That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic
In his forthcoming book, Behind the Bears Ears: Exploring the Cultural and Natural Histories of a Sacred Landscape, writer and archaeologist R. E. Burrillo traverses a sweeping landscape in the American Southwest. Today, travel curtailed by stay-at-home directives to slow the spread of COVID-19, he takes in a different stretch of the West: his urban backyard.
In her 2002 book The Last American Man, author Elizabeth Gilbert profiles an impressive (if somewhat…problematic) survivalist type named Eustace Conway. It’s nowhere near as well-known as her follow-up book Eat, Pray, Love, a fantastically written biographical romantic drama that spawned a dozen spoof sitcom episodes and one awful movie. But I think it’s just as good—if not better. A sere and unflinching study of American masculinity, written by a skilled and thoughtful woman.
In one noteworthy scene, Eustace buries himself and a group of kids up to their faces in the ground, in order to demonstrate—in an intimate way—just how alive the woods really are. “Now we are the forest floor,” he exclaims, asking all of them to describe what they feel. Dead pine needles and small droplets of moisture falling on their faces. Wriggling worms and insects. The echo of the wind. An unforgettable dose of wilderness ecology, a literally in-your-face appreciation for the relationships of living beings and their natural environment, and all within an area no bigger than the hole it takes to bury a few kids.
I thought about that scene a lot when the COVID-19 sheltering orders started rolling out.
“I am always a tourist in wild and wooded places, with no Keep Out signs to call my own. And I'm usually fine with that—right up until those signs are posted on public lands.”
While stuck at home between shifts at what turned out to be an essential service (“environmental regulatory compliance specialist,” if you believe my resume), I spend a lot of time staring out the window of my tiny bachelor bungalow in one of Salt Lake City’s seedier neighborhoods. I wasn't born into the type of opulence that yields a log castle with a private spread adjacent to expansive natural nonpareils, and haven't yet been lucky or skilled enough to earn it. I am always a tourist in wild and wooded places, with no Keep Out signs to call my own. And I'm usually fine with that—right up until those signs are posted on public lands.
Such is the case, right now. It’s literally true in places like Grand Canyon National Park, where federal CEOs finally decided that park rangers deserve a fighting chance at life. And, given the increasing breadth of stay-at-home measures, it’s figuratively true everywhere else. This is not a problem for outdoorsy types whose home includes two hundred acres of forest, a trout stream, and a lofty granite escarpment, but for the other 99 percent of us it’s a bit of an issue. I don't even have a yard; my concrete patio abuts the concrete sidewalk. What are we supposed to do?
If you're Eustace Conway, and you’ve got a jackhammer, you inhume yourself and some children up to your faces in the building foundations. Failing that, it's time to bust out the field gear and get creative...
First up, through my company-issued binoculars, I can see birds. Lots and lots of birds.
I live between two watery urban parks, Liberty to the north and Sugar House to the east; and the whole shebang is nestled up against the Great Salt Lake. So, waterfowl are arrestingly common. From my north-facing front window, I spot a group of California gulls (Larus californicus) wheeling about in their manic fashion off toward the northwest. When it rains hard enough for water to pool up in sidewalks and streets, you can find ducks (family Anatidae) just about anywhere, although they rarely stray from the parks most of the time.
What I mostly see, however, are pigeons (Columba livia domestica). In the same family as mourning doves (Zenaida macroura), but afforded none of their social cachet, they are not often regarded as feathered friends so much as feathered rats. I can’t stand the gurgling little swine, myself, but that has mostly to do with having lived in bigger cities like New York and New Orleans. The prejudice was pounded into me. Yes, I will admit that I might have thought they were cute, even gorgeous, specimens if we’d met under different circumstances. But that ship has sailed.
One bird that I have yet to see inside city limits, although I know they’re here, is probably my absolute favorite bird: the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). They thrive in cities, and have since the early 1990s thanks to an ingenious reintroduction program that saved the species from possible annihilation. They, like many birds, were victims of the pesticide DDT that was all-but ubiquitous in any stretch of vegetation larger than a flowerbed by the middle of last century. By the early 1960s, or about when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, they were teetering on the verge of extinction—and remained on that verge for several more decades, despite the banning of DDT and passage of the Endangered Species Act. They did start to make a staggered, halting comeback in the 1980s, but when biologists got the idea to release them into urban environments they really, um, took off. They were removed from the Endangered Species list by Bruce Babbitt in 1999.
Nobody knows why peregrines thrive so well in cities, although it’s probably the abundance of prey combined with surprisingly few competitors. Other raptors, like ospreys and hawks, are just as interested in savory species like squirrels, pigeons, and poodles—but they can’t nosedive at speeds of up to 240 MPH with the precision of a Marine sniper. Narrow streets and ledges are tricky for less-agile birds, and most urban prey have time to dart underneath a park bench or a car before less speedy birds can get them.
“...there you sit, mouse in hand, ankle-chained to your cubicle with only occasional chances to glimpse out an actual window as you pass to-and-from the bathroom, and always outside the window sits the usual grungy gray pigeon—mocking you with its freedom.”
But the wonders this program has worked go well beyond the admittedly lofty goal of stabilizing the species. Imagine, for a moment, that it’s a Monday morning in Metropolis. Dull and dreary and dire, the sky a howling and abysmal gray like the concrete streets, and the concrete sidewalks, and the concrete office buildings... And there you sit, mouse in hand, ankle-chained to your cubicle with only occasional chances to glimpse out a window as you pass to-and-from the bathroom, and always outside the window sits the usual grungy gray pigeon—mocking you with its freedom. Until that one startling moment when a blur flashes across the pane like a streak of brown lightning, leaving not a trace behind but for a slowly settling cloud of gray feathers.
Tilting our gaze downward, we find a big, fluffy cream-colored creature staring back with slitted blue eyes: Felis catus. Although, in the case of my cat Pelli, a more apt Linnaean moniker would be Felis doofus. He’s cute and he’s lovable, but he’s dumb. Pretty much the exact opposite of me. I guess that's why I'm attracted to him. Plus, whenever I'm feeling depressed or heartbroken or whatever, I can always count on him to cheer me up by doing something patently ridiculous.
Take stairs. He doesn’t understand how they work. Granted, there aren’t any stairs in my one-floor hovel, but he often crashes at one or another of my friends’ houses while I'm out doing fieldwork and they catch me up on his performances. It’s always the same: going up is a breeze; going down is a hurricane. He canters confidently down the first few steps until gravity overtakes his momentum, propelling him downhill faster and faster and faster until *whoomp* he collides face-first with the floor. Springs up, shakes it off, and continues on his journey.
I've known him for a little over two years, now, and he has never not done this.
Then there’s the way he plays. As a kitten, before I got him, he was the only cat in a house full of dogs. Big dogs. In addition to making him think he was simply a smaller version of the same species—e.g., he runs, flops over, and begs just like a dog—it also means he grew up playing with a type of playmate that doesn't get hurt when he does things like dive-tackle them from a high place. Dogs get a kick out of him, on this account, and they often become friends. Other cats consider him an unholy terror, however, and for the very same reason.
On the patio out front, overshadowed by a looming ash tree (genus Flaxinus), little red-and-black insects called boxelder beetles (Boisea trivittata) are emerging in droves. Fascinating creatures, they are—like many insects, when you give them a chance. They’re called boxelder beetles because they most often prefer boxelder trees (Acer negundo), which are in the maple genus; although they do just fine in other maples, and ashes. They actually feed on the trees, though rarely do any real damage in the process, and—like most of us sexually reproductive species—do most of their mating and germinating during the fecund spring season. They can fly for up to two miles, often as a group, and they seek shelter in people’s homes when fall starts turning to winter. Then they can become a problem.
The ash trees that surround my building also attract nesting birds, most of which I can’t identify because they spend their time hiding in the leaves and plagiarizing Jackson Pollock all over my hapless RAV4.
Swapping the binoculars for a hand lens, I stoop on the patio to inspect a troop of black carpenter ants (Camponotus pennsylvanicus) marching between cracks in the foundation. I don’t care for tiny “sugar ants” (most often Monomorium minimum) in the kitchen, and care even less for bity fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) in my socks, but I’ve always had a weird respect for ants in general. I credit this to T. H. White and The Once and Future King, wherein a wily Merlin transforms young Arthur into an ant so that he can learn about…well, basically, about totalitarian socialism.
The rigorous hierarchy and complexity of ant life is astounding. You can’t beat them for work-life balance, because it’s all work and no life and they seem just fine with that. They can lift up to fifty times their own weight, they “breathe” through holes in their bodies, and they communicate with each other via chemicals. Imagine carrying bottles of liquified love, hatred, indifference, interest, boredom, repulsion, attraction, anger, surprise, lust, disgust, trust, joy, envy, and fear around with you at all times, and trying to remember which one to spray at whom.
I could go on. Indefinitely, if I get bored enough. I haven’t mentioned any spiders, for instance—and I happen to know there’s at least one black widow (Latrodectus mactans) living contentedly in the crawlspace out back. Nor have I mentioned rats (Rattus norvegicus), principally because I never see any—thanks largely to the great galloping furball with whom I cohabitate—but also because they aren’t as common in SLC as they are in other cities. But they’re here. There are also common earthworms (Lumbricus terrestris) in the dirt, various other plants both wild and domesticated, insect species virtually beyond counting, snakes in the gutters, ivory-striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis, which roughly translates as Stinky McStinky) and bandit-masked raccoons (Procyon lotor) going after the neighbors’ garbage cans again…
Then there’s the stray dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), which can form into packs and put up vicious fights over what they consider their home turf. Like wolves (Canis lupus) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). And us (Homo sapiens).
The current pandemic and its attendant strictures and mandates will not last forever. I'm hard-pressed to think of anything that will. And our public lands will still be there, probably looking better than ever for the unexpected reprieve from tourism during the fragile fecund season. But those Keep Out signs will pop right back up if we don't make sure those lands stay public.
You can observe the wonders of the natural world through hand lens and binoculars in a city, if you’re curious enough. But I wouldn't want to try it in a strip mine.
R. E. Burrillo is an archaeologist and conservation advocate. A regular contributor to Archaeology Southwest Magazine, he was the lead editor (with Ben Bellorado) of the 2018 triple issue, Sacred and Threatened: The Cultural Landscapes of Greater Bears Ears. Burrillo holds an MS in archaeology from the University of Utah. He lives in Salt Lake City.
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