early 1900s when President Theodore Roosevelt declared the first wildlife refuge in the nation to save the species and again in the 1960s when pesticides and pollution thwarted conservation efforts. By 1963, Fertel details, the Brown Pelican was extirpated from the Pelican State.

The ebbs and flows of the pelican population from Louisiana to Florida to California—destroy, save, repeat—are detailed through the eyes of artists like Walter Inglis Anderson, who rowed away from the land of humans after a psychotic break in the 1940s to live with world’s largest, and quickly dwindling, colony of Brown Pelicans on the Chandeleur Islands. Fertel sits readers by Anderson’s campfire and asks us to watch as the artist paints every last detail of the vanishing pelican. Later, we trudge through marshland to count pelican nests with conservation biologists and gather footage of petroleum-soaked wings with photographers following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In the end, we feel as Anderson did about the Brown Pelican when he left the islands: “You lose your heart to it.”

Put simply, Fertel makes the history of the Brown Pelican lyrical, weaving archival stories through scientific facts about how these birds survive off a diet of small, bony fish and what, exactly, that pouch of a beak is all about. Yet the book never loses focus. At every turn, Fertel analyzes what our relationship with the Brown Pelican says about humanity. When we are at our worst, the pelican is a “throwaway bird,” a “pest ripe for eradication,” a lazy, heavy, clumsy, graceless, “tragicomic” bird, a prehistoric “monster.” When we are at our best, the pelican is a “living fossil,” a testament to the importance of conservation, a symbol of resilience. Such titles are misnomers—the pelican is none of those things, or it is all of those things, but only because we make it so.

Ultimately, Fertel lands on the Brown Pelican as “the greater Gulf’s canary on the coastline”, sounding the alarm. Again. Anyone who considers themself an environmentalist, conservationist, or climate activist must read this book, to learn about the Brown Pelican, our bellwether bird, but more to grapple with the mistakes of the saviorism tendencies often underlying such work. My favorite aspect of Brown Pelican is just that: You come to learn about the bird, and you leave realizing how often we make birding more about ourselves than about our wing-flapping neighbors.

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Megan Poole is a science writing and rhetoric professor at the University of Louisville. Her current book project considers how biologists in the field, such as ornithologists studying bird song or marine ecologists studying whale song, listen to nature. She was born and raised in Grand Lake, a small town south of Lake Charles, Louisiana.