Sunday, 6 June 2010

Consider the birds

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I keep trying to push the BP oil spill from my mind. This week there has been Cumbria, and four young soldiers dead in Afghanistan, shot to death or blown up. There was the madness of the Gaza flotilla and that shooting, and then of course everyone had to pick sides and shout at each other, which seems to me perfectly bonkers because in that particular, intractable Middle East conflict it seems there are wrongs and rights in each camp, and no one comes away without stain.  There was not room in my head for this long, overarching environmental catastrophe, against which the most powerful, most technologically advanced, most rich, most advanced nation in the world can do nothing. It's the country that prides itself on solving problems; it can do. It likes conquering frontiers. The moon? Sure. Quantum physics? Of course. Then everyone gallops off to collect their Nobel Prizes. Now it must stand by, like some wounded titan, helpless, and all people can do is say the President ought to sound crosser.

It turns out I could not not think about it. Two of the bloggers I love to read, The Errant Aesthete and Splenderosa, put up long, thoughtful, furious, moving posts about it, here and here. I read them, nodding my head. I wondered what it was that made this thing impossible to ignore, even in a week when I didn't think I could contemplate yet another horror.

I think it is the birds.

I know that is a nutty thing to say. The big picture is surely the most important: the Western dependence on oil, the carelessness of multi-national corporations, the corruption of regulating agencies in a country that takes pride in its own rectitude, the vulnerability of humans when technology fails. As one livid commenter said, in response to a website showing pictures of gulls glutted with viscous oil: come on, they are only birds, not human beings. In one sense this is right: the cost to communities, the endangering of entire industries such as fishing and tourism, the enduring grief of the families of those who died on the rig, even the crashed pensions of little old ladies who invested in BP shares probably are more important than pelicans. There will be a possibly fatal knock-on effect of the spill: if the wetlands are degraded, their role in containing storm surges decreases, meaning that in the next hurricane season more properties will be damaged, and, conceivably, more people will die. It's not just a dirty sea.

So why should it be that a photograph of a bird drowned in brown filth should evoke such a visceral response in me? It is only a bird; there are plenty more like it, whole flocks of them. I think it may be that when it comes to oil, most people are culpable. However organic we might go, unless we never drive, fly, or use a plastic bag ever, we have all made our pact with the devil. I have absolutely no good idea what we do about that, unless we go back to ponies and traps, but it does mean that even the most concerned citizen will have a little of that oil on her hands.

The birds, on the other hand, really are blameless. They don't ask for anything. In turn, humans are not very nice to avians. They shoot them, put them in cages, herd them into battery farms, hunt them to the brink of extinction, steal their eggs, and trash their native habitats. In return, the birds delight us with their plumage, their crazy mating dances, their warbling song, their astonishing migratory patterns. They give us a living link back to the dawn of time, descended as they are from the dinosaurs.

It's not as simple as saying humans bad, birds good. It's just that when I see those beautiful creatures smothered in crude, so I can get on a ferry to go to a Hebridean island for my summer holiday, I feel a horrible queasiness. I think: they deserve better than this. I think: is it partly my fault?

As I write this, a lone oystercatcher, in from the coast for his summer sojourn, is pecking for worms on the lawn in front of my study window. There are ducks nesting down by the burn. We have a heron, the very occasional fleetingly glimpsed kingfisher, squads of bluetits, a couple of bullfinches, several bright-eyed robins, and a small gang of pied wagtails. There are the swifts and the swallows, of course, and flights of buzzards that sail high over the woods. Along the beech avenue, a clattering of jackdaws gathers each evening at dusk. On sunny afternoons, black-faced gulls trip in from the sea. Somewhere, hidden in the trees, a woodpecker taps out his rattling timpani. If someone came and covered them in oil I don't know what I would do.

I don't know what any of us can do. That's the problem. I was going to write you a short, jaunty, Sunday post today, and instead you get a rather plaintive, inconclusive wail about the birds. So sorry about that. Better tomorrow.

Let's look at them, not suffocated in toxic sludge, but as they should be:

Brown pelican, photographer unknown

Brown pelican and black-faced gull, photographer unknown.

Duck, photographer unknown

Mallard, photographer unknown.

Green Heron by Alan Wilson

Green heron, by Alan Wilson. Don't you love the way he is rather grumpily hunched up, like Winston Churchill on a cold day?

Gull by Paul Frael

Gull, by Paul Friel.

Pintail, photographer unknown

Pintail, photographer unknown.

Seagull by Keven Law

Seagull, by Keven Law.

And, finally, a quote from Langston Hughes:

'Hold fast to your dreams, for without them life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.'


  1. Tania, I have never commented on your blog before but this post has moved me so much I had to say something. You have encapsulated perfectly what I felt when I saw the photo of that poor bird, thank you. Don't ever apologise for being downbeat, even when you talk about serious topics you do so with a lightness of touch and beautiful writing that it restores my faith.

  2. As Caroline says dont ever apologize for saying what you feel - even if you feel that it is like hitting your head against a wall. At least you have spoken out on a subject that most people would just read about and pass over. Creating awareness of a situation is also important. Thank you for this post.

  3. Tania, my new friend, how completely overwhelmed I am to read this post. While I ranted around about apathy you completely encapsulated this tragedy. Yes, we are all to blame. I appreciate the mention, however unworthy I am to even be thought of in the same sentence with you, mylady. sending xx's Marsha

  4. Caroline - such very kind words, thank you so much.

    Mystica - and thank YOU, for your lovely and reassuring comment.

    Marsha - loved your post, and thank you for your always generous and delightful comments.

  5. Tania,

    I am both honored (I have long admired your blog from afar) and filled with gratitude for your thoughtfulness in bringing awareness to this tragedy that is all of ours. Your eloquence in speaking of the birds pulls at my heart as do the images.

    A reader pointed out today on my post that, in her experience, the topic is far too "serious" for blogland and subsequently, she has lost her usual number of comments. While I am the first to escape at every opportunity into the thrall of beauty and inspiration, what, pray tell, is more poetic, magnificent, life affirming, and yes, inspired, than these creatures who have inhabited thee planet far longer than us?

    My heartfelt thanks for your mention and your own beautifully penned epithet.

  6. Errant Aesthete - how absolutely thrilling to know that you are one of my readers. I adore your blog and read it every day. I do get very shy about getting serious but then can't help myself. I think perhaps you are right and we can all mix it up. I reassure myself that there are really no strict blogging rules. Thank you so much for your lovely comment.


Your comments give me great delight, so please do leave one.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin