Wednesday, November 3, 2010

More mystical birder

In an earlier post, I described how sometimes birding for me borders on a sense of mysticism. I also mentioned how the book I am reading, "The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature" by Jonathan Rosen (I am still reading it -- it's interesting but I'm not making fast progress, I'm afraid) discusses humanity's relationship with birds, and nature, over the past hundred years or so--a relationship that, sadly, mostly goes badly for nature, though it is our loss, too. We are part of nature and how much of ourselves do we lose as we destroy it? Being an essayist and a novelist, Rosen frequently uses poetry and literature as springboards for his discussion. There is a lot of food for thought here but as I alluded to earlier, I find myself a bit disgusted by the almost romanticized descriptions of killing, such as the way the settlers killed passenger pigeons and other birds by the thousands and hundreds of thousands; or how one "naturalist," knowing full well that the Carolina parakeet was almost extinct, somehow could not help himself from slaughtering a whole flock for his "collection." Even though this is historical fact, Rosen seems a bit too enamored of these figures for my tastes.

But I keep reading, and he redeems himself as a writer for me by capturing so eloquently the feeling I tried to convey in my earlier post:

...The descendants of the Baal Shem Tov--like the romantic poets, rebels against the Enlightenment--believed that when God created the world something got broken in the process; the vessels intended to hold God's glory shattered, and the world was strewn with holy shards, scattered in the act of creation. In this kabbalistic system, each person has a sacred task to gather up the divine sparks and thus repair the world. This for me is a very beautiful metaphor for birdwatching. Or perhaps birdwatching is a living metaphor for this mystical process.
There is certainly the purely physical thrill of seeing a trembling leaf suddenly detach itself and turn into a redstart or a chestnut-sided warbler. But there is the other unspoken longing as well--that the bird itself will give way to something that lives beyond birds. And that the broken puzzle will someday be complete. (page 164)


I think that is such a beautiful passage. And perhaps, too, I am searching for some sort of hope that this broken and ugly world we are making might somehow be salvaged. I was still reeling from the Gulf Oil Spill when I read about the tar sands mining (perhaps rapine would be more to the point) in the boreal forests, and the nearly 2000 ducks that died in the toxic waste water; and then just yesterday I read how the lights on the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico trap migrating birds into flying around and around all night, until they are too exhausted to resume their journeys. Every day I find more bad news.

Dylan Thomas wrote, in one of his brilliant poems, "After the first death, there is no other." I disagree. My heart is perfectly capable of dying, in increments, with every fragile and beautiful creature that dies. I wish it had an "off" button. But maybe that would be even worse.

Jonathan Rosen (who is Jewish) presents conservation as an obligation: "I believe that there is a divine spark in us that binds us to the rest of creation, not merely as fellow creatures but as caretakers, with an earthly responsibility like the one we imagine for God. I'm not saying you can't be a conservationist without this feeling -- it's just harder for me to understand what we owe the ivory-billed woodpecker without it." (page 162)

Although I tend to agree with him, and I love the image of each bird as part of the broken puzzle of creation, in a way that just makes it worse. If this metaphor were true, how would we ever discover that beautiful pattern when so many of the pieces are being destroyed by our own carelessness and greed?

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