A heartbreaking image of a swallow with seared wings is what initially scared me away from Rebecca Solnit’s important recent essay in the New York Times Magazine. But Rob insisted rightly that I needed to read it, so I finally prepared my all-too-sensitive eyes and mind to get through painful descriptions of bird tragedies.
Solnit argues forcefully that to deal successfully with our contemporary climate crisis, we need to reinvent not only how we extract energy (and, I would add, our desire for it), but how we tell stories about our time. She is right.
We do need to tell stories, ones that work, about the profound costs to wildlife of how we’ve chosen to live in our places, how we choose every day to extract our lifestyles’ materials from the interdependent Earth.
Solnit acknowledges that understanding these interactions requires the tools of the scientist: vast amounts of quantitative data, global statistics, complex graphs. Finding ways to translate all this voluminous systemic information into compelling stories is both difficult and essential.
To do this well, she says, “you have to look past what can be photographed — individual cases, incidents in the past — at the broad patterns.” She insists that we must “see past the death of a sparrow or a swallow to the systems of survival for whole species and the nature of the planet we leave to the future.”
And that’s where we part ways.
We contemporary humans are already pretty good, I think, at looking past the lives of individual creatures. We’ve lost so much of our ability to “pray attention,” as I’ve written elsewhere, to our urban animal neighbors and the other wild creatures of sky and forest and sea. Children often know more facts about global warming (and, my Facebook feed tells me, commercial brand names) than they do species names of birds in their back yards.
In our quest to heal our global environment for our sake and for our animal companions, we must hold for dear life—literally—to our connection to local nature. Following Solnit’s call to “see past” a dying sparrow, we run the risk of insulating our hearts from breaking. But it is our beating hearts’ fragility in the face of a hurt creature that supplies our lifeblood with passion. And we need that fervor: it’s hard work to understand the natural system that supports the creatures we love, and we need all the soul-sustenance we can get.
Solnit claims that “the stories about individual birds can distract us from the slow-motion calamity that will eventually threaten every bird.” No. It’s these stories that honor intimacy, that pierce to our core, that impel us to take action on behalf of love.
By keeping our eyes on the sparrow (as someone with a much greater reputation than either Solnit or I is reputed to be doing), we can look with our bird rather than past him to develop a vision for healing our shared world. And maybe that will give our sparrow a little more to sing about, and a more whole place in which to sing.