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The Birds of Killingworth

January 3, 2010

The Birds of Killingworth

Thus came the jocund Spring in Killingworth,
In fabulous day; some hundred years ago;
And thrifty farmers, as they tilled the earth,
Heard with alarm the cawing of the crow,
That mingled with the universal mirth,
Cassandra-like, prognosticating woe;
They shook their heads, and doomed with dreadful words
To swift destruction the whole race of birds.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Birds of Killingworth; Tales of a Wayside Inn I, The Poet’s Tale (1863)


When I was a youngster, one of my mother’s favorite euphemisms for us children was “Cassandra-like prognosticating woe”.  I readily adopted the quotation for my own expressions of frustration with my peers.  I vaguely remembered the originator of the phrase, and researched Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess cursed to never be believed.  Years later, recently, I finally read the source of Mother’s quote.  

The subject of Longfellow’s poem struck a nerve.  A poet, a literary icon, was embracing simple respect for natural processes for the healthy management of our world.  One-hundred-fifty years ago a literary figure was prognosticating integrated pest management (IPM) to his contemporaries to use good tilth.  We think of IPM as a new ecological program for safer management of our resources.  It is a common sense philosophy recycled from earlier times.  We have gained some additional technological and scientific knowledge in the interim, yet the message is the same. 

More epiphanous, we still see the same message today in appeal to a world of misguided thrift determined to: “…slay them all! and wherefore! for the gain // Of a scant handful more or less of wheat,” …  I’d call this Cassandra-like prognosticating woe. 

January 3, 2010

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