BOOKS: Vista Nieve

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2002:

Vista Nieve by Melbourne R. Carriker
Blue Mantle Press (36901 Marshall Hutts Rd., Rio Hondo-Arroyo City,
TX 78583), 2001. 312 pages, paperback. $18.95.

On July 28, 2002, Colombian ornithologists Jorge Velasquez
and Alonso Quevado photographed 14 examples of Fuertes’s parrot among
tall trees in an alpine forest near the summit of a volcano in the
northern Andes. The brightly colored indigo-and-yellow parrot was
previously documented only in 1911, when specimens were among the
5,355 birds of 513 species and subspecies whom Melbourne A. Carriker
Jr. shotgunned out of the foliage of that region and into the
scientific literature.

Meb Carriker, as the gunner was known, eventually killed at
least 80,000 birds in the name of science, according to tallies
presented every few dozen pages by his son Melbourne R. Carriker.
Meb massacred birds from Costa Rica to Venezuela, 1902-1922,
winning widespread recognition, in his time, as first to describe
many species of bird and bird louse, in an era when birding and bird
hunting were almost indistinguishable pursuits. Only after the
invention of small, light cameras with high-speed shutters and the
publication of the first Roger Tory Peterson field guide in 1934
would birding become the relatively nonviolent pastime it is today.
A retired marine mollusk expert, the younger Melbourne
Carriker tries to remember his often absent, evidently quarrelsome,
and eventually philandering father as a positive inspiration and
influence. Melbourne is honest enough to acknowledge the facts as he
observed them, however, and as family records document them, as
he traces 68 years of history preceding his own birth in Santa Marta,
Colombia, in 1915.
Now 87, Melbourne unflinchingly describes the racism of his
parents and his maternal grandparents, the pioneering coffee
planters Orlando and Eva Flye, which they understood in the context
of time and place as upholding social standards. Their attitudes
reflected acculturation, not personal character, and they obviously
had no idea that they were gradually stoking the class unrest that
decades after their deaths erupted as low-intensity warfare, stoked
by cocaine money. That, in turn, ended commercial coffee growing
in the region, and for the past generation has kept the birds of the
region off limits to most ornithologists and eco-tourists.
Many readers will wince as Melbourne describes barnyard
cattle castration, slaughter, and a failed effort to save the
dysentery-stricken baby of a peasant family. The infant smelled so
bad that while she received attentive nursing, she was kept outside
on the porch.
Though Melbourne details the suffering vividly enough to
establish that he was neither indifferent to it nor able to forget
it, he makes clear that such events were not then recognized as
unacceptably cruel behavior. Castration and slaughter were (and
still are) routine work on Colombian haciendas, considered to be
absolutely necessary, and Carme, mother of Melbourne, was
well-regarded for her many efforts to provide medical and dental care
to the peons, even as she herself suffered an unattended miscarriage.
The day that Meb bludgeoned two pet rabbits beloved by young
Melbourne was another matter, more revealing of individual character
than just of the Colombian plantation culture–and so was Meb’s 1927
decision, seemingly driven by vanity, to relocate the family from
Colombia to Philadelphia, where he hoped to win a degree of
scientific distinction that he really did not have the credentials to
claim. Though clearly clever, technically adept, intellectually
curious, and ambitious, Meb was more a great shot than a great
scientist, and though American by birth, as were the Flyes, he was
not equipped to succeed in the U.S., especially after the Great
Depression hit in 1929.
The relocation set up a series of family misfortunes which
perhaps hit bottom with the 1938 death of Melbourne’s sister Myrtle
from a mysterious cause that Melbourne seems to hint was a botched
illegal abortion.
Returning to scientific collecting in Central and South
America, Meb was eventually divorced for desertion. Apparently a
humbler man, after many comedowns, he married his housekeeper, and
brought her back to a quiet retirement in Florida.
Vista Nieve outlines a tragic sequence of events which a
novelist or poet might have shaped around the theme of the children
enduring the consequences of sins of their fathers. Writing
straightforward family history, with no literary conceit, Melbourne
Carriker strives to emphasize moments of happiness and triumph, but
offers more resigned coping than evidence of the characters coming to
wisdom, and there are no happy endings.
The book was published before Fuertes’s parrot flew back from
presumed extinction.

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