What If the Birds All Die?

 

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

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Sunset in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’m a science fiction writer. I’m thinking “what if” premises all the time. One that nags me is: What if the birds all die?

We might be closer to it than you think…

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Chickadee in Ontario (photo by Merridy Cox)

The October 2019 issue of Science magazine reported a staggering decline in North American birds. Kenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers estimated that three billion birds of various species have disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970.

That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades.

The focus of the study wasn’t on extinction; these are still common species—just greatly diminished in numbers. This makes sense to me. My naturalist friend and I have both noticed how even the common house sparrow have declined in our neighbourhoods. My friend noticed fewer dashes of colour in the trees provided by yellow warblers in the past few years.

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Northern Cardinal (photo by Merridy Cox)

 

The Guardian reported that two thirds of the house sparrow population have disappeared in Europe. That’s close to 150 million birds. The article blamed changes in land use (destruction of habitat), coastal management (destruction of wetlands) and weather (including climate change). In another study, car exhaust was implicated in a 60% loss of common sparrow numbers from the mid 1990s.

In North America, warbler populations dropped by 600 million. Blackbirds by 400 million. The common robins, cardinals, and blue jays had noticeably declined. Even starlings—once considered a kind of fast-breeding pest—have dwindled by 50%. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services have determined that three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial and two-thirds of the its marine environments have been severely altered by human actions.

Unchecked deforestation. Unchecked use of toxic pesticides. Turning wetlands into parking lots. Climate change. We are destroying the integrity of ecosystems throughout this planet on a massive scale. And the birds are telling us…

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Baby Robin rests on a porch chair in Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

subTerrain 85 coverMy short story “Out of the Silence,” which appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of subTerrain Literary Magazine (Issue 85), tells the story of Katherine, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of soundscape ecology.

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures—unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks—roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance…

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Rachel Carson was nothing short of prophetic when she published Silent Spring in 1962 (in reference to the dawn chorus most noticeable in spring during breeding). Silent Spring cautioned burgeoning ag-biotech companies (like Monsanto—now Bayer—Sygenta, Dow, and DuPont) who were carelessly and flagrantly spraying fields with pesticides and herbicides—at the time DDT was the main culprit. This would soon become a GMO world where gene-hacked plants of monocultures can withstand the onslaught of killer pesticides like neonicotinoids (currently killing bees everywhere) and Roundup.  Roundup is a carcinogenic glyphosate-based weed killer that has recently been shown to kill beneficial insects like bees) and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, birth defects, autism, and several kinds of cancer in humans.

RachelCarson-LindaLearIn her 1997 biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, historian and science biographer Linda Lear wrote:

Silent Spring, the product of [Carson’s] unrest, deliberately challenged the wisdom of a government that allowed toxic chemicals to be put into the environment before knowing the long-term consequences of their use. Writing in language that everyone could understand and cleverly using the public’s knowledge of atomic fallout as a reference point, Carson described how chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphorus insecticides altered the cellular processes of plants, animals, and, by implication, humans. Science and technology, she charged, had become the handmaidens of the chemical industry’s rush for profits and control of markets. Rather than protecting the public from potential harm, the government not only gave its approval to these new products but did so without establishing any mechanism of accountability. Carson questioned the moral right of government to leave its citizens unprotected from substances they could neither physically avoid nor publicly question. Such callous arrogance could end only in the destruction of the living world.

Despite Carson’s warnings in 1962 and despite some action eventually taken (e.g. the ban on use of DDT in 1972—the precursor to Roundup and other neonicotinoids currently in use), the use of chemicals in big ag-industry has increased over five-fold since the 1960s. And this is destroying our bee populations, other beneficial insects, beneficial weeds, small animal populations and—of course—our bird life. And it’s making us sick too.

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Bumble bee at risk

In a 2012 article in the New York Times—exactly fifty years after Silent Spring was published on September 27, 1962—Nancy F. Koehn tells us that, “[Rachel Carson] was a slight, soft-spoken woman who preferred walking the Maine shoreline to stalking the corridors of power. And yet Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, played a central role in starting the environmental movement, by forcing government and business to confront the dangers of pesticides.” Carson, writes Koehn, was an introverted scientist with a lyrical bent, who saw it as her mission to share her observations with a wider audience. Carson wrote Silent Spring while battling illness (including breast cancer) and caring for her young son. When the book was published, she faced an outburst of public reaction and strong backlash, primarily from chemical companies. Not unlike another female eco-hero (Greta Thunberg), Carson endured with dignity and deliberation the vulgar censure by opponents (virtually all men tied to corporate giants) who attacked her personally with vilifying stereotype. Men accused her of being disloyal and unscientific, and being a hysterical woman. One letter to the editor that the New Yorker saw fit to print read:

silent-spring-rachel carson“Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.”

Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson wrote privately to former President Dwight Eisenhower that Carson was “probably a communist.”

Environment & Society Portal provides a revealing synopsis of the response by established patriarchy at the time:

Allegations that Carson was just a hysterical woman appeared both in the pages of chemical and agricultural trade journals as well as in the popular press. Women were imagined to be less rational, more emotional, and more sentimental than men, who could be relied upon to study the issues dispassionately and propose rational solutions. An agricultural expert told a reporter at the Ribicoff hearings, “You’re never going to satisfy organic farmers or emotional women in garden clubs” (Graham 1970, 88). In his letter to Eisenhower, Benson wondered why a “spinster was so worried about genetics” (Lear 1997, 429).

As Carson had no institutional affiliation, she was dismissed as an amateur who did not understand the subject like a professional scientist would, or who distorted or misread the science. To her critics, Carson’s frequent use of terms like “nature,” “natural,” and “balance of nature” identified her as a mere sentimental nature lover or a pantheist like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau. Reviews in TimeU.S. News and World Report, and even Sports Illustrated took her to task. The reviewer in Time, for example, criticized her “emotion-fanning words” and characterized her argument as “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic.” He traced her “emotional and inaccurate outburst” to her “mystical attachment to the balance of nature” (Brooks 1989, 297).

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American Robin (photo by Merridy Cox)

Even inoffensive public portraits of Carson showed her in more domestic rather than scientific settings. Life magazine published a story about her accompanied by photos of her talking with children while on a nature walk or watching birds with a group of Audubon Society members. Dressed like a housewife and surrounded by children and “bird people,” Carson projected an image of a teacher or stay-at-home mother, although the picture on the first page of the article showed her at a microscope. Carson, said the story, “is unmarried but not a feminist (‘I’m not interested in things done by women or by men but in things done by people’)”

According to historian and biographer Linda Lear, “the industry spent a quarter of a million dollars to discredit her research and malign her character. In the end, the worst they could say was that she had told only one side of the story and had based her argument on unverifiable case studies.” According to Lear, “Carson was an outsider who had never been part of the scientific establishment, first because she was a woman but also because her chosen field, biology, was held in low esteem in the nuclear age. Her career path was nontraditional; she had no academic affiliation, no institutional voice. She deliberately wrote for the public rather than for a narrow scientific audience. For anyone else, such independence would have been an enormous detriment. But by the time Silent Spring was published, Carson’s outsider status had become a distinct advantage. As the science establishment would discover, it was impossible to dismiss her.”

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House Sparrow (photo by Merridy Cox)

Not unlike Greta, Rachel and the message in her book exerted a great impact on the environmental movement. Silent Spring became a rallying focus for a new social movement in the 1960s, which endures to the present day.

According to Lear:

“Carson’s concept of the ecology of the human body was a major departure in our thinking about the relationship between humans and the natural environment. It had enormous consequences for our understanding of human health as well as our attitudes toward environmental risk. Silent Spring proved that our bodies are not boundaries. Chemical corruption of the globe affects us from conception to death. Like the rest of nature, we are vulnerable to pesticides; we too are permeable. All forms of life are more alike than different.

“Carson believed that human health would ultimately reflect the environment’s ills. Inevitably this idea has changed our response to nature, to science, and to the technologies that devise and deliver contamination. Although the scientific community has been slow to acknowledge this aspect of Carson’s work, her concept of the ecology of the human body may well prove to be one of her most lasting contributions.”

Bernie Krause Florida

Bernie Krause

In the meantime, alarming signals suggest that Rachel Carson’s 1962 warning is currently underway. The new science of soundscape ecology can analyze the health of an ecosystem. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been conducting long-term recordings recently noted that in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, not far from his home in Northern California, “the effect of global warming and resulting drought has created the first completely silent spring I’ve ever experienced.” Stuart Winter at Express reports that “many of the iconic birds whose mating calls ring out across woodlands and open fields during early May are vanishing at an alarming rate.”

“Man’s war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”—Rachel Carson

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.

 

 

 

Atwood, Water & The New York Times

“Water Is…” leads Atwood’s Pick for Books of 2016

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ny-times-theyearinreaingEvery year, near Christmas, The New York Times puts out “The Year in Reading” in which they ask notably avid readers—who also happen to be poets, musicians, diplomats, filmmakers, novelists, actors and artists—to share the books that accompanied them through that year.

For the 2016 Year In Reading, The Times asked a prestigious and diverse readership, including Junot Diaz, Paul Simon, Carl Bernstein, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elizabeth Banks, Samantha Power, Philip Pullman, Ann Pratchett, Orhan Pamuk, Drew Gilpin Fause, Anne Tyler, and many others to share their books of 2016.

There was also Booker Prize-winning and celebrated Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood.

atwood-margaretMargaret Atwood is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature as well as the Booker Prize (several times) and the Governor General’s Award. Animals and the environment feature in many of her books, particularly her speculative fiction, which reflects a strong view on environmental issues.atwood-angel-catbird

Several of her latest works (e.g., Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, MaddAddam) are eco-fiction and may be considered climate fiction. Atwood and partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, are the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. Atwood’s highly popular graphic novel Angel Catbird reflects an environmental sensitivity to the balance between wildlife and humans and their pets in urban settings.

Atwood’s choice for 2016 books came from her active, astute and compassionate environmentalism. Suggesting that many of her ‘The Year in Reading’ co-readers would emphasize fiction, history and politics, Atwood chose her books “instead from a still-neglected sector. All hail, elemental spirits! You’re making a comeback!”

Here are the four books Atwood recommends and why:

  1. water-is-cover-webWater Is…: The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press) by Nina Munteanu. “We can’t live without it, so maybe we should start respecting it,” says Atwood. “This beautifully designed book by a limnologist looks at water from 12 different angles, from life and motion and vibration to beauty and prayer.” Water is emerging as one of the single most important resources of Planet Earth. Already scarce in some areas, it has become the new “gold” to be bought, traded, coveted, cherished, hoarded, and abused worldwide. It is currently traded on the Stock Exchange…Some see water as a commodity like everything else that can make them rich; they will claim it as their own to sell. Yet it cannot be “owned” or kept. Ultimately, water will do its job to energize you and give you life then quietly take its leave; it will move mountains particle by particle with a subtle hand; it will paint the world with beauty then return to its fold and rejoice; it will travel through the universe and transform worlds; it will transcend time and space to share and teach.
  1. hiddenlifeoftreesThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World” (Greystone Books) by Peter Wohlleben. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group. Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.
  1. weeds-mabeyWeeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants” (Ecco) by Richard Mabey. “They’re better for you than you think,” says Atwood. “They hold the waste spaces of the world in place, and you can eat some of them.” Ever since the first human settlements 10,000 years ago, weeds have dogged our footsteps. They are there as the punishment of ‘thorns and thistles’ in Genesis and , two millennia later, as a symbol of Flanders Field. They are civilisations’ familiars, invading farmland and building-sites, war-zones and flower-beds across the globe. Yet living so intimately with us, they have been a blessing too. Weeds were the first crops, the first medicines. Burdock was the inspiration for Velcro. Cow parsley has become the fashionable adornment of Spring weddings. Weaving together the insights of botanists, gardeners, artists and poets with his own life-long fascination, Richard Mabey examines how we have tried to define them, explain their persistence, and draw moral lessons from them. One persons weed is another’s wild beauty.
  1. birds-and-peopleBirds and People” (Jonathan Cape) by Mark Cocker. “Vast, historical, contemporary, many-levelled,” says Atwood. “We’ve been inseparable from birds for millenniums. They’re crucial to our imaginative life and our human heritage, and part of our economic realities.” Vast in both scope and scale, the book draws upon Mark Cocker’s forty years of observing and thinking about birds. Part natural history and part cultural study, it describes and maps the entire spectrum of our engagements with birds, drawing in themes of history, literature, art, cuisine, language, lore, politics and the environment. In the end, this is a book as much about us as it is about birds.

“Time to pay attention to the nonhuman life around us, without which human life would fail,” Atwood concludes.

As we enter a new year of great uncertainty, particularly on how we and our environment will fare in a shifting political wind, these books offer diverse insight, a fresh and needed perspective and critical connection with our natural world–and each other through it.

Buy them, discuss them, share them. And save this planet.

Happy New Year!

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Jungfrau, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.