Exhibition

Women writing birds

Susan Fenimore Cooper

America's first female nature writer

Illustration of a blue bird from Rural Hours by Susan Fenimore Cooper

Born in Mamaroneck, New York, where she began her botanical studies, Susan Fenimore Cooper was the first American woman to produce a work of literature which can be classified as nature writing. Through this pioneering nature writing, she laid the foundations for a female-led bird protection crusade which would last into the 20th twentieth century.

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Her nature journal Rural Hours (1851) predates Henry David Thoreau’s Walden by four years and traces her reflections on the wilderness throughout different seasons, manifesting an acute awareness of the need for a responsible coexistence between the natural environment and the development of civilisation. Susan Cooper’s observation of local birds in Rural Hours anticipates the first conservation efforts of the 19th century, emphasising the beauty of the changing American landscape, which must be preserved for future generations.

Warm, soft day. The birds are in an ecstasy. Goldfinches, orioles, and blue-birds enliven the budding trees with their fine voices and gay plumage; wrens and song-sparrows are hopping and singing about the shrubbery; robins and chipping-birds hardly move out of your way on the grass and gravel, and scores of swallows are twittering in the air, more active, more chatty than ever;—all busy, all happy, all at this season more or less musical.

Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours (Saturday, May 6th entry)

Two hummingbirds (male and female rubythroats) with plants and handwritten text with the title page information.

Susan first came into contact with wildlife at her grandfather’s farm in upstate New York, and it was here that she noticed that birds serve as indicators of the depletion of plant and animal life. Her intention of educating readers about fauna in order to raise environmental awareness permeates much of her work and is also manifested, for instance, in her essay ‘Birds Then and Now’ (1878), which laments the decrease of bird population in the abovementioned location.

Illustration of a bird (golden oriole) for Rural Hours by Susan Fenimore Cooper

Through her annotations on nest-counting, Susan Cooper draws attention to the mass annihilation of birds for the fashion industry, decrying the use of feathers and taxidermy birds on women’s hats. In addition, she identifies young boys among the main agents of bird slaughter, explaining how the absence of stricter bird-protection laws allowed them to ‘shoot the birds with impunity in the spring, when they are preparing to build, or even when their eggs are actually in the nest’ (Cooper 39).

Dead birds cannot build nests; they cannot sing for our joy and their own delight; they are mute, but, unhappily, they are considered a pretty ornament when pinned down among ribbons, flowers, fruits, beads, and bugles, on that composite exaggeration to which Fashion, forsooth, has given the name, but not the uses, of a hat.

Birds Then and Now in Appletons' Journal: A Magazine of General Literature, Volume 4, No. 6 (June 1878)