“The gifts of nature tell us there is a persistence to life that no measure of insolence or greed can destroy.”
– Kathleen Dean Moore
With her new book, Earth’s Wild Music, Kathleen Dean Moore asks, what can we do in the midst of so much extinction? What is our moral imperative? As a nature writer, music critic and activist, Moore spins beautiful stories from her relationship with nature, especially upholding nature’s sounds, some of which are threatened, some of which have already been lost forever. Below, Moore reflects on the way in which birds love and the way in which humans have expressed their love and commonality during pandemic times when so much has had to be sacrificed. We should be encouraged by the resilience we’ve shown this last year, she reassures us, and take resolve in our own strength since, ‘love of life is not only a comfort but a call to brash acts of courage and common cause.’
If I were a bird, I would be a tree swallow. The diet of gnats would be worth it, to soar over water in extravagant arcs and to make love on the wing, just the lightest touch of two iridescent bodies spiraling toward the river.
I live in a college town at the confluence of two rivers that flow through a fertile valley between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade mountain range in Oregon. The pioneers who settled here in 1845 thought they had arrived in God’s garden, unaware or uncaring that it was not divine providence but devastating smallpox plagues among the Native people that left the land so beautiful and empty.
At the first sign of the coronavirus, descendants of those settlers crowded to the forest trailheads and strode through the shadows, stopping only to breathe great gulps of fresh, green air. Those who did not flee to the forest found comfort in the long, empty expanses of beach on the Pacific coast, where westerlies lift gulls and soft rain washes the air. Just the touch of that air, that’s what people craved, just to feel its light touch, to consummate that great love. Of course, the search for the solace of nature overwhelmed the parking lots and trailheads. So authorities closed the beaches, then the parks, then the national forests, then the wildlife refuges, then the boat launches, leaving people in lonely misery, isolated from the sources of their consolation.
The people withdrew to their gardens, and oh, there have never been such gardens. At first it was flowers that people grew, an abundance of daffodils and tulips. But now kale and lettuce and peas grow abundantly between the spent blossoms, and never is kale so lovingly attended. In their gardens, people find life ongoing and deep gratitude for gifts that Earth continues to give, although her body is weary and her skin is flayed.
The more we love the robins, the more we love the frightened grandmothers, the deeper is our grief when we lose them. This is as it should be. Our grief should be magnificent and terrible, to match the magnitude of our loss.
The gratitude is expressed in sharing, much as the Native Kalapuya people gave thanks to Earth by sharing huckleberries and salmon. My neighbors share news of birds:
“Tonight you can watch a hundred Vaux’s swifts swirl around the chimney at the end of the street and, one by one, drop in for the night.”
“The chickadees are nesting in the box behind my house; come and see.”
“Who can tell me if that is a mourning dove I hear in the mornings?”
“So evenly spaced on the telephone wire, are the swallows practicing an avian sort of social distancing?”
A bouquet of tulips found its way to my front step, a bag of the first nettles, a child’s drawing—and who is to say which is the most nourishing of all these gifts? They all feed the same hunger, to be part of continuing life, to be part of growth and blooming, evidence of the great healing force of nature. They invite each of us to be subsumed into something far more powerful and enduring than any human grief. The gifts of nature tell us there is a persistence to life that no measure of insolence or greed can destroy.
What we are looking for, out here in the Pacific Northwest, is a love that is worthy of this sheltering world. How can we measure this love?
Love is measured in comfort and joy. The natural world holds us tight in its arms—calm as we tremble, patient as we mark the days “until this is over,” strong as we weaken. When the time comes, the natural world will embrace us as we die. It will never leave us. If we are lonely, Nature strokes our hair with light winds. If, frightened in the night, we wander outside to sit on a bench in moonlight, it will come and sit beside us. If we are immobilized, having lost faith in the reliability of everything, still the Earth will carry us around the sun. If we feel abandoned, the Earth sings without ceasing—beautiful love songs in the voices of swallows and storms. This sheltering love calms me and makes me glad.
This swift and astonishing resilience tells us that Earth will give us a second chance to start our culture over and get it right this time. We must seize that chance with courage and conscience.
But I also believe this love is measured in grief. The more we love the robins, the more we love the frightened grandmothers, the deeper is our grief when we lose them. This is as it should be. Our grief should be magnificent and terrible, to match the magnitude of our loss.
A love that is worthy of this world is also measured in fury. By what right have human decisions drained the veins of the world, killing off fully 60 percent of its beloved small lives, plants and animals, over the past fifty years? By what right have corrupt governments withheld the information, planning, and equipment that might have saved thousands of beloved friends from the virus? It’s the same sickness that destroys the solace of nature even as it creates our boundless need for it—the exercise of power and accumulation of wealth unconstrained by foresight or conscience. This cannot continue.
So a love that is worthy of this world must be measured in action. In the midst of a pandemic, we have shown that we don’t need profligate consumption of fossil fuels and meat. We have shown that we can leave aside our selfish concerns and make huge changes in our personal lives—some sacrifices, some improvements—for the sake of the common good. We have shown that we can make good decisions without the leadership of idiots. We have shown that when we reduce our dreadful presence on the planet, the world rushes in to heal itself and thereby heals us, almost overnight washing the air, silencing the din, brightening the colors, growing the gardens, preventing pollution-caused illnesses, and bringing wild creatures out of their dens into the garden. This swift and astonishing resilience tells us that Earth will give us a second chance to start our culture over and get it right this time. We must seize that chance with courage and conscience.
And those little tree swallows who make love in midair: Right now, two of them, barely bigger than butterflies, are driving away a red-tailed hawk that threatens their nest. The hawk is protesting, crying hooah hooah. The swallows strike him with their wings and harass him with tiny claws. They pepper him with high-pitched chirps. They know without knowing that love of life is not only a comfort but a call to brash acts of courage and common cause.