I’m sitting stock-still in traffic – a column of bumpers and brakelights through the windshield; in the rearview, a long line of headlights stretching to the horizon. Life carries on in curves above our thick black lines. Flocks of migratory birds drop, swirl, and rise again beneath an orange sun and pale purple skies.
They ply the unseen winds, oblivious to the mesozoic rumblings of the sluggish herd below. Our concerns are not their concerns.
A few weeks back, a friend and I spent a good hour (a great hour, actually) arguing about whether humanity can realistically expect to have a long-term impact on the planet, no matter what we do. I argued that the rapid spike in global temperatures we’re experiencing now appears to outpace every shift that’s come before, throughout geologic time – in short, that we appear to be having a dramatic effect right now, and if we can do anything to stop or slow this effect, we should.
He argued that even the best scientists can’t say for certain how much of global warming is directly attributable to humans (versus indirectly, e.g., the methane from cattle herds, changing the surface of the Earth to absorb more or less heat, etc., or versus “natural” cycles). Scientists admit that there’s a great deal of subtlety to the Earth’s climate that we just don’t understand – and my friend made the case that, given humanity’s relatively short tenure on this planet (and questionable longevity), our chances of accurately identifying and isolating the man-made problem, and then fixing it without screwing things up even worse, seem sketchy, at best.
I don’t think that any of this means we shouldn’t work to control consumption and burn less, emit less, pollute less. But he makes a good point: All too often, human history appears as a series of basic misunderstandings followed by tragic overreactions, as each supposed solution to a problem introduces several new (and even more poorly understood) problems.
In this respect, I am conservative: I believe that a headlong rush toward ill-defined “progress” is dangerous; that contemplation should precede every action, reflection should follow every action, and moderation should rule every action. My favorite quote in this vein comes from Jurassic Park, when Jeff Goldblum’s chaos theorist character says, “[Y]our scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Anyway – the connection to traffic and birds: I get the feeling sometimes that the Earth will, one morning, yawn, stretch, and slough us off like a little dead skin. And I suspect the birds won’t miss us.
The other day, another friend asked me why I like crows – which I do, of course, or she wouldn’t’ve asked. “Their call isn’t particularly pretty,” she said, “and they are scavengers.”
I replied that I like crows because they clean up after the rest of us, they’re survivors and crazy smart, and, as the poet Jane Kenyon says, “like midwives and undertakers” they “possess a weird authority.”
“You get the feeling they know something you don’t, will likely outlive you, and will note your passing but not mourn,” I said.
That exchange got me thinking about another poem, about crows I watched along a road, years ago – black-feathered, black-hearted back-stabbers …
opossum on the yellow line
no longer plays
a murder of crows
dark with purpose
flapping in loose succession
devour their brother
one stands watch
14 Mar 01
We’re scavengers, too, I told her. We just dress it up better.
In 1948, the naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote: “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last [Passenger] pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auck thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. DuPont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.”
I agree with the sentiment, but I’m not sure superiority is the right word today. Our ability to mourn the loss of the natural world has done little to curb our appetites. Perhaps the crow won’t cry at our funeral, not because it can’t cry, but because it’s not sad.