Friday, December 30, 2011
Can this warbler be saved? A review of Cerulean Blues
I just finished Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon, a book which I highly recommend to all birders and others who care about nature and conservation for reasons which I shall describe in a bit. But first, a confession. I downloaded it onto my Kindle about a month ago, read the introduction, and then skipped to other things.
It wasn't that the introduction was boring or poorly written, far from it. But the sad fact of the matter is that the beautiful little cerulean warbler is disappearing at a rate of 3% a year, the government agencies which could try to help appear to be indifferent, and one of the main reasons for the loss of its breeding habitat is mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachians. I've read some interesting books about trying to save disappearing species before, such as Spix's Macaw: The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird by Tony Juniper (2003), Seeking the Sacred Raven: Politics and Extinction on a Hawaiian Island by Mark Jerome Walters (2006) and the story of a whole island's species (Guam) being wiped out, And No Birds Sing: A True Ecological Thriller Set in a Tropical Paradise by Mark Jaffe (1997). All of these were interesting (I especially recommend tracking down the last one if you can -- it's kind of old and has a sad ending, but it's a fascinating read), but right now I'm in no mood for a downer.
But earlier this week I picked it up again. After all, if Katie Fallon has taken the time to tell the story of an endangered warbler, then I really should learn more about it. Why "should"? Because even though it's painful to read about the damage inflicted on our world, I don't want to be like an ostrich with my head in the proverbial sand of denial, poking it out a couple of decades later to discover a polluted wasteland and screeching, "When did this happen? Why didn't I get the memo?" It's a fine balancing act, though, between caring and wallowing (for an example of the latter, The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen (2004), an exhaustive survey of what seems like every terrible thing people have ever done, and which I don't particularly recommend unless you're perusing pamphlets from the Hemlock Society and want that final incentive to take the plunge).
So I began the book, giving myself permission to quit if I started to feel too sad. Well, after the first couple of chapters, I was in no danger of quitting. Fallon is a terrific writer and an engaging narrator, and the story is more of a personal quest than a journalistic exploration, although she certainly seems to have done her homework.
She gives us a couple of chapter of historical (Wilson, Audubon, etc.) and ecological background, interviews a couple of experts, and then it's off to see ceruleans for herself, and this is where the story really picks up. She goes birding with an old friend in West Virginia, finding her first ceruleans, then hangs out with students, researchers, bird-banders, and even goes to Colombia with a conservation group to see the warbler in its wintering habitat on the slopes of the Andes.
The book has many strengths, first among them probably being the readability. Fallon is a writer and English professor, not a scientist or researcher, and this shows in both the engaging prose and the fact that she often seems to bring up the kinds of things that someone like me (imaginative birding type, not statistic-minded science type) would think of, such as this description of a male warbler appearing in response to a recording of their song: "He puffed up the soft white feathers of his chest -- perhaps to appear larger -- and buzzed viciously. He seemed totally consumed by hatred for the intruding, brazen male who must be down there somewhere...." Her response? "He's so cute!"
A weakness of some birding books and blogs is that it can be difficult work up that much enthusiasm about someone else's birding trip; at the end of the day, someone else's list of species might be impressive, but is it interesting to read about? In Fallon's case, yes it is. Her descriptions of birding trips made me want to get out and bird myself, right now, to join in some of the fun. (From the chapter about Colombia: "The life birds came almost too quickly for me to enjoy them: tropical mockingbird, yellow-rumped oriole, a slew of hummingbirds, lemon-rumped tanager, crimson-backed tanager, and scrub tanager. My senses were overloaded; I felt intoxicated by tanagers." Yeah, don't you hate it when that happens?)
Another reason to read this book is that, although she does not hesitate to describe the problems these little warblers face, such as the horrific mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia, she balances it out with enough cause for hope. She seems able to see the better side of people while also keeping her eyes open to all the problems we have to fight if we are going to make the world a better place for warblers (and incidentally, for us).
Mountaintop removal coal mining is absolutely horrific; in Fallon's words, "Not only is the mountain removed, but everything on it: forests, birds, bears, deer, homes, cemeteries, flowers, butterflies, streams," leaving behind a landscape that "looked as if bombs had been dropped...from the copilot's seat, I had looked down on massive brown ditches; flattened, grass-covered 'reclaimed' mountaintops; and ominous black lakes of coal slurry." In one of the more memorable passages, she describes looking down on such a mine while "a small flock of cedar waxwings...flew beyond the treetops, into the empty air above the barren hole, and, seemingly shocked, quickly turned and headed back for the tree line."
Despite passages like this, and her own bouts of sadness (not only for the warbler, but shortly before her quest began, the shooting incident at Virginia Tech, where she teaches, occurred), the overall tone of the book is absolutely not the downer I'd feared. From mentioning the efforts of conservation groups to improve habitat, even after the mining has done its worse, to describing a parade of school-children dressed like warblers in Colombia in a town by a nature preserve where they winter, Fallon manages to find the good in both the world and its people. I also love the Spanish word for cerulean warbler, reinita cielo azur," or "sky-blue little queen." Who wouldn't want to save something called that?
The book ends with some suggestions for what we can do to help the warblers, from the constructive (buy shade-grown coffee, support conservation groups, oppose mountaintop removal mining) to the sublime (learn the names of things, let nature help you heal).
Her final recommendation is one I shall absolutely take to heart: go out and find a cerulean warbler for yourself. You know what, they do nest in Southern Illinois. I think I'll have to go for it!