LOSS, BIRDS & HOPE

November 6, 2019

On the second floor of the Metropolitan Club in New York, overlooking Fifth Avenue, is an ornate, high-ceilinged room with gray marble fireplaces, burgundy drapes, Renaissance-flavored murals, and many yards of decorative woodwork painted gold. It’s not the sort of place to which I would ordinarily take an old friend to lunch, but there we were, and with good reason. The reason was that Audubon New York, the state office of the National Audubon Society, had convened several hundred loyal supporters for its annual awards luncheon, at which I was one of two people being honored. The friend was E. Jean Carroll, a fellow writer who’s been my good pal for forty years. Jean is the longtime advice columnist of Elle Magazine, dispensing wisdom and dauntless good humor under the banner of that column, “Ask E. Jean.” If her name rings another bell, it’s because she is most recently famed for her book What Do We Need Men For?, a funnily serious memoir in which she describes, among other gruesome misadventures, her rape in a dressing room of the Bergdorf Goodman department story (an elegant emporium on Fifth, just a block south of where we sat lunching) several decades ago by a boorish real estate developer named Donald J. Trump. The Audubon people were gracious and generous, kindred souls in the struggle to save biological diversity on this fraught planet, and the milieu was so august I had worn a necktie. Seated between E. Jean and me was the actress Jane Alexander, a committed conservationist, a smart and genial woman, and the three of us had great fun talking of family dogs and wild birds. Ms. Alexander’s forthcoming play on Broadway is “Grand Horizons,” with James Cromwell, and you should see it.

Okay, that’s the mis-en-scène, right? Pretty incongruous for a simple country lad like me. Why have I brought all this up? Because I want to share with you what I said after they put the Steuben glass in my hands and let me at the microphone. First they presented their Keesee Conservation Award to Gregory Long, a distinguished man who led the New York Botanical Garden through thirty years of progressive change. Then it was my turn. I had been asked in advance to deliver some substantive remarks. So after expressing my deep gratitude to these good folk in particular, and to the Audubon Society in general, I said this:

ivoryBilled370Ivory-billed woodpecker by John James Audobon.Today I’m going to talk to you for a few minutes about birds and loss and uncertainty and hope. I know that it’s probably reckless of me to talk to you at all about birds—like carrying coals to Newcastle. I suspect everyone in this room knows their birds better than I do. (I’m a little stronger on field identifications, by the way, with insects and reptiles. I can tell a fritillary from a painted lady, and a skink from a gecko, much better than I can tell a tanager from a bunting.) But there are a few birds about which I do know a thing or two, and some of those birds represent stories of wonder and loss that resonate broadly through the whole network of dire problems and discouragements we’re currently facing—as conservationists, and as citizens of planet Earth.

One of the birds that I know about is the dodo, Raphus cucullatus. It was a gigantized and flightless member of the pigeon family, endemic to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Extinct in the late 17th century from a combination of causes. Those causes included sailors killing it for food, plus rats, pigs, and monkeys eating its eggs. In other words, humanity arriving on Mauritius, for the first time, had doomed it. A giant flightless pigeon that had lived fine for maybe a million years, eating fruit, laying its eggs on the ground, bothering nobody—not stupid in any sense, so far as we know, despite that “dodo” reputation—was exterminated quickly by the arrival of people and our pestiferous camp-following invasive species and livestock.

Twenty-three years ago I published a book on the subject of evolution and extinction, under the title The Song of the Dodo. It focused especially on islands and island-like fragments of protected landscape—such as small national parks. As the title suggests, I used the dodo as an icon for the big themes I was exploring. Those themes included biological diversity, losses of biological diversity, and hope in the face of loss. The dodo itself wasn’t my main subject, just a representation, but at one point I did describe the history and natural history of this creature, Raphus cucullatus—its life, its song, and its death.

Nobody knows exactly when the last dodo died in the wild. The proximate cause, and the exact place and time of the final death, are uncertain. We only have record of the last known killing of dodos by people. That’s the way it is with most extinctions. We don’t know the fate of the very last Tasmanian “tiger”—a carnivorous marsupial, more accurately known as the thylacine. Its end, like the dodo’s, is veiled in uncertainty. We just know that the last captive thylacine died on September 7, 1936, in the Hobart Zoo. We don’t know when the last passenger pigeon died—we just know that the last captive individual, known as Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, the same summer as Archduke Franz Ferdinand died at Sarajevo. We don’t know the end of the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

To compensate for this gap in knowledge, and to try to make the loss feel more real, I wrote a hypothetical scenario in my book. I’d like to read you the last bit of it.

[from The Song of the Dodo, p. 275:]
     Imagine a single survivor, a lonely figure at large on mainland Mauritius at the end of the seventeenth century. Imagine this fugitive as a female. She would have been bulky and flightless and befuddled—but resourceful enough to have escaped and endured when the other birds didn’t. Or else she was lucky.

     Maybe she had spent all her years in the Bambous Mountains along the southeastern coast, where the various forms of human-brought menace were slow to penetrate. Or she might have lurked in a creek drainage of the Black River Gorges. Time and trouble had finally caught up with her. Imagine that her last hatchling had been snarfed by a feral pig. That her last fertile egg had been eaten by a monkey. That her mate was dead, clubbed by a hungry Dutch sailor, and that she had no hope of finding another. During the last half-dozen years, longer than a bird could remember, she had not even set eyes on a member of her own species.

     Raphus cucullatus had become rare unto death. But this one flesh-and-blood individual still lived. Imagine that she was thirty years old, or thirty-five, an ancient age for most sorts of bird but not impossible for a member of such a large-bodied species. She no longer ran, she waddled. Lately she was going blind. Her digestive system was balky. In the dark of an early morning in 1667, say, during a rainstorm, she took cover beneath a cold stone ledge at the base of one of the Black River cliffs. She drew her head down against her body, fluffed her feathers for warmth, squinted in patient misery. She waited. She didn’t know it, nor did anyone else, but she was the only dodo on Earth. When the storm passed, she never opened her eyes. This is extinction.

So much for loss. What about hope?
Hope is crucial to everything we care about—every battle we fight, every rescue we engineer, every act of mitigation we perform. It’s not a psychological condition, hope; it’s a courageous act of will. It’s a resolution. If we have children or grandchildren—or even if we don’t have offspring, but we do have love and concern for our younger fellow humans—then we bear a severe responsibility to find and convey hope.

I once wrote another dire prognosis on the state of our planet, as an essay in Harper’s Magazine, back in 1998 . . . and the first sentence of that piece said: “Hope is a duty from which paleontologists are exempt.” What I meant was, paleontologist study the fossil record to learn of life forms, evolutionary transitions, catastrophes, and extinctions that have already occurred. They are the coroners of biological diversity. Hope is a duty from which they’re exempt because all those losses have already happened. But of course, I was exaggerating for effect. When a paleontologist finishes work for the day and heads home, she or he has every bit as much duty to be hopeful as the rest of us.

dqJean370DQ and E. Jean at Bergdorf's, after lunch, shopping for Betsy.Why? Because of this: Without hope there is no useful action. There is no determination to save what can be saved. There is no last-ditch effort to turn the trend, to resist the seemingly inevitable, to make the impacts of climate change and habitat loss and conflict between humans and predators and all the other forms of degradation of life on our planet turn out just a wee bit, or more than a wee bit, less ugly than they might be.
That sort of hope is where you find it—in the forests of Tasmania, if you’re a diehard on the thylacine and believe it has survived—or in the schools where you teach, the organizations you support, the community of neighbors among whom you live.

I recently got an email from a man named Michael D. Collins. He’s a mathematician at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington—does this ring bells, do you remember a story about him on the Audubon website three years ago? Collins is also a bird lover. In particular, he’s in love with the ivory-billed woodpecker, presumed extinct since the 1940s. The precise date and immediate cause of that extinction is uncertain, again—like for the dodo. In fact, Collins was writing to me, he said, because he had read The Song of the Dodo, and it had helped him develop a passion for conservation. That made me feel responsible, at least to give him a fair hearing.

Mr. Collins is possessed by the mad, improbable idea that the ivory-bill might still be alive—surviving, a discreet and elusive population of big, black-white-and-red birds, in the Pearl River Swamp in Louisiana. Possibly also in remote parts of Florida and Arkansas. He has video. He has many hours and days of observation, from his specially outfitted kayak. He has the echo of ivory-bill calls, or what he thinks were ivory-bill calls, echoing in his head. He has, as you’ll see, hope.

I know this is an old story, and that there have been “rediscoveries” of the ivory-billed woodpecker before, none of which has proved out. Nobody has a good recent photo. Nobody has ironclad evidence. I remembered all that when I got this recent email from Collins. He was frustrated. He had published his finds in a statistics journal, that being his field, but he was having little luck with biological journals and academic ornithologists. What he said to me, at the end of his first email (we exchanged a few) was this: “Other scientists have studied the data [his data] and found it convincing, but there is a need for a high-profile scientist”—he knew that I’m not a high-profile scientist, or a scientist at all, but he thought I might know one—“. . . there is a need for a high-profile scientist to take an interest in this bird and convince the right people to open their eyes. That is the only hope I can see for putting an end to the folly and politics that have undermined this conservation issue for several decades. . . . Would you be willing to have a chat? I am hoping that you might have some ideas about what can be done in the interest of this magnificent bird.”

I told him: I’ll mention it when I can.

Do I think that the ivory-bill has survived? I don’t know. Do I consider it one of the preeminent conservation issues of our present moment? No. You yourselves have just issued that valuable report, Survival by Degrees, documenting the situations of 389 American bird species, each threatened with extinction due to climate change. We’ve got a lot of concerns more tangible than the ivory-bill. We’ve got a lot of species that definitely—rather than maybe—can be saved.

But Michael D. Collins is a valuable reminder and exemplar to all of us. It takes hope—fierce, stubborn hope, against the odds, against the winds of convention and complacency—to save these precious life forms we want to save.

And, if you’ll excuse me for quoting a cliché, we’ve got to remember Emily Dickinson. We’ve always got to remember Dickinson. She’s the one who said, in her poem #314:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops—at all.

 

p.s. to blog readers: Here's a link to Michael Collins's journal article on his search for the ivory-billed woodpecker: https://amstat.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2330443X.2019.1637802