Welcome to life
On endings and beginnings
“In nature, nothing exists alone.” In the years since I encountered this line—in Silent Spring, the seminal 1962 book by Rachel Carson—I’ve read it a million different ways. A statement of biological fact. A poetic observation of human and natural interconnectivity. A description, idealized, of a way of being that is possible or perhaps impossible to reach. In particularly isolated or desperate times, I’ve leaned on Carson’s words more as a prayer than anything else—a plea to myself, to bring myself into nature as a way of putting my feet back on the ground and my spirit back into conversation with others. I also see it as a directive: a shot at equilibrium between how things are and how things could be.
There’s a great sickness at work in our global ecosystem, something observable, whether or not you agree with me about why. Since 1990, 420 million of the world’s 4.06 billion hectares of forest have been lost, mostly to agriculture, $1,600 worth of which the average American family throws out each year. Since 2000, wildfires, exacerbated by greenhouse gas-driven climate change, have burned an annual average of 7 million acres across the U.S., more than double the annual average of 3.3 million acres burned in the 1990s, when a greater number of fires occurred annually. And wildlife—the tender center of this series—wildlife populations have decreased by 69% since 1970, due primarily to large-scale habitat loss, occurring partially because of profit-focused development that disregards the need for undeveloped blocks of natural habitat, connectivity between these habitats, and whether or not the development is a source of pollution and invasive species, like domestic cats that roam freely outdoors.
This section begins—has to begin—by my pointing out that much of what I’ll say here is already what is, in many places on Earth. Communistic thought—not the political ideology that we have such strong opinions about, but thinking and behavior which centers the idea “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”—is common already in our day-to-day. I’ll take David Graeber’s example from Debt: The First 5,000 Years: if you’re smoking a cigarette in front of a bar, and a stranger comes up to you and asks if they can bum a cigarette from you, and you have the means to provide an extra cigarette to the stranger, you’re most likely going to do it. It’s just that our conception of what our abilities and needs actually are have been warped by generations of profit-making machines and messaging about what’s important, what will help you feel better, what will make you look better, what will give your life meaning and significance, what is a danger to you, what is a threat to your lifestyle, what you should focus on, what you should ignore.
At my job at the Wild Bird Fund, I spend sometimes ten hours in scrubs, giving intramuscular injections or gavage feedings to pigeons or swans or red-tailed hawks or sometimes a squirrel or opossum, but mostly birds—birds sick with lead poisoning, birds that’ve been hit by cars, birds tangled in fishing line or with hooks caught in their throats, birds that collided with the reflective glass of skyscrapers. On some days during spring migration, when billions of birds migrate thousands of miles from the tropics to the boreal forest, many of whom go right through downtown Manhattan, there will be sixty tiny, colorful warblers with concussions and brain hemorrhaging in our exam room by 10 pm. Sometimes, only sometimes, we are able to save their lives and release them back into the parks and streets of New York City, which is, as Christine once put it, “the wilderness they know.” So too, it’s ours.
And so many of you know it. Every single bird that we receive at the clinic comes to us because of the charitable natures of people's hearts; the clinic doesn’t have the funds for transporters, so it’s all of you (and the occasional urban park ranger) that are providing the taxi ride. It’s all of you that read articles about climate change and try changing your eating habits or decide to start a garden with native plants. It’s all of you that text me the same bird meme over and over again! I see you. I know you!
People smarter than me often say helpless grief is a function of capitalism, meant to inculcate a feeling of hopelessness when it comes to changing “the system” (itself.) I’m here to tell you that while that may be true, tuning into your helpless grief is step one. It’s where this series started: my own. Sometimes with humor, often times out of desperation, these essays are my attempt to translate my experiences in wildlife rehabilitation, in art-making, in birding, in relationships and friendships and family and life, into a series of intimate snapshots of the ecology of the city, wildlife, money, and ourselves. They are my way of grappling with the reality of mortality, of death and widespread extinction events, which pull at my center of gravity in ways that perhaps you can relate to. They chronicle how life is suppressed and perverted by profit, overconsumption, and heteronormative ideology while simultaneously exploring the places where life persists, multiplies, proliferates, and becomes amazing, even grotesque, in its abundance. And they are an attempt to reach you—whoever, wherever you are. To put us into dialogue. To start a conversation. To begin to share.
While I’ve often wished I’d turned out a musician or a painter, art with more immediacy than writing, what I have are words, freely distributed so that we can be in dialogue with one another. And you, I will venture to guess, have the same needs I do: to feel balance within and without yourself, to be at peace with the choices you make on a daily basis, and to see something worth saving when you peer into the bleak and bewildering future world. That future world, the one I write these essays into, is one none of us can see. And still–always, somehow, there is “still”–I feel called to preserve the emotional experience of being here, living in the front of it, trying to do better or to simply just be present with the devastation, the loss, the beauty, and the hope of this moment. The birds, their threatened and utterly mortal lives, are the how and the why. My hope is that these essays show us—you, and me—a way to withstand the relentless passage of time, to appreciate it, in all senses of the word. And an appreciation of what’s here seems to me like the only chance we have to save it.
From each according to their abilities to each according to their needs,
because in nature nothing exists alone,
see you next month.
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Wonderful intro to what’s coming next—can’t wait for more!
Beautiful stuff Suzi! Look forward to more entries.