Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Here or There, a Vagabond

Since being back from New York City I have in some way I can't yet describe added to a few of my own perspectives.

Not too many weeks ago in early fall many of this country's birders, by and large National Audubon members, were given a set of sober new perspectives, adding up to heartache, by the Audubon Report, a huge new study sponsored by the National Audubon Society on the best-case plight of many resident and migrant birds within North America as climate change proceeds. The study, extrapolating from a variety of statistics dealing with historic bird occurrence influenced by climate variables such as rainfall and temperature range, driven by trends drawn from climate modeling, looked at 588 species of birds, finding that 314 are due to be endangered or threatened by 2080. Habitats are expected to shift northward while they shrink at the same time, at a pace that's likely to leave a lot of bird species unable to adapt in time to go on furthering their kind in some place where they're fitted to hide, forage and nest.

If the world has abundant space in it for people who find birds and their habitat dispensable (if they can't adapt, tough luck--everything's always had to adapt...) I hope that soon that's proven the attitude of a social outcast and a renegade in the world of business. Because of the twofold trend in which climate change accompanies no-end-in-sight human population explosion, I wonder sometimes what instances will turn up in which hard-pressed creatures increase their populations because of catastrophes we couldn't help but bring on ourselves. An example I am remembering was, I think, cited in Audubon magazine some years ago, about an increase in European brown bears, red deer and wolves in the wake of the Bosnian War.

In Duluth the morning before I left for New York there was a rare visitor from the U.S./Canadian Pacific slopes, a golden-crowned sparrow, oftenest found in spruce groves, willow and alder scrub similar to that in our central region. After lots of pacing around the end of the city block where the sparrow had been seen I was finally able to view it courtesy of fellow birders who stood on the sidewalk and located it on the ground below a different feeder than the original one where the ID had first been made. For me this made the fourth life species of 2014. Compared to prior years and whole seasons of my life, 2014 did seem a year sparse with birds; they weren't absent, just few.

Today as I walked out in punishing bright breezes, layered as I was with all the due and necessary kinds of pants and coat, I saw no birds and heard almost none, but that is the way of the boreal forest in a typical cold snap. At length I did hear one of my favorites from this kind of habitat: pine grosbeak, high in distant trees. Anthropomorphic though it is, my hearing of that soft song brings a sense of instant kinship between human and finch, across our own generations and ethnicities; it is the sound of exuberant yet controlled, moderated, mellifluous conversation, dimmed by wide surroundings, that's probably varied little wherever heard, with the message of we've come from a long ways, but if you want my take on all of it it's this...

Near that place I took these pictures of an abandoned sort of store front or rustic tavern only vaguely accounted for in spoken history. In the remotest, least hospitable places people have left behind pitiful shells of their own ambitions, bearing evidence of commerce, warfare, food storage, garbage, summer fun, etc.

I had never walked the neighborhoods of Brooklyn or Queens, and only a little of Manhattan before, and in the chill of Thanksgiving week-end found myself spellbound in Brooklyn where my daughter Lea lives and walks all her errands for lack of a car. In New York every foot of space is built on or paved over, yet at certain points in its 250 years or so someone has remembered to install hedges or leave room for sprouting trees.  Hardy shade trees cling, die and are replaced in the narrow ground along the boulevards. There are so many beings, most prominently people, living on top of each other, traveling over each others' heads or below street and floor level in New York that it looks to be its own ecosystem, a prototype for some of what society might do to fit its teeming masses into other places. The subway tunnels exhibit a society of rats. Parks like Prospect Park in Brooklyn in late autumn host hermit thrushes, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and, in breeding season, a whole suite of insect-eating songbirds. Elsewhere, rooftop gardens are gaining popularity for people's food and respite, not to mention being relief stations for birds, butterflies or bats; there are bound to be record keepers on this topic. Monk parakeets, escaped from pet bird cages, have multiplied and gained citizenship in at least two of five boroughs via colonial nesting. Coyotes and feral cats are legendary.

We walked, walked and walked, leaping sometimes to keep abreast of each other in the midst of other walking pairs and clusters of folks. Walking and feathered flight are the way of most creatures in New York and this is a mercy; there's more to see, hear and sense this way, even for all the automated roar. Once when I lived in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metroplex and felt an over-long tension borne of participating in the high speed traffic jams set loose on those freeways, I dreamed at night of I-35W bare of any cars or trucks. Something had happened but the dream didn't tell what. I walked in the right lane mostly alone, with leafy branches pawing my hair and ears as I passed under them; no tall person or truck had come swiping through to rip away those low limbs. In some of the countless back streets of New York a little bit of this thicket-like atmosphere gets a hold of a person.

So the jungle of stone and steel, synthetics and glass amid coils of traditional ground, as far as we've kept control of it, might be enhanced many times over by keepers of memory who ask and attempt to answer the questions of what was--what was a prairie, what was a vernal pond, what mulberries were native to the American wild, etc. I like to think of country and city people equally preserving patches of what the landscape once hosted, because it functioned so well, in a greater breadth than we can well imagine, and deserves to be tended or hoarded till something can be done to even out the numbers of people with the numbers of all else that we're out-competing unto our own impoverishment and confinement. Brooklyn, NY offered me a way to see quaintness and charm in the stacked-up, heel-to-toe juxtaposition of ourselves with at least some variety of trees and their animal tenants whose nearness has made us a home.

Somebody, wherever else, will still be recording in words, song and image whatever has made that place the way it is traditionally remembered. I myself want to give New York and world-class cities like it credit for their natural diversity, but continue to bear witness to the northern phenomena of peat bogs and rapid rivers, cliffs and the grasslands that shifted ever northward into tundra, because those are still here, and I'm here by the grace of one and the same car and its mechanic, and the next thing to do about that car's tailpipe emissions is to overhaul the exhaust system, before embarking on a conversion to re-chargeable-electric...

                                    Haunted bogscape, newly-begun mixed media work as of October 2014

See the video below for a demo of an Australian firm, Enginer's plug-in hybrid conversion kit used in a generation 1 Toyota Prius.  Credit for finding this goes to Bill Hane of Blue Moon Auto in St. Paul, MN, good for answers and interpretation, at: