Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Dodo's Tale

On July 4, 1862, Reverends Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Robinson Duckworth, lecturers at Christ Church, Oxford, took the dean's three young daughters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell, on a boating trip down the river Isis. The girls begged to hear a story to pass the time, so Dodgson adopted a fictional version of ten-year-old Alice as his protagonist and began to tell a meandering, episodic fantasy. In the telling of one early scene, in which Alice encounters a group of animals and the entire party engage in a caucus race, each of the real-life boaters became a character: Lorina and Edith were a lory and an eaglet, respectively, and Rev. Duckworth was—what else?—a duck.

When he later published the story and further adventures of Alice, Rev. Dodgson would adopt the pen name Lewis Carroll, but in the caucus race his avatar was the dodo:
First [the Dodo] marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, ('the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no 'One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out 'The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, 'But who has won?'

This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, 'Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.'

'But who is to give the prizes?' quite a chorus of voices asked.

'Why, she, of course,' said the Dodo, pointing to Alice with one finger; and the whole party at once crowded round her, calling out in a confused way, 'Prizes! Prizes!'

Alice had no idea what to do, and in despair she put her hand in her pocket, and pulled out a box of comfits, (luckily the salt water had not got into it), and handed them round as prizes. There was exactly one a-piece all round.

'But she must have a prize herself, you know,' said the Mouse.

'Of course,' the Dodo replied very gravely. 'What else have you got in your pocket?' he went on, turning to Alice.

'Only a thimble,' said Alice sadly.

'Hand it over here,' said the Dodo.

Then they all crowded round her once more, while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying `We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble'; and, when it had finished this short speech, they all cheered.
The dodo was an apt choice for Dodgson because of his name, especially when pronounced with his recurring stutter. But unlike the other birds representing the boating party, the giant Mauritian pigeon had been extinct for nearly two hundred years. Memory of the bird was fading, but upon the publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland interest resurged and the dodo became the archetypal extinct animal—a reminder of man's effect on his environment.

People hunted the dodo, but it was their unintended acts that ultimately drove it to extinction:
What really finished the dodo off . . . were the rats that hitched a ride to Mauritius on some of the Dutch ships. They made a beeline for the shore when the vessels ran aground on the coral reefs, or sank.

For the rats, the dodo's eggs, just sitting there in the grass, were like Christmas and Easter all rolled into one. Young dodo chicks made a pleasant alternative menu.

Can the dodo be revived? Finnish photographer Harri Kallio snapped the above photograph on Mauritius in 2004. With his words in 1862, Dodgson revived the dodo as legend; now Kallio has attempted, with his art, to revive the dodo as fact:
Based on extensive research, Harri Kallio produced life-size sculptural reconstructions of the bird, as well as a visual photographic study of the actual dodo remains. The project culminated in photographic reconstructions of the dodo bird made with the models in their natural habitat of Mauritius Island. Research for the project was based on available historical and anatomical data, with an emphasis on art historical sources. The resulting photographic work is a visual interpretation of the dodos in the actual locations where they once lived—an imaginary encounter between the viewer and the dodos in seventeenth century Mauritius Island.

Of course, photo does not equal dodo. A model and an image are not the same as the real thing. Science may some day be able to bring the dodo back to Mauritius. Until then, what art has to offer is, to the dead bird, as faint a consolation prize as one's own thimble.

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