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Review: ‘The Oxford Dodo: Culture at the Crossroads’

Image of the Oxford Dodo event

This review is re-published from the Oxford Culture Review. Please visit the Oxford Culture Review website for interviews, reviews, and previews of arts and humanities events in Oxford.

“He is a curious, interesting, and nearly perished link between obsolete forms of life and those which generally prevail.” – Thomas Hardy, from ‘The Return of the Native’

“You are all dodos for the professors to look at.” – anonymous, from writing on the wall of the old Mathematical Institute, Oxford University

From where I’m writing, nestled in one of Turl Street’s pedestrian windows, the Museum of Natural History is a true north-gate of the city’s orbit. Sharing its latitude with Oxford University Press, and Old Marston in the east, it points to the Cherwell and its flood-meadows, Jericho’s colourful walls, and Summertown: sites of wide-eyed exploration. At the heart of its collection, sentinel between Oxford and the world, are the world’s only soft-tissue dodo remains. Because only a head and the fragment of a foot remain, the Oxford dodo has lived, for the most part, in the mind rather than the flesh. It has become – like the Museum itself – a prism for the city’s imagination.

Last Thursday saw a dissection of the dodo’s histories at the Museum, in association with TORCH Oxford. The afternoon was opened by the Museum’s affable director, Paul Smith. With the skill of a practiced curator, he led us on a tour of the dodo’s fingerprints around the city, from its likeness in the Lewis Carroll Window at Christ Church’s dining hall, to the dodo-shaped gargoyle perched on a corner of the Old Bodleian. Oxford’s resident bird, he told us, arrived at the Ashmolean in 1659 under sinister circumstances (the widow of its donor was found murdered, face-down, in Elias Ashmole’s neighbour’s garden pond), and was in all likelihood the one recorded live in London in 1638, part of an early-modern travelling show.

Regardless of its immediate provenance, the Oxford dodo must have come from either Mauritius, La Reunion, or Rodriguez, where flocks were first found by Portuguese sailors and later described by their Dutch counterparts. Within seven decades of our earliest detailed sketch – by Admiral Jacob Cornelius van Neck in 1598 – the dodos were extinct. They were starved by competing with pigs for food, the latter having been introduced as a source of fresh meat for sailors heading across the Indian Ocean. The story of the Oxford specimen, which made its way to the heart of one empire’s colonial civil service, paralleled that of its relatives depicted among Indian birds in Moghul palace drawings, where they arrived as gifts from European officials eager to gain trade concessions. The birds, as Smith observed, were “central to the story of Western exploration of the East”, and its brutal import.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the dodo returned to haunt the Western imagination. Literary critic Kirsten Shepherd-Barr pursued the dodo’s strange imaginative afterlife through Hardy’s description of the ill-fated reddleman “rapidly becoming extinct in Wessex”, to Ibsen’s lament for good verse dramas – “of which”, like the dodo, “only a few individuals remain on an African island”. The Victorians, a colourful species in their own right, were “fascinated with the extinct”, and found no better foil than the dodo, which was familiar, recent, and endearingly human. John Tenniel gave the dodo hands and feet in his well-loved illustration of the Alice books, and Charles Dodgson tantalizingly presented him as a “grave and solemn” character with an alternative vision of cooperation rather than competition in the Darwinian world of Alice’s Wonderland.

As its influence in the thought-world of modern Europe grew, other creatures were extinguished in the dodo’s wake. Third in the evening’s order, historian Pietro Corsi delivered an “homage to a species of intellectuals…killed by the seekers of scientific truth”. He began with the story of the impressively-named Jean Baptiste Genevieve Marcellin Bory de Saint-Vincent, whose monumental Dictionaire Classique d’Historie Naturelle accompanied Darwin on the Beagle. In Corsi’s words, the Dictionaire represented a “summation of pre-Darwinian thought”, and contains the radically different conclusions that Bory drew after visiting La Reunion en route to Australia. Believing the islands to be ‘younger’ than the continents, created in recent history by movements of the sea floor, Bory thought that dodos were a product of nature’s attempts to put forth life on these isolated outcrops. This argument received acclaim in Edinburgh, following Ashmolean Society president Hugh Strickland‘s suggestion that God was “forming new organisms to discharge the functions required from time to time by the ever vacillating balance of nature”. Alas, such interventionist imaginings were soon out-competed by Darwin’s survival-driven model; just as, in due time, polymaths like Bory and Darwin were themselves replaced by specialist scholars.

 After these surveys of the dodo’s histories, environmental scientist Paul Jepson and fantasy author Jasper Fforde closed the panel with two contrasting visions of the its futures. Jepson first suggested that the dodo’s cultural longevity could be attributed to its role as an imaginative frame: it had become “a window through which other extinctions were known”. While previously only God could create or destroy, the dodo had shown Man his own power to drive other beings to extinction, and produced the modern moral convictions behind our conservation frameworks. Instead of the dodo, however, it was the mammoth that would be humanity’s icon for the future. The mammoth, after all, possesses the possibility of de-extinction and can, as such, become a “new redemptive frame” for our species.

But wasn’t it even more powerful to imagine the dodo brought back to life, Fforde argued? Drawing on his own books – the Thursday Next series – Fforde painted a future in which the dodo would be reclaimed as a child’s pet. “I brought him up to my room under my cloak”, his protagonist says, “I didn’t want him to be alone”. Perhaps it is only in our imaginations that we can find such close and curious connections with those we have driven to peril. It was a sombre note to end on, but the idea of redemption through fiction was sufficiently appealing. “All of us in the arts and sciences try to make an imperfect world slightly better”, said Fforde. “The wonderful thing about being a fiction writer is: I can do it quicker.”