“Technology is a queer thing: it brings you great gifts with one hand and it stabs you in the back with the other”.
———– C.P. Snow
“Technology is a queer thing: it brings you great gifts with one hand and it stabs you in the back with the other”.
———– C.P. Snow
A willing and observant person can gather some extraordinary insights about the natural world in the most unlikely places. It can happen in the short time that it takes to blink an eye, no matter if that eye belongs to you, or to something else. Nature abounds with beneficial lessons and the teachers of true meaning are everywhere. I just happen to gain some of my clues from the clear-eyed and attentive stares of my backyard pigeon flock. You can learn a lot from an otherwise ordinary and common creature.
I spend a fair amount of time with this captive audience of one hundred in their outdoor aviary. I am their provider, and their lifeline from the outside lands. I supply them with their daily ration of grains and clean water, irregardless of the weather or the many other duties or time constraints I may have. I fill their pickpots with grit and minerals. I break ice from their bowls in the winter, and suffer the same stinging snows and biting winds of the day. I clean their flypen and pigeon-house, and keep a sharp eye out for the telltale signs of distress or disease. I study them closely, and through it all, they watch me too.
I am a constant in their lives, and a spoke in their wheel of life. I have come to know of them and their world just a little bit, and they of me. It could be said that they would rather prefer that I was not involved at all, but I am a necessary intrusion they must tolerate, at least for a brief time.
Yet, they wait for me each morning and afternoon, the anticipation building as I drive up to the entrance doors. They mill about excitedly as I approach, ready to perform just for me. I touch the door handle, and they begin their wild jig, dancing like ecstatic puppets on hidden strings. They hop about and swirl their wings like crazed whirligigs, or slap their wingtips smartly as they launch from their perch for a short flight across the pen.
They chant their pigeon talk and coo even louder as I step in through the inner doors, to become completely surrounded by frantic birds, eager to fill their crops before the other’s. They push and shoulder for each speck of grain as if their life depended on it. Perhaps they bicker and fight to establish or maintain some imperceptible pigeon pecking order, or maybe just to remind themselves that life can be a struggle. You would think that they would know by now that their will be enough food for all comers, but it is a wild ritual that they simply must abide for reasons known only to the pigeon.
We have repeated this madcap scene a few thousand times and more, the pigeons and I. It has become routine, with little deviation from the usual suspects. That is until yesterday, when our normal interaction abruptly and inexplicably changed.
It was immediately obvious when I pulled up in my truck. The abscence of sound or flashing wings struck me first, and what pigeon heads I could see sat on top of outstretched necks, alert, with searching eyes. They crouched in the classic manner of all prey, with feet tucked under their bodies, coiled and ready to spring out and away from impending danger.
The birds stood frozen and paid me little mind as I entered and searched the ground for an animal intruder. I investigated the pigeon houses and the nest boxes and found nothing. I checked every nook and cranny of their limited world and came up empty. I paused to scratch my head, and ponder this puzzling circumstance.
Hand on chin, I stared at the closest pigeon and wondered, determined to discover just why he would not fly. And then he cocked his head, and I saw his eye focus on something high as he grounded himself more tightly to his perch. At that moment I spied a wide, dark shadow moving across the dirt floor, and smiled. I knew exactly what belonged in that kind of shadow, as did my fine feathered friends. All I had to do was look up, to see just exactly what it was that had struck such all-consuming fear in their hearts.
I had no doubt that the shadow maker was an eater of birds, but there were several possibilities in this category. A red-tailed hawk maybe, or a gleaming eagle from the nearby river. In this case the black shadow belonged to an animal of equal color, with a distinctively naked neck. It was not what I expected to see.
The Turkey Vulture, or Buzzard as it is sometimes called, is quite common to the American West and many parts of North America. A six-foot wingspan casts a long shadow across the land, and he covers a lot of it as he travels. That great red and bald head is immediately recognizable from afar, and known by all. His sentinel like posture and hovering demeanor create and perpetuate his iconic image. It is a form often associated with death, and it is a meaning not entirely lost on my domesticated, but anxious, pigeon flock.
The Vulture is classified as a bird of prey, after all, even though he finds most of his meals by smell after they are already dead. I suppose that it is a distinction utterly lost on the brain of a pigeon.
His generic name is Cathartes, which means “purifier”. It is an appropriate name, as the Buzzard is the sharp-beaked “tearer”, and recycler of flesh and feather. He is part of nature’s cleanup crew, and a perfectly ordained sanitizing unit. His kind are often referred to as “carrion eaters”, as if it were a derogatory term used to define the sordid parameters of their defective character. Nothing could be father from the truth.
I, for one, am a defender of this homely yet beautiful animal. The manner in which he makes his living should not be used to demean or degrade his standing in the larger scheme of things. His shadow may strike terror in the souls of countless scurrying and furtive creatures, but he has not come for them. Not now. He is where our lifeless bodies might naturally go, may we all be so lucky. There are far worse fates to suffer than those borne through the belly of a bird.
Still, it makes me wonder about the sensibilities of the pigeons in my charge. None of this buzzard business should be of any concern to a bird so far removed from a natural environment. It may be true that their only protection from flying marauders is a thin, nylon mesh that forms the roof of their cage. But what of it?
Most of my birds have never known anything else than the limited boundaries of the aviary. They were hatched here, reared by their parents and brought to adulthood without having to worry about danger and death from above. They have never enjoyed a truly wild moment in their lives, and I doubt if the thought of escape and a different kind of life has ever occurred to them.
Likewise, their parents have grown up in much the very same way, as did their parents, and their parents, and so on and so on. In fact their domestic lineage goes back for thousands of years, to the days when the first man made his first hopeful departures from the relative safety of the caves. They are mankind’s first domestic animal partner, and their history is our history. One would think that very little of the wild would be left in the soul of a pigeon. On the contrary, it would appear that the thin margin of safety above their swiveling heads provides little comfort.
It makes me wonder about the level of domestication in the so called domestic pigeon. How much wild is left in an otherwise non-wild creature? What does he remember of his life on the cliffs? Is it some latent genetic memory, or something else that keeps him looking skyward? Something tells me that there are some wild yearnings left behind, and that it might not take them very long to surface if given some small opportunity.
Truth be known, the story of the vulture and the pigeon is a tale as old as time and one not so easily forgotten. Each has something to tell us in their own way. Their interactions remind us that the primordial spark of life burns on as brightly as ever. They beckon us to live fully while we are alive, no matter the circumstance or the crosses we bear.
They tell us that danger is but a heartbeat away, though we try to deny it by surrounding ourselves with shallow and petty distractions. The realities of life and death lie closely behind the delicate veil, no matter how hard we may try to separate and protect ourselves from the natural world with the cages of our own clever designs.
The Turkey Vulture occasionally wishes to feel like a master predator on the wing, and a hunter of live prey. Perhaps he flies over our birds to feel the power of his blood and history. He dares us to be watchful, yet hopeful, lest we gain the finality of his steady gaze. We all must eventually return to replenish the elements of the earth. We are needed, we are welcome, but perhaps not today.
The great purifyer embraces the rising thermals and circles ever upward, hanging on the edge of consciousness to remind us that a little bit of wild remains in the most cowered and tamed of the earthly realms below. We shall all have plenty of time to rest, and to watch, in our time.
Leaves fall rapidly from our backyard cottonwood trees as I write this, flickering and steadily streaming towards the dead, brown grass. It makes me wonder just what else may be in store for this infamous year of 2012.
I have searched my memory banks as thoroughly as I can, and I just can’t remember seeing leaves in free fall this early in the year. Even in Colorado the autumn season is normally some time away, so that can’t be it. So why then, have the leaves begun to turn yellow and die?
It is the drought of course, as if I needed a reminder. The thermometer on the back of my house reads a hellish 97.7 degrees at 3:30 P.M on another cloudless summer day. The sun is unbearably intense at our mile high elevation, and I don’t think I could even bear to scan the humidity reading. It would be a great afternoon to be a lizard.
It’s difficult to do much of anything outside. Just ask my dogs, who can seem to do little else but pant away in the shade, or our rabbits, who have seemed to have gone to ground. Or ask my wife, who constantly reminds me that I am not putting enough water on her pampered peonies.
Early leaf fall is a sign of biological stress, and of that there can be no doubt. Cottonwoods need a lot of water, and of that there is none. They began to yellow and die in scattered patches some weeks ago, and by now they have used or are using up all of the remaining water in their canopies to survive these toughest of all times. It would appear that the leaves have done the best they could for the tree in this trying year, and they simply have nothing left to give.
I know a little about the magnitude of this drought from what I read in the news reports. I know that almost all of the counties in Colorado have been designated as agricultural disaster areas. I know that the chair from which I write this is sitting squarely in the 25% of the country or thereabouts that is experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions. I know that this drought may be a once and a lifetime event for many of us, or so we can hope.
Still, I cannot seem to come to grips with the sight of falling leaves in early august. The calendar seems to be askew, as if I’ve misplaced a month or two. My mind races as it strips a gear, and I don’t know if I can put Humpty Dumpty back together again anytime soon. I am stressed, and I can feel that I am not alone. It’s everywhere, in everyone and everything, and all around.
Global warming, I don’t know? 2012, we shall see? Some folks postulate that it could be all part of a natural cycle, as if humans have been around long enough to offer an opinion. Or is it something…more?
I do know that my heart goes out to all the farmers and farm family’s affected by this terrible drought. I feel for the bears who will have such a desperate time finding food and fat to sustain them through the inevitable winter. I wonder how our once bountiful fruit trees will fare until next spring, and if many of the trees will just give it all up for good. I hope that our drinking well will survive the trials, and somehow replenish itself with non-existent waters. I have many wonders, and worries, as no doubt do you.
Most of all I wonder of the earth, and hope that our modern technological hubris has not damaged her elegant and life-sustaining systems beyond repair. I hope that in the end, she has not given up upon us all.
I will always remember some of the things I did on the day of the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Disaster, other than monitoring the incoming reports on the TV news in stupefied horror, of course. Hopping about on one leg, while trying to put my pants on seemed a disproportionately difficult task that early morning. Holding the phone to my ear while talking to my wife, who happened to be in Seattle that day, didn’t make the effort any easier.
Glued to the tube of boobs, I felt an immeasurable rage and foreboding sense of powerlessness build inside of me, the likes of which I have never experienced. Clever words from inside my head, could never even come close to exploring the depths of those unfathomable feelings. Trapped like a fluttering bug in a bottle, I knew then that life on our planet had probably changed forever. I wanted to gather my wife and run…but where? To a brave new life in the southern hemisphere, perhaps?
Later that day, I stirred from my catatonic state long enough to wipe the drool from my face and stare out of our big picture window. A hundred yards below, my neighbor from our western flank was carrying out his annual controlled burn of his horse pasture. I watched as he disappeared, and then reappeared, in the wind-driven smoke, leaning smugly on his shovel as he checked the progress of the crackling flames. The problem was that he was standing squarely on my asphalt driveway, which is well past his property boundary.
My gut tightened as I saw the acrid smoke make a direct hit on my pigeon lofts and outdoor aviary, so thick that I could no longer see buildings or fence. We had discussed this before, with little result. He seemed to relish his penchant for selective hearing.
To say that this was a bad day for another trespass, and one more insolent and disrespectful act on his part would be an understatement. I could have handled it better, I admit. I was acting out, I know. But I had the full weight of the radiated world behind me, and their was no way of stopping the momentum of the Fukushima event. There is no doubt that I was able to convey my point of view to him that time. A line of communication was firmly established, and I have had no other issues with this particular fellow.
I am not proud of my interactions with my neighbor that day, and my blustering words still echo in my ears. For him, the earth may have stood still for a brief moment in time, but for different reasons than my own. Petty bickerings have no significance when compared to nuclear catastrophe. I can only associate it as a hollow and unsatisfying victory, on a day when the world shuttered and heaved.
It is strange how one can associate small, common moments in one’s life with world shattering events. I am sure we all have them. For example, at age four, I first became aware that the spoken word could touch your world from afar and shake you, perhaps forever.
It was the day that John F. Kennedy was murdered in hot blood, and also the day that I was introduced to the existence of radio. I was sitting on the front seat of our corvair, between my mother and my aunt, doing whatever young boys do to entertain themselves on a fine sunny day when trapped inside a moving metal box. I remember hearing the sound of the air constrict and freeze in their lungs as they absorbed the body blow of what they had just heard, and I began to listen too. Of course, I had no idea what was really happening, but I knew that it was important. I had never heard of JFK, and I had no understanding of presidents or politics. My mother could barely drive, and then pulled over, as her sister hugged her and they cried. I cried too, for them. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Likewise, I will always remember the day that JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy died, as the day that I split my pants from stem to stern on the grade school playground. A large group of us were playing tag and running wildly on the green grass, and the next thing I knew I was being laughed at, taunted, and mocked. I sat embarrassed and mortified as I waited for my father to leave his job site and save me. It was a large happening in my young world, at that time, and I didn’t know then how I would ever get over it.
My attention shifted pretty quickly when my father picked whisked me away in his Cadillac. He didn’t say much, as he concentrated on the car radio, like my mother had done years before. The announcer spoke of assassination, murderous plots, and national grief. I barely knew who RFK was, and now he was dead too. My father was a rock of the world that other people had to step around. The bloody engagements and soul crushing events of World War II, The Battle of The Bulge, and worse, had not broken him, at least not in anyway that you could see. He did not cry, nor did I, in front of him. But it was obvious that he was struggling with his own private thoughts that morning, and doing his best to make sense of it all in his own way. He no doubt had some insights into the evil that man do. He had experienced it first hand. The death of Robert Kennedy had left a mark upon my father, and the world had suffered yet another crippling blow that we all shared.
Years later, I stood in the small parking lot of a used record store near the campus of the State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. I was gathering some records to trade from the backseat of my car. An older woman saw me there, bent over, and suddenly approached me from behind and shouted “He’s dead! Oh my god, oh no, He’s dead”. “Who’s dead, I blurted”? “John Lennon is dead, she wailed”. “They killed him!” It was all I could do to keep from dropping my albums on the hard, blue pavement.
I entered the record store and found several people sobbing in low murmurs, huddled in grief. My used vinyl no longer mattered to anyone. Later, I stood in wonder as an entire college town came to it’s knees in bewilderment, and mourned, in… silence. I will always associate it as a day when the music stopped throughout the land. I still hear a voice singing, pleading, to ”give peace a chance”, and then,…nothing. I did not cry that day, but I should have.
Other happenings remain indelibly transfixed upon my psyche. I first read the book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, when I was in the 7th grade. It changed my life forever, as it has changed and continues to change the awareness of people throughout the world. It was the first time that I was notified that the natural world I loved could be destroyed by the actions of careless and ignorant human beings. I was deeply troubled and upset. I wanted to discuss it with my classmates, but few seemed more than a little interested. They chattered on like brainless monkeys, while Love Canal percolated it’s witches brew and the rivers burned.
The ravaging effects of Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane and other life destroying pesticides and compounds had run amok, and Rachel Carson wanted everyone to know it. Most of all, she called on us to stop it. She made her announcements in the face of great ridicule, and personal peril. But her voice would be heard. I will always honor her courage, and her unstoppable resolve to plug the endless barrels of poison.
I was standing in the bottom of a ditch on a wet and dreary day on a New Jersey construction site the day I heard about Chernobyl. The talk at lunch grew worse, and when I returned to my labor the sky grew darker and I swung my pick and hacked at the earth like the ditch was filled with hissing serpents. I swung with all I had, but I could not prevent Chernobyl’s runaway reactions.
I don’t remember where I was when I heard of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, as it began it’s dark black journey and covered the tidal beaches in and about Prince William Sound, Alaska. I do remember hunting large game, as it hunted me too, on some of these very same beaches more than 15 years before. I will always remember the extreme wildness of the place, and the indescribable natural bounty of her waters and limitless shorelines. I feel the magnitude of lost life still pulsating in my veins. I don’t know if I could ever bear to stand upon those beaches again.
My solar plexus still hurts from listening to the radio for days on end as I worked at my office, trying to center myself in hopes that the terrifying news of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill might somehow bounce off my tightening abdominal muscles. It flowed for 3 months and by some estimates spewed 5 million barrels of oil before being capped, and I felt every drop of it. A persistent seep exists today, and the gulf still struggles to live. I may never breathe easily, again.
Looking back now, I can see the traces and shadows of unseen political hands in the deaths of John and Robert Kennedy, and John Lennon, too. These were not natural events at all, in fact completely the opposite. These results are manipulated and man-made. We see the unfortunate distractions and the mess, while the restless hands are busy behind the magic curtain.
The masters marvel at their destructive capabilities. They celebrate their deviousness, and race to exercise their control. We see only the endgame of complicated plans and never-ending schemes, discussed in dark corners in hushed tones and evil murmurings. They got their coup d’etat, and more, and we did nothing. The schemes are global now, and almost complete. The unseen hands now flash openly in the sun. If you doubt this, I invite you to take a good look around. You might not like what your eyes will see, once you learn how to look.
Still, they have gone too far. We may long for the day when all we had to worry about was the desperately thin and fragile shells of eagle eggs, and the numerous other side effects of DDT. Now we have the story of the disappearing honey bees and colony collapse disorder, and the discoveries of three-legged frogs who do not know if they be girls or boys. We grew bored with high-tech delivery systems of devastatingly effective pesticides. Now we just splice the mimicking agents within genetically modified organisms, which take over and dominate the natural order of all living things. They’re ready to eat too, pesticides and all. Imagine that. Even Rachel Carson could not have seen that one coming.
It wasn’t enough to worry about giant ocean tankers filled with crude being run aground by drunken sailors on top of some of the most ecologically sensitive areas on the planet. These days we drill down below miles of hostile ocean, and then miles below that, until the unbelievable pressures of it all explode and crack the sea bed. Not satisfied to spoil the oceans, we now move inland, to frack and fracture and contaminate all freshwater drinking supplies. It’s all just a careless experiment, and another day’s work for the slithering horde.
Perhaps we thought that we would all learn something from the horrors of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. We should have, after all. It was time then, and even before that, to admit the folly and incalculable risks of nuclear power. It’s a deciever’s dream, in fact a nightmare, dropped upon the back of all mankind.
What’s next in this escalating hit parade of environmental tragedies? They’ve already pierced the heart of the planet and set the sky on fire. A demonically engineered plague or two might suit their purposes. Or perhaps they can pry open an insatiable black hole, and let it loose to gobble us up?
Fukushima-Daiichi is what’s next. The crisis is far from over, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. If the truth were known, it may already be the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the human race. The empty promises and false hopes of our future science, will not fix it. We are but one earthquake away from the end of the world as we know it.
We must stop these madmen from doing more harm. They are merely modern-day mad hatters, poisoned by the vapors from their own industry, hubris, and conceit. They have counted coup upon us, and in their haste they may have destroyed themselves too. The time has come to show them the error of their ways, and of ours. Like the spoiled and overindulged children of hapless parents, we must rip away the vengeful toys they clutch, before they kill us all.
I would explain all of this to my neighbor, if I could, and if he would listen. I would try. I fear that train has left the station, headed for unknown destinations.
I don’t like to dwell on world events or pry in other’s business. I prefer to pay more attention to what’s under my nose, and in my backyard. Fukushima is vastly different. There is no where to run. The radiation plume is over my head now, and the tiny, unseen particles are on us, and in us. There will be consequences, whether I choose to deny their presence, or not.
But my personal reservoir of hope has long since run dry. The kind of strength I will need can only come from somewhere else, and in the hope of that I pray. For now, I cry for the people of Fukushima, and for all of Japan. I cry for all living things, large and small, and for our mother earth. I cry for the dying, and the unborn. I cry with you, or without. I cry for me, and for you.
I cry big, fat, irradiated tears which roll down my face, and wish that they can grow harmless, before they hit the floor.
“Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings”. - John F. Kennedy
Around here we are big on pigeons and squabs for the dinner table. So exactly what is a squab anyway?