Our Crowded Planet Home and Loren Eiseley by Terry Goddard
I have read the New York Review of Books for over fifteen years. The November 4th issue has poems, reviews of an art exhibition, reviews of non-fiction and fiction books, and two political commentaries – one on abortion and the other on the political situation in Egypt. All this to say the NYRB covers a wide swath of the literary world.
My interest in this issue of the NYRB has to do with a review by Natalie Angier of two books – Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law and Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World. Both books, from different angles, address the impact humans have on non-human animals and their environment.
Mary Roach, the author of Fuzz, focuses on the ongoing struggle with attempting to (mis)manage wildlife. One example is the glut of white-tailed deer in America, not only in the wild but in suburbia. Roach contends this is a problem of our making. Giving in to the pressure of powerful farming and ranching interests the deer’s natural predators – cougars, wolves, and others – have all but been eliminated leaving the deer free to multiply.
Roach doesn’t stop at the borders of America; for example, she discusses how religion and wildlife attempt to find accommodation in India. In this case, the role of the Hindu God – Hanuman – allows for troops of wild monkeys to overrun restaurants and bars in Delhi and other large metropolitan areas. Since monkeys are considered the representatives of Hanuman, authorities fail to interfere.
In Wild Souls, Emma Marris notes that solutions to the nature / human quandary are not simple. Legislation, action on climate change, as well as small adjustments in our own backyards are all necessary. Moreover, preserving species is not a simple issue. She gives an example of this difficulty using owl populations. “Recent encounters between barred owls and spotted owls” are proving to be problematic. These two owls can produce viable (although) hybrid offspring. Adding to this dilemma is that barred owls are more aggressive and defend their territory in such a manner as to not allow a shared space. Are we to see the elimination of the spotted owl?
Of course, if I’m writing about nature, then sooner or later I will get to Loren Eiseley. Eiseley wrote about the issue of human impact on non-human creatures as far back as the mid-twentieth century. One of his essays, “The Brown Wasps” addresses human impact on wasps, mice, and birds. I have written about the mice in an earlier blog - #55 “All is Natural, Naturally” - and today I will discuss pigeons.
Eiseley spent most of his teaching career in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. During much of that time he took the EL (elevated train) to the campus. The stations were ancient with high ceilings. They contained “nut-vending machines and scattered food scraps” and were “the favorite feeding ground [for] flocks of pigeons” (The Night Country, 232). Eiseley describes the EL as a “food-bearing river,” and the pigeons were dependent on it continuing to flow. But as Eiseley writes, one day the river stopped flowing.
The food supply ended because the antiquated elevated rail system was replaced by a subway. The new underground system prevented the pigeons access. With no entry there was no food. Eiseley writes that “for a day, for two days, pigeons continued to circle over the El or stand close to the red vending machines” (233). They were patient, but finally one day they relented and flew off. Eiseley, believing he had seen the last of the pigeons, was surprised one day when he witnessed “a revival and it provided a curious instance of the memory of living things for a way of life or a locality that has long been cherished.”
Since there was no longer need for the El stations workmen began to demolish them. Eiseley passed by the old station each day on the way to the subway, and one day he witnessed a revival, “the return of a little band of the familiar pigeons.” They flew among the workmen as they went about the destruction of the pigeons’ old feeding ground. The birds seemed convinced that the food river would soon flow again. Of course, the river did not flow again, and soon the building was completely torn down and nothing remained. “My bird friends had gone, Eiseley. It was plain, however, that they retained a memory for an insubstantial structure now compounded of air and time “ (234).
Eiseley’s story of the pigeons has a lot to it: memory of past experiences, struggling to break old patterns, loss, and change. It also expresses the dilemma humans and other creatures face in attempting to live together, at least, the attempt to live together on human terms.
Earth is a crowded living space and the problem continues to grow. Spotted owls and barred owls vie for space and food. Human demand for more and more space and resources either push fellow creatures out of their natural habitats or force them to adapt to human spaces and food. And in some cases (monkeys and Hinduism) human reluctance to protect themselves and their property put both humans and other creatures in danger. It is a dilemma exacerbated by climate change. As the planet gets warmer and droughts are more and more common, we will continue to see struggles between all earth’s creatures for space and resources.
Today there is much to concern us – political conflicts and Covid – to name only two. But unless we deeply and earnestly address climate change there will be no life, no planet left to fight over. Maybe what we need to save ourselves, our planet, and other creatures is for our souls to be awakened. Eiseley believed this to be so. In “Ghost Continent” he writes,
…Plotinus wrote of the soul’s journey, ‘It shall come, not to another, but to itself.’ It is possible to add that for the soul to come to its true self it needs the help and recognition of [another creature]. It craves that empathy clinging between man and beast, that nagging shadow of remembrance which, try as we may to deny it, asserts our unity with life and does more. Paradoxically, it establishes, in the end, our own humanity. One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human.