A woman ahead of her time -- Author commemorates Founder of Hawk Mountain
On Sept. 21 Northampton Community College sponsored the keynote lecture on its 2016 Humanities Theme, “Flying Free: Birds and the Human Spirit.” The subject was Rosalie
Edge, the founder of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pa. Hawk Mountain is famous the world over, but Edge has slipped into undeserved obscurity. As the speaker, Dyana Z.
Furmansky, made clear, she deserves our attention.
Furmansky is the author of a prize-winning book on the topic of her lecture, “Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy: The Activist Who Saved Nature from the Conservationists.”
Forceful and abrasive, Edge did not hesitate to step on toes to conserve nature. The treatment she received from the men she challenged, conservationists included, reminded the speaker, and some in the audience too, of the ways strong women in public life are still treated today.
The daughter of a wealthy and socially prominent New York family, Edge was born in 1877, at the start of the so-called “Gilded Age.” Her father’s youngest and favorite child, she was spoiled and imperious, according to Furmansky. The father’s death at an early age left his family in a precarious position financially, and they struggled to maintain their social standing.
In her early 30s, Edge married an English engineer and traveled with him to Asia. She had no strong interests of her own, but while abroad she made the acquaintance of an English woman whose daughter was active at home in the women’s suffrage movement.
Upon returning to the United States, Edge joined the American women’s suffrage movement and rose to a leadership position in the New York state organization, learning the techniques of political
organization that she would later apply to conservation causes. These included the use of media (newspapers and magazines but also self-published pamphlets) as well as demonstrations, marches, and confrontations with politicians.
According to Furmansky, it was in 1929 that Edge was “awakened” to the cause that would occupy her for the rest of her life and lead to the founding of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Reading a pamphlet describing the slaughter of thousands of Bald Eagles for bounty in Alaska, Edge became deeply upset. She was particularly angry that the leading conservation organizations of the time, including the National Audubon Society, did not object strongly to such actions.
In fact, many species of birds were suffering. In 1914 the last Passenger Pigeon had died, and Snowy Egrets especially had been hunted close to extinction for feathers with which to decorate women’s hats. Not even lands set aside by law for preservation were safe.
In 1923 John Muir’s beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley, which lay inside Yosemite National Park, began to disappear under water from a new dam supplying San Francisco that Congress had authorized.
Provoked by the rejection of her appeals for a forceful response to these developments, Edge “went on the warpath for the birds,” in Furmansky’s words. To serve as an agent for species and habitat protection, Edge founded the Emergency Conservation Committee. She recruited many young conservationists to serve with her on the group’s board, among them Aldo Leopold, whose book, “A Sand County Almanac,” is still widely read today. Edge’s own publications in the form of pamphlets totaling over 100 made the latest ideas of conservation science available to a wide public.
Hawk Mountain was Rosalie Edge’s personal creation. In addition to leasing and later purchasing the 1,400 acres that make up the sanctuary’s property, she handpicked the first “curator” (as she called him), Maurice Broun, and Broun’s wife and collaborator, Irma Broun. In 1938 she deeded the property to the newly incorporated non-profit organization, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association.
Hawk Mountain is justly famous today, but over time Edge has largely been forgotten. Her abrasive manner contributed to resentment of her, and her love of hawks was seen as eccentric in the social circles in which she moved. The tycoons of the Gilded Age could say and do as they pleased, but they were male.
The Edge family continues the commitment to the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary that Rosalie embraced. Joining Furmansky at the end of the lecture was Deborah Edge, MD, Rosalie’s granddaughter. Dr. Edge’s recollections were revealing. Her grandmother was very formal but also very supportive of her granddaughter. A woman of the old school, she was definitely not a feminist, in Dr. Edge’s opinion. Dr. Edge’s father, who was Rosalie’s son, was chairman of the sanctuary’s board of directors, and Deborah Edge herself has served on the board for decades.