by Melbourne R. Carriker
Blue Mantle Press (36901 Marshall Hutts Rd., Rio Hondo-Arroyo City,
TX 78583), 2001. 312 pages, paperback. $18.95.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
On July 28, 2002, Colombian ornithologists Jorge Velasquez and Alonso Quevado photographed 14 examples of Fuertes’ parrot among tall trees in an alpine forest near the summit of a volcano in the northern Andes. The brightly colored indigo-and-yellow parrot was previously documented only in 1911, when specimens were among the 5,355 birds of 513 species and subspecies whom Melbourne A. Carriker Jr. shotgunned out of the foliage of that region and into the scientific literature.
Meb Carriker, as the gunner was known, eventually killed at least 80,000 birds in the name of science, according to tallies presented every few dozen pages by his son and biographer Melbourne R. Carriker in Vista Nieve, originally published in 2001, given new currency by the murder of Colombian forest guard Gonzalo Cardona Molina, 55, on January 8, 2021.
Birds & bird lice
Meb Carriker massacred birds from Costa Rica to Venezuela, 1902-1922, winning widespread recognition, in his time, as first to describe many species of bird and bird louse, in an era when birding and bird hunting were almost indistinguishable pursuits.
Only after the invention of small, light cameras with high-speed shutters and the publication of the first Roger Tory Peterson field guide in 1934 would birding become the relatively nonviolent pastime it is today.
A retired marine mollusk expert, the younger Melbourne Carriker tried in Vista Nieve to remember his often absent, evidently quarrelsome, and eventually philandering father as a positive inspiration and influence.
Unflinchingly described attitudes & history
Melbourne was honest enough to acknowledge the facts as he observed them, however, and as family records documented them, as he traced 68 years of history preceding his own birth in Santa Marta, Colombia, in 1915.
Writing at age 87, six years before his death in 2007 at age 92, Melbourne unflinchingly described the racism of his parents and his maternal grandparents, the pioneering coffee planters Orlando and Eva Flye.
In fairness, the Flyes and Carrikers, in the context of time and place, understood their attitudes as upholding social standards. These attitudes reflected acculturation, not personal character. Though they might have questioned their perspectives much more, they obviously had no idea that they were gradually stoking the class unrest that decades after their deaths erupted as low-intensity warfare, fueled by cocaine money.
Class conflict turned the region over to crime
Class conflict, in turn, ended commercial coffee growing in the region, and for the past two generations has kept the birds of the region off limits to most ornithologists and eco-tourists.
The murder of Gonzalo Cardona Molina, reportedly among as many as 350 other native Colombian field biologists and forest guards who were killed in 2020 alone, attests to the ruthlessness of the cocaine traffickers, wildlife poachers and smugglers, and other criminal elements who now continually clash over control of the bush.
Many Vista Nieve readers will wince as Melbourne describes barnyard cattle castration, slaughter, and a failed effort to save the dysentery-stricken baby of a peasant family. The infant smelled so bad that while she received attentive nursing, she was kept outside on the porch.
Though Melbourne details the suffering vividly enough to establish that he was neither indifferent to it nor able to forget it, he makes clear that such events were not then recognized as unacceptably cruel behavior.
More shooter than scientist
Castration and slaughter were (and still are) routine work on Colombian haciendas, considered to be absolutely necessary, and Carme, mother of Melbourne, was well-regarded for her many efforts to provide medical and dental care to the peons, even as she herself suffered an unattended miscarriage.
The day that Meb bludgeoned two pet rabbits beloved by young Melbourne was another matter, more revealing of individual character than just of the Colombian plantation culture––and so was Meb’s 1927 decision, seemingly driven by vanity, to relocate the family from Colombia to Philadelphia, where he hoped to win a degree of scientific distinction that he really did not have the credentials to claim.
Though clearly clever, technically adept, intellectually curious, and ambitious, Meb was more an accomplished shooter than an accomplished scientist, and though American by birth, as were his parents, the Flyes, he was not equipped to succeed in the U.S., especially after the Great Depression hit in 1929.
No happy endings––but Fuertes’ parrot & yellow-eared parrots survived
The relocation set up a series of family misfortunes which perhaps hit bottom with the 1938 death of Melbourne’s sister Myrtle from a mysterious cause that Melbourne seems to hint was a botched illegal abortion.
Returning to scientific collecting in Central and South America, Meb was eventually divorced for desertion. Apparently a humbler man, after many comedowns, he married his housekeeper, and brought her back to a quiet retirement in Florida.
Vista Nieve outlines a tragic sequence of events which a novelist or poet might have shaped around the theme of the children enduring the consequences of sins of their fathers. Writing straightforward family history, with no literary conceit, Melbourne Carriker strives to emphasize moments of happiness and triumph, but offers more resigned coping than evidence of the characters coming to wisdom, and there are no happy endings.
Vista Nieve was published before Fuertes’s parrot flew back from presumed extinction, 20 years before Gonzalo Cardona Molina completed a national survey of surviving Fuertes and yellow-eared parrots in December 2020, only weeks before he was killed.