by Glenn Reed
NOTE: The author recently visited the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts, United States, and was immensely moved by a collaborative exhibit called "Eclipse," by artist pair Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris and writer Elizabeth Kolbert. This opened last year on September 14, which was a significant anniversary....
(Swans - January 26, 2015) A bare tree. Gnarled branches. White light with solid brick patterns. Black background. Yin-yang or photograph reversal.
A name whispered. Sounds like...."George?"
Between old buildings. Industrial. Still another old mill town that died away through the mid 20th century, now reborn in art and coffee shops and used book stores. Irony converging on a new connecting wall beneath ceiling that shelters from winter chill. Illusions of security.
I detect a tiny bit of movement beyond the tree. Something coming this way. Tickling at my subconscious. Something remembered?
Slowly it grows. It becomes distinct pieces. More and more and they grow, become more numerous, keep coming forward towards the tree. I can then detect wings. They are flying in a flock. Then they are all landing on the tree. In the hundreds. In the thousands. More? They coat the tree. My eyes blur.
I'd read before that it could actually have been in the millions or hundreds of millions. The flocks could be miles wide and long. It could take them many minutes to pass or even hours or many, many hours. They would blacken the sky and almost blot out the sun. Sort of like an eclipse. Except living, breathing, wings flapping, the whole winding, in tune to forces of gravity, sky, sun, landscape, instinct, the drive to mate and raise their young and feed, responding to the Earth's rotation and tilt, the activities of other living creatures.
It could have been in the millions.
Past tense, you see. Because they are all gone. Long gone. By early in the last century. The year 1914, to be exact. (http://www.audubonmagazine.org/articles/birds/why-passenger-pigeon-went-extinct) Since we are exacting creatures. What was once the most numerous bird in North America, with numbers guessed to be in the range of 3 to 5 billion.
On the brick wall of this old mill, now a contemporary art museum, you can't tell that these birds are passenger pigeons. Not by sight alone.
There is no point of reference, of course. If you had not read any of the signs or museum program or a book on this subject, it would appear to be a still beautiful and effective display. Loaded with symbolism including the cycles of life and nature. Little children would still point at the ceiling and exclaim "Look!" at the few pigeons of light that escape the wall and dart past on the ceiling overhead.
There would still be that feeling of sadness, regret and recognition of our own mortality as the pigeons, once all gathered on the tree, fly off in their massive swarm in our direction until there are just dozens left, then a handful, then a couple. Just one. And then that very last one leaves and the tree is bared once again.
You dread that moment. You hear a vague voice in your head. Martha calling to George that she is coming. Symbolism again. Too much irony in a nation immune to irony.
The United States came of age, so to speak, through the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The rise of another empire. As President Calvin Coolidge once said:
"The business of America is business."
Manifest Destiny, expanding from sea to shining sea, company towns, God made us masters of all the planet and it's here for us to exploit, visions of the Rapture, sociopathic greed and plutocracy, resources consumed like junk food....entitlement....
You know the drill if you were born and raised in the United States. We were all brought up on that poison diet of American exceptionalism.
Hence the names of the very last pair of passenger pigeons, according to the program. George and Martha. One of the exalted "founding fathers" and the compliant, enabling wife. But this George and Martha gutted by the irony. Stuck in an Ohio zoo until the end. Never mating because the spirit had been sucked out, commodified, ledger-lined, stuffed, and added to the football trophy case.
"Perform for the chosen ones!" zoo visitors would demand of Martha after George had given up the ghost and she was a particle hurtling through the atmosphere, slowly burning out. They would toss objects at her in frustration. "Do something for your feed! Perform for the one!"
One hundred years gone now. One thousand. One million. A second or two away....
Stylish high heels click above the soundtrack of distorted, human voices and hints of gunshots and nets cast to capture the sky. Eyes are glued to iPhones and iPads and anything electronic and caressed in the palms of hands to record the passing of a recording of the passing of moments that passed into history so that they can be shared in the brave new, digitized, homogenized, plasticized and dehumanized virtual reality where passenger pigeons, mammoths, trilobites, T. rexes, aboriginal tribes, empathy, common courtesy and dinner conversation are acronymed, tweated, posted, and misspelled in desperate Wikipedia entries.
"On to the next exhibit. That was certainly awesome! A selfie would be appropriate right here, but the damned passenger pigeon refused to stand still for us."
And the ghost of a textile worker popped up and distracted you. What were they whispering anyway?
The mezzanine empties for a minute or two as the next flock makes its way up the eastern shore of North America. Soon minus a few that the Native tribe members ate. Not noticeable. The tree keeps filling.
Then it begins to empty. Journaled in cursive by an amazed, early explorer from the "Old World." Then falling in the hundreds for easy meals and sport and just because they were one of many inconveniences for farmers who needed to clear-cut from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi and for monocled industrialists who needed to create their own eclipse from smokestack entrails, Wall Street high rises, and slag heaps. Got to pasturize from sea to shining sea. Wild must be tamed. Can't be herded and milked, then they must be destroyed.
The flocks thinning, the guns more accurate, commercial value created, the hordes of capitalism tightening the nets, casting them in lead over the sky, cementing souls behind brick and mortared walls.
Three syllables to the word. Several consonants with distinct pronunciation. Too often associated with dinosaurs. Can't identify, especially without immediate gratification. Millions of years ago. Fossils and stuff.
Genocide. Also three syllables. Too many soft consonants and vowels, but so many recent examples. Millions targeted and dead. Hitler to Pol Pot to Milosevic. Pronounced but never really comprehended.
Denial. Three, the magic number. From carcasses stripped of hides and left rotting across the plains to canyons drowned behind tons of cement.
Indifferent. It's three syllables if Fox reports it or someone posts it as such.
Three syllables. Sounds. What is the sound of something that is no longer there? For which you have no basis for comparison? Before the time of phonographs and recordings?
A generation now passed dispersed to the winds and soil and depths of the ocean. What did they recall and did drawings adequately illustrate the curve of wing, the point of beak, the spread of the flock across sky?
What is a power that can blot out the very sun? In times when nights were only kept at bay with pieces of flint or rubbed sticks. When a sliver could lead to infection and death. When giving birth was a gamble? When a celestial event sent you cowering into the cusp of a book of myth?
Oh, but we must know that power, wield it, club all into submission!
Leaving the mezzanine, negotiating the stairs to the ground level, making my way to a simple table placed under the wall where the tree is projected over four books under a desk lamp.
Instinct jars me. Sense of falling. Registering a hole in my fight or flight section of brain and unknown depths. Something right at my feet.
I stop and look down at the dark square. Lights shine back from somewhere subterranean. I realize it is just polished stone and a reflection that is strategically placed in the path towards the table. There lie four books that all relate to extinction.
What are your last thoughts as you plummet? Are you falling to the stars? Are you joining the thousands, the millions and billions in flight, thundering across the plains, teaming in the oceans, receding beyond the horizon, sinking into a pond's depths? A simple surrendering?
Is there a cooing noise in your ears, like the mournful lament for a dead lover who could only turn away at the end?
I hear a voice once again. Then I'm falling.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)