Sunday, December 18, 2011

Passenger Pigeon

Driving past one of the local wildlife management areas yesterday I saw a huge flock of birds, must have been a thousand of them, like those awesome flocks you'll see in documentaries about the Sarenghetti, a broad shimmer against the blue sky, and the dry marsh boiling with them. I immediately thought of the passenger pigeon for some reason, and of cloning. How unfortunate that we've been denied the spectacle of those flocks that would "darken the sky" for days on end (to say nothing of the birds' own right to enjoy life). For a moment I considered how nice it would be if they could be cloned and recreated. Then I caught myself indulging in scientific superstition.

What hubris it is to imagine that we can remake a species from some old DNA salvaged from stuffed museum pieces. How ridiculous to presume that life can be boiled down to a strand of nucleotides. Life is never anything less than a living cell; even in our most basic, refined essence, that being sex cells, or more accurately, the fertilized zygote, we are never just pure DNA floating around our mother's womb. We may be single celled, but we are never that.

And imagine if we did clone the passenger pigeon, what would we end up with? A perfect reproduction of this species that was wantonly blasted from the skies 100 years ago? Doubtful. As Alan Watts so often and clearly demonstraded, a living thing is part and parcel with its environment:  

What we really are is, first of all, the whole of our body. And although our bodies are bounded with skin, and we can differentiate between outside and inside, they cannot exist except in a certain kind of natural environment. A body requires a mild and nutritive planet with just enough oxygen in the atmosphere spinning regularly around in a harmonious and rhythmical way near a certain kind of warm star.

That arrangement is just as essential to the existence of my body as my heart, my lungs, and my brain. So to describe myself in a scientific way, I must also describe my surroundings, which is a clumsy way getting around to the realization that you are the entire universe.
You can speculate about a universe that didn't include you or any life, but the only universe we know of is the one that does. Or, look at this in another way: what is the most important organ system in the body? The nervous system, many might say. But what would a nervous system be without the pulmonary and cardiovascular systems to bring oxygen and nutrients? And where would the nutrients come from without the digestive system? But we'd be soon overwhelmed by toxins without the urinary system... One could say the only unnecessary system is the reproductive, but one would be wrong-- where did that sexless individual come from at all but through working reproductive systems? So it becomes clear even on this single scale that all systems arise together, organically, as one.

Likewise with species. Take our new pigeon-- it may by some miracle be viable, yet even if you made ten thousand for the flock effect, it will not be the same thing. I suppose it's possible that lower, simpler forms would be more or less the same; fish and reptiles, for instance, live on instinct and need not be taught how to live, unlike a puppy which must be taught socialization, and a child needs to be taught a culture. Yet the environment has changed since 1900 when the last passenger pigeon was seen. The elms and American Chestnut are (nearly) gone, and the forests themselves are smaller and more scattered. Food sources have changed, the climate has shifted, as have land use patterns, industrialization and urban sprawl have occurred, new species have arrived on the continent from afar, native ones have gone extinct or nearly so.

There are also no adult passener pigeons to rear these new test-tube chicks. Who knows how they'll behave. Like gang-bangers in the ghetto, who often have no man in the house to show them how to be men, they depend on their peers for their example and end up with insecure adolescent behaviors. Or mockingbirds, which will imprint on what sounds they hear while in the nest. Originally it was birdsong, but now, it can be telephones, doorbells, even air conditioners and car horns. We would only be making a only a fascimile of the passenger pigeon if we attempted to do so.

But there really is talk of cloning wooly mammoths, saber toothed cats, and even dinosaurs. All because we can't see the forest for the trees, can't see beyond our skin and see that Watts was right: an organism "goeswith" its environment. You cannot draw a line between them, because the line joins them as well as it divides them. Everything is polar, and even though you seem to have isolated one pole, it always implies the other by its very existence.

I know the science of individual things works on some levels-- you can get a new heart if you need one, and you can make Dolly the sheep-- but it's such a clumsy way to look at the world in general, and a rather crude way of getting healthy hearts and sheep. It's astonishing, but it's very limited in scope. Heart's bad? We'll cut it out and install a new one. Depressed? Take this pill. Need livestock? Let us tinker around with microscopes and cells, we'll throw some shit together for ya. Species extinct? Here, we'll grow it anew in this test tube.

But the underlying problems aren't resolved. So the depressed guy takes his pill, hasn't solved his problems but gets his energy back, and is now alive enough to actually go through with those suicidal thoughts! We go on destroying the ecosphere, thinking we can piece it together later. We don't exercise, we don't quit smoking, because we can have a new heart or lung installed when we need it.

Well, I'm exaggerating again, but only a little. I just prefer the natural way, it's so elegant. The body knows how to keep itself healty, and sheep, through the long, amazing process of evolution, know how to make more sheep. And although it's sad there are no more passenger pigeons, or any of the other species we drove to extinction, I think it's just a point instance of the ridiculous lenghts we as a society will go in order not to live in harmony with nature. Just as we think we can laze about, eat crappy food, and smoke, because we can get a new heart, we think we can re-produce the creatures we've driven to extinction, rather than take a look in the mirror and take note of our deeply flawed way of life.


  1. Hi Brandon. This is only obliquely related to your post, but I've been thinking a lot these days about mexican gray wolves. A couple summers ago I lay awake in my tent in the wilderness of eastern Arizona and strained my ears for hours trying to hear them, something, a howl or yips, or any evidence at all, but there was nothing but the most awful silence imaginable. More than anything else, the deathly stillness of those woods drove home to me the point of how thoroughly we've managed to mess up this planet.

    Maybe it's nuts, and had I actually heard wolves I'd probably have shat my sleeping bag, but sometimes I feel like I was born about 150 years too late. What must it have been like to hear the bone-chilling sounds of real, wild wolves howling through those mountains? To know that on the other side of the ridge there were animals wild and dangerous and free and that, had they wanted to, they might kill you? It must've really been something - scary, but really something, one of those things that would've let you know deep in your gut that you were alive. That experience was stolen from me (us) by some self-righteous ranchers and government thugs a hundred years ago. Because of those men we will never know that experience, what it felt like, to decide for ourselves on the value of those animals. And that really pisses me off.

    Anyway, getting sort of back to the Passenger Pigeon and clones and remaking species and hubris: There are efforts to reintroduce zoo-raised mexican wolves back into the wilds of eastern Arizona, but modern day ranchers vehemently oppose every move and the few animals that were released barely know how to behave as wolves. Recently one lonely female who couldn't find a wolf mate was shot because she tried to breed with domestic dogs. Their "packs" are just a handful of individuals, penned in on all sides by roads and towns and ranchers with guns waiting for them to step out of bounds or take one of their cows so they can shoot them. And they all wear radio collars that beep out their exact positions to wildlife biologists and sometimes even poachers who use the signals to find the wolves. Where's the "wild" in that? It's just about the saddest thing I've ever heard…

  2. Consider me a kindred spirit, brother. I wrote a post sort of along the lines here, you may be interested:

    Thanks for stopping by, Del. I've decided to add you to my link list, I love your photos and reflections on them.

  3. Thanks, Brandon. I added a link to you in my blog list, too.

  4. Thsi post seems to spur oblique thinking.

    1. I love sarenghetti and meatballs...(it's Serengeti), but I am wondering, what is a dry marsh?

    2. I don't know why this popped into my mind just now, but have you ever read Ursula K Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness." I think you might like it. I read it years ago, and have a sudden urge to revisit it.

  5. Well, I forgot to spellcheck again, what else is new, eh? ;)

    Thanks for the book tip. I read and much enjoyed "The Word for World is Forest" so I may well like this one too.