Biography of John S. Cairns

North Carolina has produced many men of genius whose lives gave rich prospects of fame and usefulness, who doubtless would have brought honor and glory to the shrine of the “Old North State;” but when life has seemed most hopeful to them, when their work has begun, as it appeared, to cast upon them the halo of success, they have been snatched away from the merited renown of this world to the rest and greater glory of the Unknown. The lamented Fuller, with his thirty ideal years of a faithful life, and the invalid Gillespie, struggling against the evils of a life-devouring disease for the calling of his muse, are illustrations of this lamentable fact-this law of Fate.

It is not of one who showed talents for the work of the poet, the statesman, or the orator that I now write, but of one who had gifts which promised him a station of note in the scientific world.

John S. Cairns was born February 10, 1862, at Lawrence, Massachusetts. He was of Scotch parentage. His father had left “the banks and braes” of “bonnie Scotland” for the new prosperity of America. Being an intelligent, well-read man, he and his faithful wife brought with them a large and valuable stock of Scotch ideas of work and industry.

Mr. Cairns, when his son was about eight years of age, moved to Western Carolina, taking charge of some woolen mills several miles from Asheville. Here, in the very heart of nature, among the mountains of our own Carolina, the subject of this sketch found his life work. He early showed much interest in natural history. So absorbed was he in this work, that he could not be prevailed upon to pay strict attention to school studies. Whenever the young lover of nature found an opportunity, he would steal away to observe the habits of the wild animals. Adam Moss might have been speaking for him when he said: “As one goes early to a concert hall with a passion even for the preliminary tuning of the musicians, so my ear sits alone in the vast amphitheatre of Nature and waits for the earliest warble of the blue-bird, which seems to start up somewhere behind the heavenly curtains.”

At eighteen, he began his collections, the finest of North Carolina specimens. Henceforth his life is an illustration of a noble devotion to a high aim; what Philips Brooks might well call “Deep calling unto Deep;” that longing in the mind of man to reach out and lay hold upon the heart of Nature-to learn of her, to read her lessons, to solve her problems, to hear the music of her many voices which but forms a part of the great symphony of God. His work was all done under great difficulties. His family was opposed to his wanderings among the mountains in search of specimens. Then it was hard for him to secure the best books to aid him in the first steps of his study. He was shamefully cheated in his first efforts at exchanges and classifications by men who cared less for the science and more for “the loaves and fishes.” And not least of all, he was compelled to support himself while at work. Notwithstanding these difficulties, he obeyed his call with the characteristic zeal of the true scientist, and nature greatly rewarded him for his interest in her behalf.

His work was done entirely in Western North Carolina. Here is one of the vastest and richest fields for ornithological study in America. Every hill and dale has a separate family of birds; each woodland discloses new secrets to discourage the heart of the observer. Mr. Cairns went to work with an untiring zeal and vigilance. As the result of his labors, many thousand skins and eggs have been added to our zoological museums. To him, more than to any one else, is indebted our knowledge of the Western Carolina birds, a region differing very much in this, as in other respects, from Eastern Carolina. He discovered a rare species of the Acadian owl, before unknown to be native to our State. Many were the days and nights he spent among the rugged Black Mountains and other ranges in pursuit of his favorite work.

In every particular, Mr. Cairns obeyed the divine command, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” His early collections, he sold. His last collection numbers about one thousand skins and fifteen hundred eggs. Many of these have been separated from the main body; yet it is wonderful to stand and view the remains of his work at his home at Weaverville. So well did he obey the “God-given mandate, ‘Work thou in well-doing,’ ” that the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Museum, Harvard, and the State Museum of North Carolina considered it a favor to receive his collections. Not only this, but he had correspondence with the leading ornithologists of this country and made exchanges not only with his own countrymen, but also with those of foreign lands. He was a member of the American Ornithologists Union.

Unfortunately for science, he, to a certain extent, possessed the peculiarly reticent nature of his great fellow scientist, Thoreau. Hence it is that very little of his work has appeared in print. His friends desired him to publish a book on North Carolina Ornithology, but he would not. He could not be prevailed upon to write for magazines, except at the special request of the editors. But as has been said of the recluse of Walden Pond, ‘ ‘He saw as with a microscope, heard as with an ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register of all he saw and heard.” Of his magazine articles, two are in the Ornithologist and Oologist on the Birds of Buncombe County, North Carolina. He also wrote a valuable article on the BlackThroated Blue-Warbler. He furnished many lists to C. Hart Mirriam, Director of the Department of Ornithology, at Washington. From observation and personal study he made a classified list of the birds of Western North Carolina, a copy of which is now in the Trinity Historical Museum.

But the greatest and best thing that can be said of Mr. Cairns is that he was authentic. Many so-called scientists make reports of birds and animals they have not seen, but only read of or imagined they have seen. Mr. Cairns was a careful observer. He never made a statement unless he had a specimen to support his assertion-never entered into a discussion without convincing evidence that he was right. He was the indirect means of teaching the Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia the proper identification of the wild turkey. So skilled was he that he could easily identify birds by their mode of flight.

Speaking of hint and his work, Mr. William Brewster, of Cambridge, says: “Of all the correspondents whom I have had during an experience of more than twenty years, Mr. Cairns has proved himself to be one of the most helpful and kind. His generosity has been simply boundless. He has done far more than any other one man to advance our knowledge of the birds of Western North Carolina, and his loss to ornithologists is a heavy one.”

Like our own Dr. Mitchell, his life was not only spent in the service of science, but it was lost in it. In June, 1895, while searching for some rare specimens among the Black Mountains, he became separated from his party. When he did not return, a search was made. After many hours of weary toil and anxious expectation, he was found lying by the trunk of a large tree, his head pillowed upon a bed of moss, and life extinct. While knocking the fungus from a log with his gun, it was discharged, killing him instantly. The place where he died is but a few miles from where the lifeless body of Dr. Mitchell was found. His remains were brought back to his home and buried with Masonic honors in the village cemetery, where the birds sing their requiem above the still heart that loved them so well.

The Auk, the organ of the American Ornithologists Union, in commenting upon the death of Mr. Cairns, says -His untimely and sad death is a distinct loss to ornithology. Fortunately, some of his notes, so generously sent to ornithologists with whom he was in correspondence, may yet see the light.” Had his life been prolonged he would doubtless have given us a valuable and useful scientific work.

“But Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” Cairns and Mitchell, in their zeal to serve her, lost their lives. And we can but trust that -beyond the Orient meadows of Eternity” they rest upon the slopes of Mount Zion, “ which abideth forever,” and the secrets they longed to fathom here are revealed to them there, and they know “as we are known.”

To bear witness of Mr. Cairns’ noble labors in behalf of the cause he loved so well, there remains a large collection of specimens. This is beyond a doubt the finest of North Carolina bird museums. Many organizations have already attempted to secure it. But let us as North Carolinians guard this collection as one of the treasures of our State, nor allow it to go beyond our borders. We would rejoice to know that Trinity could make this valuable acquisition to her store of scientific possessions.


Extracted from Trinity College Historical Society




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