Death by Hat

Florida’s Everglades are about half gone, drained over the past 80 years or so in favor of cropland and subdivisions. This is one big reason more than 90 percent of the state’s historic population of wading birds are gone, too. But a perhaps more striking reason is mentioned prominently in many of the interpretative displays you’re likely to see down there (as I did on a recent trip).

That reason: women’s hats. In the late 1800s, a fashion for elaborate feathered hats developed in the U.S. and elsewhere; some women even wore whole dead stuffed birds on their heads. (They must not have owned cats.) And the place to get the fanciest plumes was in the nesting grounds of Southern Florida.

Once, egrets and other white-feathered creatures darkened the skies and covered the boggy land; millions had been sacrificed to the milliner by the time Florida passed a law forbidding the trade. The devastation sparked the creation of the Audobon Society, which had worked for the laws, and at least two Audubon Society game wardens were killed protecting the nesting grounds from poachers (as you can learn at the Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, east of Naples, Fla.).

The law helped, but in a land as big and wild as Florida still was, it couldn’t halt poaching entirely. In fact, apparently what halted the trade wasn’t the law but, again, fashion: In the 1920s, shorter and simpler women’s hairstyles came in, ushering out big hair and the galleon-scaled hats it could hold upright.

I mention this not to tsk-tsk Edwardians, who were hardly the first (or last) to plunder nature for fashion. A couple centuries earlier, after all, North America’s beaver population was devastated because the animal’s pelt became popular for men’s hats.

I mention it, rather, because it’s all to easy to denigrate those other people for ruination of nature.

Today, it’s true, at least in the West, we’re less likely to hunt animals to extinction. But we don’t have to: We drive plant and animal species to the brink not with traps and guns, but with bulldozers, toxic chemicals and carbon-dioxide molecules that turn cool environments warm and wet places dry.

Don’t forget that  the threat to Florida’s wading birds didn’t end with the vogue for fabulous headwear. Logging soon followed, denuding the swamps of their cypress, a blow to the birds and, as before, everything else in their food web.

And today, millions of Floridians live on the  land where the birds once fed and nested. Millions more of us eat the produce grown there. Species today are dropping at an alarming rate, one our forebears of a century ago, destructive as they were, couldn’t have imagined and maybe couldn’t even have been aware of.

And that’s the worst of it: In America before the car and the petrochemical, people didn’t fully realize how fragile the natural world was, or that humanity could push it to the brink, and beyond. We do understand those things, but we’re loathe to change.

The makers and wearers of feathered hats were rapacious, indeed, but they had nothing on the children of polyester and chrome.

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