Last Flight of the Marlins

Eskimo curlew
Eskimo Curlew. From Audubon’s The Birds of America

Memories of the Canadian wilderness forty years earlier were still sharp in Dr. Robert Morris’s mind as an old man in the 1930s. A pioneering New York surgeon, he was also a distinguished naturalist, horticulturist, and poet.

One day in August when standing on a bold crag in the mountains of Labrador, I listened to the lilt of marlins almost out of sight in the clear blue sky and leaving that day for Argentina on a non-stop flight. A whale was playing in the distant sunlit heaving sea that sent but a passing puff of its thunder up to the heights where I stood. The heavy rumble of a sundering iceberg moving in colorful majesty and flashing dignity down its lane of deep ocean current could not drown out the exultant note in voices of carefree birds that were bound for somewhere of joyful memory for them. The thought was so overwhelming that I sat down on the soft white caribou moss and began to pencil in my notebook some lines that were later published in Surgeon’s Philosophy. I had to stand up to finish the note feeling reverence for a scene that made sitting down in its presence a profanation. In an atmosphere so clear that one could look straight up to infinity the birds rose high before heading south. They became mere specks in the sky and were then lost to view while their voices still came faintly back. The measure of the lines corresponds to that of the wingbeat of the birds otherwise I could not have remained in tune with nature.

So faintly, yet clearly, one almost says “nearly,”
The silvery lilt of a light floating marlin; two
miles toward God while the world whirls beneath him.
He stops not for rain, nor for mountain, nor falcon,
from Labrador coast to the Argentine highland.
“This evening I’m Southward, tomorrow returning;
Missouri, Alberta, wherever you see me, don’t mind
what the wind is. You’ll know it’s fair weather—
and always good going for those who fly high enough.
Send up a greeting; but, no! I won’t hear it,
for voices of men cannot reach to my roadway.
So lift up both hands as a sign that you see me,
and down through all cloud and I’ll send a clear sky note.
Oh, silvery lilt of the light floating marlin!

When men’s hands point toward him, they’re lifted up toward Heaven. On the homeward bound steamer from the North that year a group of travelers in the cabin asked me to read extracts from my notebook, but these lines to the marlin seemed to have been “written for myself only.” No one referred to them in the subsequent conversation that evening, but there were plenty of questions about wolves and bears. In the audience, there had been a rough old, seasoned captain who sailed the seven seas on roving commission. He had recently lost his ship in the ice and was getting himself and survivors of his crew back to a port. Next morning, he stopped me as we were passing on the deck, and said, “Them words that you read about the doe-birds (marlins) last night was about right. I wish you would let me see that log of yours again if you don’t mind.” He had doubtless put many a cask of stewed doe-birds in his larder aboard ship, and I was astonished at any sentimental interest in the big gentle birds as it came from that old salt.

Perhaps I was one of the last men to witness a flight of the marlins that were so delicious for the table. Subjected to murderous massacre at both ends of their flight and on the spring return journey by way of the Mississippi Valley they melted away like the passenger pigeon, and only a little later on.

[Until the end of the Nineteenth Century, the Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis) was one of the most abundant shorebirds in North America but overhunting drastically reduced its numbers to presumed extinction. Fred Bodsworth published a fictionalized story about the species, Last of the Curlews (1954), made into an animated film for children that won an Emmy award.]

Extracted from A Surgeon’s Story. The Autobiography of Robert T. Morris. Compiled and edited by Roger Gosden and Pam Walker (2013)


Robert T. Morris
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By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

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