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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

We followed Eli J. Knapp from a leaky dugout canoe in Tanzania to a juniper titmouse’s perch at the Grand Canyon in The Delightful Horror of Family Birding. Today, with heavy topics of pandemic and extinction on his mind, Knapp’s still looking skyward, equipped with facemask, binoculars, and some wild hope. Torrey House will publish Dead Serious: Wild Hope Amid the Sixth Extinction by Eli J. Knapp in June 2021.


Following the Herd

I stole an oddly warm November day last week to visit a little postage-stamp-sized slice of wooded, public land on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Although hemmed in by traffic noise and subdivisions, exhausted southern migrants drop into the welcoming pine boughs like confetti as winter tightens its grip further north. I was seeking crossbills, charming and chattering birds sporting weirdly bent bills that look more like a cosmic prank than the useful Swiss Army knives they are. Crossbills would be nice, but really all I wanted was a quiet place to exhale from the recently finished election and surging, unsettling coronavirus statistics.

Spoiler: I didn’t find the crossbills. But as birding often goes, I had plenty of consolation prizes, one being a barred owl, as ambivalent to my presence as the white pine it perched upon. While I’ve seen plenty of barred owls, this encounter was singular. For one, the owl perched at eyelevel, a far cry from the sore neck that accompanies most of my owl sightings. For another, I wasn’t alone. Hoping for crossbills, I’d done what lots of eager birders do: logged on to eBird, checked out the hotspots, and followed the herd to the most promising—and visited—one.

Ten of us, with masks and binoculars, oohed and ahhed as the owl studied the forest floor with laser-focused, ebony eyes.

A highly visited spot was an odd choice for a guy seeking a few hours of peace. Ten of us, with masks and binoculars, oohed and ahhed as the owl studied the forest floor with laser-focused, ebony eyes. We all, in a sense, had arrived via a herd mentality, likeminded in our pursuit of the winged wonders around us. Although paths led in every direction, we remained rooted in the owl’s grasp, content to watch the sun’s slanting rays slice through the forest like lightsabers. I typically flee random, amorphous groups. But this one was different. People spoke in hushed whispers or not at all. No overzealous photographer encroached. These, I realized, were my people. Here among the appreciators, I truly belonged.

Cringeworthy or not, it’s hard not to think about a herd mentality without also thinking about President Trump. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Trump memorably mixed up herd immunity with herd mentality while discussing the spread of the coronavirus. The Internet went crazy. Memes appeared instantaneously.

“It will go away without the vaccine?” Stephanopoulos incredulously asked Trump.

“Sure, over a period of time. Sure. With time,” Trump responded.

“And with many deaths,” Stephanopoulos interjected.

Trump ignored him. And then uttered his gaffe. “You’ll develop a herd mentality,” he said, leaning

forward in his chair. “It’s going to be herd developed and that’s going to happen.”

What Trump meant, of course, was herd immunity would win the day; that regardless of a vaccine, the virus would eventually disappear once a high enough proportion of the population contracted it and developed immunity. The merits of a herd immunity approach to curbing coronavirus spread are controversial. While it certainly happens in response to some viruses, Stephanopoulos rightly found the fly in the ointment, the critical unknown: How many of our most vulnerable will die before a sufficient level of herd immunity is achieved?

Like much of the world, I smiled at Trump’s gaffe at the time. But another part of his dialogue troubled me. Both his words and his tone. There was a profound inevitability to them. Our day-to-day actions don’t matter, he seemed to say—dangerous rhetoric in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Realizing a vaccine wasn’t going to happen before the election, he reached hard for the more tenuous concept of herd immunity. While it wasn’t a good answer, it temporarily filled the void. It allowed him to change the subject. Naturally, Trump made it sound as if it’d been his plan all along.

Kurt Repanshek, in his recent thought-provoking book, Re-Bisoning the West (Torrey House Press, 2019), quotes conservationist George Bird Grinnell, who was commenting on the inevitability of extinction back in his 1882 edition of Forest and Stream:

The Indian, the buffalo, the elk, deer and moose will disappear; from many sections they have already done so. This was to have been expected, and while it may be deplored, it cannot be avoided. The interests of civilization demand that the country be settled and improved, and sentiment cannot be permitted to stand in the way of such improvement. Lamentable as it is to see these superb animals swept off the face of the earth, it is something to which we must submit. All we can do is to exert ourselves to render this extermination as gradual as possible.

While separated by nearly 140 years and speaking about very different issues, both Trump and Grinnell helplessly shrugged their shoulders in regards to phenomena beyond their control. One saw herd immunity as inevitable. The other saw extinction the same way. The question is, are they?

Lately, I’ve been locked in the talons of inevitability. Deep in the editing phase of my upcoming book about extinction, escape has proven futile. It’s an unsettling, wide-eyed phase that has me pondering habitat loss and hybridization while sane people are sleeping. If herd immunity is as inevitable as Trump intoned, I wonder, then why socially distance and wear masks? If extinction is as inevitable as Grinnell suggested, why write a book about it?

One answer is, maybe they’re not.

A few minutes into our barred owl vigil, quiescence was rent. All at once, an eighteen-wheeler roared by, a power saw started up, a jet flew over, and half a dozen dogs joined in with a far-off ambulance siren. Wow, this scrap of forest was way too small. Certainly, too small for Grinnell’s buffalo, elk, and moose. Civilization had surrounded it, hemmed it in. But earlier, I had glimpsed a sly deer slip furtively into an alder thicket. And now this owl. EBird reported 215 birds had visited this puny patch. Life, it seems, was flouting inevitable demise. Trumping it, in fact.

The owl’s head swiveled our way, looked us over, then redirected its gaze back to the forest floor. Voles were obviously more exciting. I’m accustomed to evoking fear in my fellow creatures, and it felt good to be ignored, to be accepted, by my people and the owl. Or maybe not. Maybe this awe-inspiring bird just had a herd mentality … er … herd immunity, too.


Eli J. Knapp, PhD, is professor of intercultural studies and biology at Houghton College and director of the Houghton in Tanzania program. Author of The Delightful Horror of Family Birding and the forthcoming Dead Serious: Wild Hope Amid the Sixth Extinction from Torrey House Press, Knapp is a regular contributor to Birdwatcher’s Digest, New York State Conservationist, and other publications. An avid birdwatcher, hiker, and kayaker, he lives in Fillmore, New York, with his wife and children.

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