The Audubon Society, Sarah Orne Jewett, and The Writing of Phoebe’s Heron

[From the Afterword to Phoebe’s Heron]

Phoebe’s Heron was inspired by Sarah Orne Jewett’s classic short story, “A White Heron,” published in 1886. Jewett (1849–1909), an early American regionalist writer, set most of her stories along the southern coast of Maine.

She was also an early conservationist, committed to the protection of birds in a time when it was fashionable for women to wear feathered millinery. Her story “A White Heron,” helped to awaken conservation causes that were just getting underway in the United States and which still resonate in the current environmental movement.

That same year, in 1886, poet Celia Thaxter wrote an essay called “Women’s Heartlessness.” In colorful language, she was the first writer to link the subjects of fashion and conservation. She describes a woman who, after laughing at a speech about protecting birds, walks away, “A charnel-house of beaks and claws and bones and feathers and glass eyes upon her fatuous head.”

Both of these women were influential members of the Audubon Society, whose mission in those early days was to save birds that were being hunted to the point of extinction. George Bird Grinnell founded the Audubon Society in the late 1800s in memory of John James Audubon (1787–1851), an explorer and artist whose admiration for birds inspired his famous paintings.

Fledging Audubon groups began forming across the country, often in the form of women’s teas. In a time when women had little or no political voice, these gatherings gained strength and propelled the momentum for influencing change in the way people thought about killing birds for millinery purposes to the eventual legislation for their protection. People were drawn to Audubon Clubs in many ways. Twelve-year-old Phoebe Greer’s story is just one fictional version of what were many paths to activism and engagement throughout the 20th century and to the present.

Today there are over 600,000 members of the National Audubon Society. Its mission has expanded worldwide to protect and restore at-risk bird species. In so doing the Audubon Society tackles current, relevant, and pressing environmental issues such as climatic threats and catastrophic oil spills. Their commitment to present-day issues ensures that their good work will continue for generations to come.