Friday, August 26, 2005

Reflections: Franzen's Bird Problem

Yesterday morning our internet connection was down. We met the quick and painful onset of internet withdrawal symptoms by immersing ourselves in a New Yorker article by Jonathan Franzen-- My Bird Problem (in the August 8 - August 15th issue).

Fortunately for us, our good friends K & D over on Whidbey Island had sent the photocopied article via snail mail. So we drank our morning tea in bed, and as I finished reading a page I handed it to dpr. It got us through the darkest moments of our information addiction quite well.

I hadn't read Jonathan Franzen before, but I did remember that he had written some popular modern literature, and that he had dissed Oprah Winfrey. This had made me interested in him. I wasn't prepared to find him such a smart (and snarky), perceptive, and funny writer who had fallen head over heels in love with birdwatching.

What I as a bird lover liked about this article was how Franzen uses his love of birds as backdrop to consider the environmental devastation humans commit on the planet. The catalyst of his awakened concerned was a speech by Al Gore at the Society for Ethical Culture on the subject of global warming. Franzen had gone prepared to use the time to be amused by "the speech's rhetorical badness, " but instead found himself transformed by the experience and leaves the auditorium, "under a cloud of grief and worry of the sort I'd felt as a teenager reading about nuclear war."

That comparison struck me as chillingly apt. It stated the enormity of what we face in a way that I have been waiting to read. I was suddenly aware that the fear I felt as a child (of nazi holocausts, nuclear annihilation), had become concentrated in my apprehension of our ongoing slow murder of the planet. That other terrorism we are simply and unconsciously committing on ourselves.

But what Franzen does with his grief and worry, after he has rationalized his own lack of environmental consciousness (except for the ten minutes it takes him to write a check to the Sierra Club) is to not allow his contempt for other humans to override his instinct to protect birds. His new-found love forced him to look at our environmental crisis, something he had been at pains to avoid for many years, and not so much to focus on the idea of the world falling apart in the future, but the feeling of having to care about it now, in the present to protect birds.

For me, the best part about reading a novelist who has fallen in love with birds is how he describes the objects of his affections:
I saw my first northern flicker and enjoyed its apparent confusion about what kind of bird it was. Unwoodpeckerish in plumage, like a mourning dove in war paint, it flew dippingly, in typical woodpecker fashion, white rump flashing from one ill-fitting identity to another.

Despite Franzen's overly urbane distancing from other frumpy birdwatchers and his penchant for masking his condescension as sophistication, his avian appreciation is splendid and transcendent.

Birds were what became of dinosaurs. Those mountains of flesh whose petrified bones were on display at the Museum of Natural History had done some brilliant retooling over the ages and could now be found living in the form of orioles in the sycamores across the street. As solutions to the problem of earthly existence, the dinosaurs had been great, but blue-headed vireos and yellow warblers and, white throated sparrows--feather-light, hollow-boned, full of song--were even greater. Birds were like dinosaurs' better selves. They had short lives and long summers. We all should be so lucky as to leave behind such heirs.
If you can get your hands on this article, by all means read it. It's both a love poem and a treatise of our environmental nightmare.

And in case you're interested, our internet connection was down again this morning, which is when I wrote this "book report." My apologies if it's long-winded and boring!

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