Rosalie Barrow Edge (1877-1962)
Even one of her friends called her an “indomitable hellcat.”
An anonymous officer of the Audubon Society referred to her as a “very hot potato.”
And the Audubon Society itself, through its attorney, dismissed her as a “common scold.”
New York socialite-turned-ardent conservationist Rosalie Barrow Edge was unmoved by this last insult; years afterward, she wryly described her response: “Imagine how I trembled.”
That sarcastic phrase could have served as her lifelong motto. In her twenties, inspired by a British suffragette she met aboard a transatlantic voyage, Edge became wholly dedicated to the cause of women’s suffrage — despite the fact that her husband was staunchly against women having the right to vote.
But Edge found her true calling when she and her family purchased a summer home in Westchester County, New York, and she started observing the bird life there. Her interest turned into a hobby, and her hobby turned into an all-consuming passion. (Again, her husband was less than enthused: a New Yorker feature article notes, “By and large, [Edge] believes, he was no fonder of birds than he was of woman’s suffrage.”)
When she connected with a zoologist from the American Museum of Natural History during one of her bird-watching excursions into Central Park, and the zoologist expressed to her his concerns about conservation, Edge indefatigably dedicated herself — at age 52– to the preservation of American wildlife.
Utilizing some of the skills she’d acquired in her efforts for women’s suffrage, he wrote a seemingly unending series of letters to government agencies and major publications of the day on the topic. She authored pamphlet upon pamphlet on wildlife facts, in an attempt to dispel common myths which led to the mass killing of many species. One Edge pamphlet, entitled “Eagle in Wonderland,” refuted the popular belief that eagles could carry off small children — although she did concede, sniffily, that “a well-muscled eagle can lift about four pounds, and that if a four-pound baby were sitting on a lofty rock, such an eagle might conceivably pick it up. ‘So,’ she says, ‘if you have a four-pound baby, perhaps you shouldn’t leave it unattended on a rock.'”
Rosalie Barrow Edge attracted fans via her writings, and they helped her in her endeavors; she and a small group once assailed actress Olivia de Havilland’s apartment in the St. Regis hotel in order to rescue a group of duck hawks from de Havilland’s balcony.
And when one of her admirers managed to obtain correspondence indicating that rangers in Yellowstone National Park were engaging in the savage destruction of white pelicans there–how, exactly, the correspondence was obtained was, and is, murky–Edge promptly redacted the names of those involved, and released the letters publicly. The resultant uproar persuaded the National Park Service to tell the rangers at Yellowstone to lay off bashing the pelicans.
Her battles with the Audubon Society, which resulted in a years-long lawsuit (and the “common scold” moniker), were based in her belief that the Society –largely run by men–was far too accommodating to business interests and hunters, and that as a result, the organization was not truly honoring its commitment to wildlife.
You may not be surprised to learn Edge won the lawsuit.
Edge was also instrumental in the effort to create Olympic National Park in Washington and Kings Canyon National Park in California. But her most lasting legacy is probably Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania. For years, the site had been the location of an annual, bloody hunt of hawks and eagles. In 1934, after seeing pictures of the annual slaughter, Edge bought the land, stopped the hunt, and established a sanctuary for birds of prey. In 1960, Hawk Mountain was where Rachel Carson made some of the first observations which resulted in her ecological classic Silent Spring.
To this day, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary remains an invaluable scientific and cultural resource, open to the public.
Fancy how Rosalie Barrow Edge would tremble.
Sources for this article include:
Articles on Audubon.com by Dyana Z. Furmansky, author of the book Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy: The Activist Who Saved Nature from the Conservationists, University of Georgia Press, 2009.
The “Fancy how I trembled” anecdote is recounted in “Conservation’s First Lady,”a review of Furmansky’s book by Laura Paskus, High Country News, July 21, 2009.
Taylor, Robert Lewes.”Oh, Hawk of Mercy!”, The New Yorker, April 17, 1948.
Also: I know that the hawk and the eagle are not drawn in correct scale. I messed up.