Monthly Archives: February 2011

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

I confess. I think Emily Dickinson is wrong about hope.

She says it has feathers, but she never sees it fly. Instead it rests, and chooses for its perch a place where it is bound to be battered. Its tune is sweet, she promises, but what it sings has no lyric—no signification—only the form of an abstract and unreasoning melody. It will never change its tune, or learn from circumstance. And it will never cease, she thinks—unless perhaps it will, in the sorest of storms. All-admiring, she tells us it feeds on nothing. Not even a crumb. How then can it grow strong? On air? What manner of dumb, lofty hope is this? It doesn’t act like any bird I’ve ever met.

Feeling as I do, you may understand the little twinge of chagrin that pricks me every time I look down at Christopher Cokinos’s Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. During the week and a half I was reading it I found myself assailed by the urge to hide its cover, or cluck at it under my breath. Emily’s line seemed, and still seems to me, a fatuous title for a book that tells the extinction stories of six North American species. I know I don’t appear irritated in this photograph, but we might attribute that in part to the fact that I was sitting in paradise at the moment it was taken.

2011.6. Hope is the Thing with Feathers (Christopher Cokinos)

Not only sitting in paradise, but listening to the persistent five-note dirge of Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and watching them vibrate into and out of my friend Sarah’s back yard like nervous specters. (Until recently, Mourning Doves were believed to be the closest living relatives of the Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) Cokinos chronicles in the second section of his book, and although genetic analysis has now changed that designation, there is an undeniable visual similarity between the two species. Both have long tails, bluish-gray backs and rusty breasts; but the Mourning Dove’s coloring is altogether paler and less audacious than its extinct counterpart—a fitting uniform for a ghost.)

Ghostly interactions of all kinds permeate Cokinos’s book; he leans on them heavily to lend resonance to his urgent plea for us to “save what is left and restore what we can.” Many of the apparitions he conjures are deeply affecting, especially when they surprise him as much as they do us. What first sets him off on his journey through annihilation is just such a pair of startling ghosts: two escaped Black-Hooded Conures fleeing a Sharp-Shinned Hawk above the watery landscape of a Kansas marsh. The shock Cokinos feels upon seeing the brilliantly colored conures, so incongruous in the vast, featureless skies of the eastern United States, leads him to the discovery of another “exhilarating smear of green.” Native sons, not accidental immigrants, the now extinct Carolina Parakeet once occupied the same space. From this phantasmic starting point, Cokinos crafts a sincere and exhaustive portrait of the life and death of Conuropsis carolinesis, as well as of the sportsmen, naturalists, plumage-hunters, egg-collectors, and farmers who extirpated it from one breeding ground after another. I know I complained about his title, and I shall go on to complain about his ghosts—but this is nothing if not a thorough and impressively researched book, absolutely loving in its approach to its subject.

Cokinos fascinates the most when he offers remarkable and concrete details about the complex interplay of human and bird behaviors that rendered each lost species vulnerable. He explains, for instance, that when fired at, the gregarious Carolina Parakeets refused to break their flock to flee but only “swarmed in disbelief” around their fallen peers. Some shooters found it “inglorious” to continue hunting the birds under these circumstances, but these were few. Most, rather, took advantage of their targets’ collective desolation. It is an arresting set of images—a single shot, what appears to be a confused, bereaved throng, a convenient massacre—and Cokinos offers it gracefully, without descending too far into the realm of the maudlin. I was hungry for this kind of specific insight.

The extinction of the Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) is perhaps the most poignant of all the melancholy losses Cokinos reviews, because it is the only one that took place in spite of a dedicated (if somewhat less then perfectly formulated) official effort to prevent it. In the late nineteenth century, Massachusetts declared thousands of acres on Martha’s Vineyard—the bird’s only remaining habitat—a reserve area. It outlawed poaching. It created a small management team to maintain the surviving Heath Hen population. But those who were sworn to protect the bird misunderstood the forces that were whittling down its numbers; they believed predation to be a much greater threat than it actually was, and failed to recognize the loss of genetic diversity among the small number of Heath hens that remained. Many of the final few birds, rendered susceptible by inbreeding, were ultimately devastated by a highly infectious parasite.

Cokinos’s fastidious research habits infuse this desolate story with extraordinary richness; he tracks down the copious and often contentious correspondence between the ornithologists, conservation officials, and game wardens charged with saving the Heath Hen, visits the site of their last home, and recounts each recorded sighting of “Booming Ben,” the very last Heath Hen. (Ben hung on for years after the deaths of his relatives, and was watched for and videotaped fanatically by birders and scientists alike.)

Unfortunately, this preoccupation with last specimens—though perfectly understandable, given how much import we all associate with even the most trivial lasts in our lives—tends to detract from the larger significance of Cokinos’s message. He ruminates for pages over the minute contradictions between multiple reports of the last sighting and last shooting of a Carolina Parakeet. And he grows so obsessed with Press Clay Southworth, the little boy who supposedly killed the last wild Passenger Pigeon, that he spends months pestering county officials and librarians for access to old census records and land titles in a romantic attempt to figure out where the tragic event took place. Having done so, he makes strange, oddly banal and self-indulgent pilgrimages to what he has determined are the most likely spots. He even tracks down and interviews Southworth’s daughter.

It is these ghosts—the ones that Cokinos forces into existence in the hope of reaching epiphany—that move me the least. When he pursues them, he veers dangerously close to what feels like a lewd, almost pornographic relationship with these lost species. He seems half aware of this himself when he visits 16 skinned specimens of Carolina Parakeets at the University of Kansas and, gazing down at them, is “caught in a matrix of awe, grief, disgust, and desire.” The beauty of their viridian plumage strikes Cokinos as “obscene” against the white tray on which they lie; yet he wants desperately to steal a tiny bit of feather, to own a piece of the ghosts that remain. What I find lewd is not that desire itself—how could I, when I myself am so drawn to the beautiful physicality of the dead that I work with collected specimens week after week—but his shameful reaction to it. Wanting the feather fills Cokinos with an immediate sense of self-loathing. In that moment, he seems like nothing so much as an ascetic terrified of a single sinful thought. Isn’t it when we harbor fear of our very nature that we are the most in danger of succumbing to it?

In the end, I am less interested in chasing down ghosts than in understanding how we may keep species alive. Clearly, that is true of Cokinos as well—but the latter is a far more difficult endeavor, and much less poetic. So the hope he promises in his title is, like Dickinson’s, a flimsy affair. It consists, in part, of a discussion of the frankly fantastical possibility of resurrecting recently extinct species through DNA cloning techniques. Though Cokinos allows that the scientific difficulties involved in this endeavor are probably insurmountable, he finds comfort in the thought that we, as a species, “are nothing if not dogged in our cleverness. We imagine. We pursue.” I am less comforted—or perhaps less convinced of our cleverness.

The other half of Cokinos’s hope comprises weak admonishments to write to politicians, volunteer with conservation groups, and engage in what he rather self-deprecatingly calls “the rote chores of the perpetually guilt-ridden”—recycling, riding bikes, eating locally and organically, forgoing child-bearing. Even he seems frankly more depressed than invigorated by these efforts, admitting that sadness is a natural, and useful, first response to the pain of extinction. But, he urges, our second response ought to be hopeful. We ought to give back some of the “life, beauty, and solace” that the world offers us.

He does not explain—at least not to my satisfaction—how we might accomplish this.

I suppose he is in good company.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Before You Know It

Between happening and knowing there is a space—a bit of room to breathe before disaster. Everything happens before you know it. This is the gift of light, the laggard.

You may think light speedy, and it is true that there is none to beat it in this universe: no hare, no rocket ship, no Kenyan swift of foot can do it better. But light’s tempo has a number, and by those digits it is bound, the same as any shackled lifer. Jean Valjean had 24601; light 299,792,458. Oh, it is a traveler par excellence. Nigh on three hundred million meters per second is nothing to sneeze at. Traveling, though, takes time. Traveling trails behind transpiring.

Last week, on a mountaintop dripping with stars, I regarded the Hunter as he drew back his arrow for the Hare. This he has done since Homer. Since Hesiod. It might seem he must do it forever; but he may already have dropped his bow. For Betelgeuse, the star in his right shoulder, is old enough that it must soon die—and distant enough that it may have done already, hundreds of years past. If so we are none the wiser. We stand somewhere in the 640 year-long gap of light’s passage, event on one side and understanding on the other.

Before you know it Betelgeuse will blow. Did blow. Will blow. Did blow. I watched the Hunter and his old red shoulder. I wondered at the night sky, so full of Schrodinger’s cats.

Between happening and knowing there is a space—no matter how small. Two mornings later, kneeling over a canyon pool, I saw the Santa Catalinas in still water. Observed the sun moving, ever so slowly, over their graceful bulk. Thought: As with the stars, so with all things.

Since they were only miles away, not light years, the light that carried the mountains’ countenance came to me fast, fast, fast—plummeting out of the sky headlong and caroming off the surface of the pool and into my eager eyes so quick you’d never even know there was a time between. An infinitesimal time. Still, there it was.

Before you know it—but just before—the sun dapples over the Santa Catalinas.

Sabino Canyon morning

Between happening and knowing there is a space—a bit of room to breathe. Before you know it you’re all grown up. Before you know it you’ve fallen in love. Before you know it he’s become someone else. Before you know it, you have too. You’ll see. Just wait a second. Let light catch up.

Radioactive

Because he treats cancer patients with radiation therapy, my father has worn a small, square badge on his person every day for the past—oh, I don’t know how many years. Thirty five, at least. The badge measures his exposure to radioactive energy. It consists of a piece of photographic film, a few filters, a flat plastic canister to hold it all together. I used to see it on him often, once. There was a time when I would spend afternoons in his office after school: happy there as I was nowhere else, drawing on smooth, beautiful pieces of printer paper as white as his lab coat and smelling that sharp hospital smell. In my memory, which I tug on like a fishing line until it surfaces—pop!—with what I am seeking—it is yellow, this dosimeter. It has his name on it. It crackles a little, as film does, if you are allowed to press gently down on it with your thumb. But it doesn’t look, to me, particularly impressive. I know it is important but I am not sure why. I know it is keeping him safe but I am not sure how. Should it turn dark, it will counsel danger. It is making something visible that does not want to be seen.

My sister and brother-in-law sent me a book for my birthday this year that does the same thing.

Radioactive is artist and writer Lauren Redniss’s attempt to translate two unseen forces—radiation and love—into visible form. What she has produced, in the name of this goal, is an object of great charm: a literate, supple biography of Marie Curie, illustrated with (intentionally) primitive drawings and collages composed of photographs, primary documents, and found artifacts. The words are set in an original typeface Redniss modeled after the title pages of old scientific manuscripts. Her pages are nothing if not a pleasure to turn—now dark and brooding, now bursting with lurid color, and filled with human figures stretching and deforming into strange proportions, as if made of melting wax.

The book jumps back and forth between the story of the Curies and the contemporary significance of their principal discovery, the phenomenon of radioactivity. Sometimes the juxtapositions are chillingly fitting. On one spread, we see photographs of a pink rose grown in the fallout zone of the Three Mile Island disaster, lovely but mutated. On the next, Marie learns of Pierre’s sudden death in a carriage accident. Buttercups bloom across the page. “The flowers he had picked in the country,” Redniss writes, working from a microfilm she found in the Curie Archives, “remained fresh on the table.”

Too often, unfortunately, these transitions feel forced, not quite living up to the meanings they are presumably intended to carry. A page announcing the birth of Marie’s second daughter is immediately followed by a spread introducing Manhattan Project physicist Irving S. Lowen; the movement feels random. And when an odd little exposition of a radon health spa in Montana appears, complete with an interview with two true believers, the irony—though clear—trips awkwardly on the heels of the previous, haunting, page. Glowing an unearthly orange, it shows a ghostlike negative of Marie’s skeletal body: One assistant described Marie’s presence in the lab as nearly immaterial, “as if she could walk through walls.” Wraithlike, a humming in her ears, and her vision failing after four cataract surgeries, she felt her way among her instruments and through the rooms of her laboratory. At dawn on July 4, 1934, Marie Curie passed away.

It is when Redniss works to make love visible on the page that Radioactive is at its most powerful. An enchanting early spread shows Marie’s first meeting with Pierre in the laboratory of Gabriel Lippman. The two are shyly separated, she on the edge of the recto and he the margin of the verso, their bodies tall and straight and parallel to each other. She looks over her shoulder, eyes so big with watching him that they are easily three times as large as her demure fingertips. He has been drawn with two overlapping countenances—two noses, two mouths, two mustaches, two sets of eyes—as if continually pulling his gaze toward her, then away—drawing motion out of a frozen page.

After Pierre’s death, one page burns scarlet as a flag, a red so bright it seems almost to radiate off the page. On it, themselves bleeding crimson, appear the naked forms of Marie and the married man with whom she is having an affair: her husband’s former student, Paul Langevin. (When their romance becomes public, the ensuing scandal tears the two apart. The pages are black.)

Love, like radiation, inflamed Marie Curie’s life. Both brought her the brightest satisfactions she would ever experience; both also aroused the most blistering pain. And had she a little square of film to wear upon her breast every day of her life, it could only have warned her of one of those dangers.

2011.5. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (Lauren Redniss)

Birthday Blizzard 2011

This is not that essay on ice I promised you. What it is, instead, is a video I made while walking through what the media in Chicago have been calling, with great brio and all-out apocalyptic fervor, a “dangerous winter storm,” an “all-encompassing snowstorm,” “the most intense blizzard we have seen since 1967,” and—my favorite, seen on the Chicagoist and sure to be copied, “Blizzaster 2011.” After all that hype, Dave and I agreed this morning (before it really began) that we weren’t at all sure this snowstorm was going to turn out to be everything it was cracked up to be. But you know what? This thing really delivered.

There is driving wind that sounds like it’s the big bad wolf and we are one very small, very stupid little piggy in a frail straw house. There is blowing snow. There is cottony debris all over our windows. There are people being blown down the sidewalk by gusts. There is a pickup truck on our street corner that iced itself into a real pickle at some point in the evening and has been revving its engine for the past half hour trying, unsuccessfully, to move. And there is thunder and lightning. It is pretty fucking awesome.

So we went outside.

[flickr video=5409104953 secret=0bb9363600 w=400 h=300]

According to a handy dandy chart I just consulted, the four or five minutes my hands were exposed while I was taking this video, along with a second, was far from sufficient to cause any kind of frostbite damage, given the temperature (about 20 F), the wind chill (about 3 F), and the wind speed (about 25 MPH). But that didn’t stop my fingers from hurting like hell when I finally got them back under cover of glove and pocket. In fact, the shock and adrenaline rush I felt as a result of the pain was not unlike what you might feel if you’d sustained a sudden and injurious fall. This is how much I love you and want to share with you the pleasures of the night.

But now, my friends, the end of my 32nd birthday nears, and for the next 100 minutes I intend to enjoy the snow from a less blustery vantage point. If you’re reading and you know I don’t know it, say hi, will you? It’ll be a lovely birthday gift.