When I first came to what we off-handedly call today “environmentalism,” I met the wonderful poems of N. Scott Mommaday.
I am a feather in the bright sky,
I am a blue horse that runs in the plains… (“The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee”)
Around this delightful song of joy and affection for the natural world, I created a writing exercise called “Circle Poem in the Native American Spirit,” which I published in my book, The Story in History (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1992).
Those early days of my “environmentalism” began as a healing practice after losing my father. That rift in the world, that hole in the sky, I began to fill with feathers. As I walked west under the Hamline bridge, heading toward the Mississippi River, but turning rather quickly and coming east and home, I collected feathers. Most were crow feathers and pigeon feathers with their dark tips and lighter shafts, or occasionally a flicker feather–startlingly yellow in its shaft with varegated dark and lighter bands. The greatest prize were cardinal feathers, dusty red–my favorite Minnesota bird.
On trips to various shores, I gathered large goose and gull feathers, and once found what must have been a hawk tail feather, with its long banded strength. These I gradually added to a papier mache mask in an all-over design, attaching each with a torn piece of pale construction paper on which I wrote one of my father’s sayings: “Per de la madonna,” or “Eh, Porceluzza!” His Italian saying predominated, as being the essence of himself.
Perhaps it was this loss-and-love homage that began my fascination with birds. Bird feeders went up in the back yard, first close to the house, then when birds began throwing themselves at their reflections in the upper windows, further out in the yard. Feeders for big sunflower seeds, and little thistle seeds, and the mix of millet and corn that attracts sparrows. Soon I had a flock of squirrels feeding with the birds. Every six months or so a hawk would swoop down and squeeze a bird to death, while plucking its head feathers–probably hastening its death. I squirmed and complained–this was hard to watch–but I did watch, and accepted that hawks too have to eat and some eat their own kind.
Last summer, in western Minnesota, a farmer became furious with the huge white pelicans who have made a come back in Minnesota. When their island in a big lake shrank with rising water, the birds took to nesting in fields. This farmer had rented land and anticipated a crop. When pelicans nested on the land, he was so angry that he crushed hundreds (maybe thousands) of pelican eggs, and killed fledglings already born. He’d been warned by a game warden that the birds are protected, but this did not deter him. The warden, suspecting that he might do something ugly, returned the day after issuing the warning to find this horrible fratricide–Father Sun, Mother Moon, Brother Bird, Sister Lake.
When I first read about the murder, I was so shaken with grief and horror that I almost couldn’t bear it. Now, months have passed and that initial raw emotion has subsided. The farmer has been tried and sentenced to pay a fine of $12,500 (the largest such fine ever issued in Minnesota, if I’m not mistaken). He must also perform many years of service to the natural world. He voices penitence. He says it is the worst thing he has ever done. I believe him, though I know him not at all.
As I’ve been driving around, thoughts about his case flash across my mind. I wonder what he felt as he smashed those huge eggs and killed the helpless fledglings? I imagine that rage creates a sense of enormous, unchecked power. It blinds and floods, it takes over the entire being. It does not exercise patience or anticipate other outcomes or search for ways to distract with other emotions, with other activities. It does not seek companionship to pour out the murderous hate in a neutral ear.
Then I remember stories of easterners who took the newly built trains across the western plains and shot for sport the buffalo stampeded by fear of the “iron horse.” These anonymous, 19th-century killers had no real motive: they were fulfilling no need for food or hides. They were simply drunk with unchecked power. They left the carcasses to rot.
This history is in our blood. Yet our laws and regulations attempt to check that history with recognition of its horrible excesses. Here, the farmer who robbed a native bird of thousands of its seasonal offspring, reminds us of the two sides of our American, our human story.
His life will not be the same after this. Nor should he be an outcast. In fact, his action reminds me of what we all do, these days. Not with such direct brutality, but rather with the soft connivance of comfort and avoidance, we create holes in the sky.
And, if we’re lucky, we find ways to set about the task of living with less, curbing out demands, making amends and offering to help stitch the world whole.