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From "A precipice many fathoms deep"

November 23, 2022

[...] If there are any ivory-billed woodpeckers out there, it’s hard to imagine how they will escape simply becoming one of the almost half of U.S. bird species headed towards extinction. It’s not because of individual cruelty, per se; this would be a different essay if it was. It’s about the machine of profit, about how so many of us never question its functions. If one person, or maybe a few, at the Singer Sewing Company had stepped in in the 30s, it’s possible the ivory-billed woodpecker would still exist today. Instead, we have annihilation, and no way to reverse what we’ve done. 

“It is, or was, the largest woodpecker in the United States,” the bird’s Wikipedia page says. Again, I get hung up on grammar–the shift from present to past tense, or at least, the question of it. It is, or it was. There’s a choice implied, one we haven’t taken yet. At the same time, that black-and-white shot, a still from the footage that the Cornell team took in the 30s, makes the entire web page into an elegy. It’s a feeling I have sometimes looking at trees–that I’m somehow mourning something at the exact same time that I’m desperately trying to find new ways to make it live. 

One of the worst things that American mainstream media does to the environmental movement is sensationalize climate news. Apocalyptic headlines sell subscriptions, and they also make all of us feel like helpless bystanders, gloom factories doomed to keep reading, enticed by the idea that there might be some kind of pot of gold at the end of the article that will make us feel better. It’s human nature to do this–feel bad, then want to feel better–and a lot of us fall for the trick. If I’m being honest, I fall for it pretty much every day. 

Here, I’m trying to find some middle ground, some place where all of us can meet and discover something that doesn’t exhaust us. I have very little idea how to do this, but what seems worse is letting this self-motivated, self-aggrandizing system bring us somewhere in our minds, or our experiences on Earth, that we don’t actually want to be. It seems to require both accepting responsibility as individuals and as a collective, which requires seeing the power that collectivity has, which requires imagination. Capitalism encourages us to see ourselves as we’ve always been, to block from possibility being any other way. Nature teaches us differently.

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“Newsletter” isn’t exactly the right word. Mortal Lives is a series of reflections on the many intersections of the human and natural worlds, and what we can learn there. 

These writings are based on my experiences as a birder, researcher, and wildlife care manager working with the other New Yorkers, from hawks and gulls to opossums and warblers. I’m inspired by climate activists, Indigenous thinkers, and leftist organizers who seek to imagine a different, more harmonious balance between all beings on earth. If that’s not your thing, I welcome you even more.

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