Monday, July 16, 2018

Stray thoughts: on wood thrushes & cetera

Apologies for leaving this "web log" of mine to sit unattended and cultivate moss. I've been absorbed in a longform fiction project (superstition inhibits me from calling it a "n-v-l" until it's finished) which has swallowed most of my (non-procrastinatory) leisure time. I don't think this one will be a mere wind egg, though I'll be skipping directly to self-publishing instead of spending a year trying to get the attention of the small presses and gatekeepers. I already know that this one has no chance of impressing them, but it is nevertheless a project I'm compelled to see through to completion.

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Bench where yr correspondent jotted down the rudiments of this post

Today I'm visiting the folks in North Jersey again. As usual during these trips, I stopped by Hidden Valley, a public park I've written about before, and where most of my Instagram photos are taken. As usual, I got a lot of thinking done; saw a lot of ghost pipe (gloomblossoms) and dwarf ginseng, encountered several different dragonfly species in the meadows, chewed on some wild raspberries and blackberries, and got my feet muddy following after a pileated woodpecker. Good times. But I was dismayed to to find the woods much quieter than expected.

At 3:00 PM on a mid-July day, with the sun out and the temperature approaching 90° F, I heard jays shouting, catbirds mewing and rambling, chipmunks yipping, the distant thudding of a woodpecker banging its face against a tree trunk, and the sibilant agitations of the leaves in the way of the wind. But on an afternoon that should have been ideal for them, I heard almost no cicadas, and not one wood thrush.

I'm not too concerned about the cicadas. Only in the last ten days or so have I started noticing their churring up in the trees around Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Fairmount Park, and the clock of North Jersey and its seasonal phenomena usually runs a week or two slower than southern Pennsylvania's. But the wood thrush's absence has me worried. Since late May I've kept an ear open for them in both Pennsylvania and Jersey; their far-off piping song has only occasionally found me. Hidden Valley is where I've always heard them most reliably and in the greatest numbers, and during my visits there this year they've perpetually seemed just a week away from coming into season.

Wood thrushes are special to me. About a decade ago, they were the first bird to command my fascination that wasn't a typical backyard visitor, and which I came to recognize exclusively by their song. To this day I've never seen a wood thrush. They're secretive fellows, exclusively residing in deep forests and tending to spend most of their time up in tall trees. I know them only by their late-afternoon and evening song; and in describing it, I am at a loss for any words other than "haunting." It's a short string of piping notes ending on a pitched trill, echoing through the trees, always seeming to emerge from some distant and unspecifiable point of origin in the verdant heights.

I haven't kept a rigorous scientific record of thrush calls in Hidden Valley; I can't say for absolutely certain that their numbers there have been in decline since I first starting listening for them in 2009–10. But I seem to remember them being a lot more active on July afternoons like this one in years past.

Fearing for them and pondering explanations, I considered the slow but inexorable development of North Jersey's suburbs and exurbs. (Read: "the slow but inexorable deforestation in and around North Jersey's suburbs and exurbs.") The razing of local woodlands to accommodate new residential areas, strip malls, medical plazas, and what have you has progressed so gradually as to almost preclude notice—but the reduction of suitable habitats for a bird that can't subside in backyards, parking lots, or roadsides has been conducted in perpetuity, and has not been offset by reforestation elsewhere in the region. The ongoing construction of McMansion developments has also been a boon to cowbirds, notorious nest parasites that thrive in such environments as suburban lawns offer.

But it's highly probable that the cause of the thrushes' (apparent) decline is not exclusively local. These are migratory birds: they winter in Central America and migrate through Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Cuba, and the extreme south of Louisiana and Florida before reaching their summer grounds. The birds that arrive in Jersey have to cross at least another thousand miles over the Ozarks, Appalachia, and/or the Deep South. Any changes to the environments they encounter in their winter grounds or during their migratory journeys has consequences for the wood thrush's population in Hidden Valley.

It breaks my heart to have returned from the woods, looked up the wood thrush on the website of New Jersey's Conserve Wildlife Foundation, and have my fears confirmed:
The wood thrush is considered to be common throughout much of the eastern U.S. However, the species has undergone population declines in some portions of its range, most likely due to habitat loss and forest fragmentation within its breeding range. This species prefers large areas of forest with intact, closed tree canopies. Forest fragmentation leaves nests vulnerable to predation as well as nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). Tropical deforestation may also pose a threat within their winter range.
The wood thrush is listed as a Species of Special Concern in New Jersey (not yet endangered or threatened but possibly on its way). Preservation of large areas of intact habitat benefits this species since such areas enable them to breed and raise offspring more successfully.

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A most famous and ancient parable from India tells of a group of blind men trying to arrive at an understanding of an elephant by touching it. Each of them lays their hand on a different part of the pachyderm's body and arrives at a different conclusion.

"This is an animal like a snake," says the man holding the elephant's trunk.

"No, it's more like a tree," argues the man with his hands on the elephant's leg.

"If this is an elephant, then an elephant is a thing like a spear," says the man touching one of the creature's tusks.

The point of the story is the difficulty of understanding any phenomenon when you can't apprehend the full breadth of the thing.

Standing in a bog, getting chewed on by mosquitoes, and pondering the threats to the wood thrush, certain words crossed my mind. "Deforestation." "Industrialization." "Capitalism. "Globalization." "Anthropocentrism." Much like the blind men in their erroneous suppositions, I in my catalog of disparate "-ations" and "-isms" was in fact naming distinct but affiliated aspects of a singular process.

Regardless of where precisely it began, and through which agency, through the cascades of time these events precipitate and are sustained by the others. Industrialization both presupposes and reinforces a capitalist system of production and social organization: without a two-tiered society of those who lack the resources to feed, clothe, house, and otherwise take care of themselves without selling their labor-time to the opposite class of capital holders, there'd be no factories, no mechanized infrastructures of distribution, no industrial farms, and presumably no need for these things. Without capitalism, there would be no globalism—at least certainly not in the form which confronts us today. Capital perpetually seeks to expand its markets, and does so by homogenizing the rest of the world into forms compatible with its institutions. A manufacturer of mobile phones isn't going to sell many products in a deeply rural area without a modern telecommunications network (does such a place still exist?), or to a population that lives in subsistence-farming communities instead of as wage-earning laborers generating surplus value on the free market. Steps must be taken to compel the locals to get with the program. Carrots will be dangled, deals (often exploitative) will be reached, and a population that was once self-sufficient (though perhaps lacking in material comforts) joins the global community and plays the game of wealth generation and transference (read: "centralization"). The old meanings and uses of the land will be denuded and eventually effaced by marketplace valuations; the renovation of the landscape must follow, open spaces fragmentized and eventually stripped clear to satisfy the requirements of the new infrastructure plugging the region into the global "village." And as Nick Carr has pointed out, immersion in the signs and structures of digital-age consumer society tends to foster an indifference to anything beyond the categories of "culture." 

Point of fact: North Korea's isolation from the global order, and the sluggishness of its economy compared to that of Southeast Asia, has made the hermit kingdom a safe haven for migratory birds which, like the wood thrush, are struggling against habitat loss.

Humanity and the vascular apparatuses of Western-style affluence achieved a global range before either developed a global consciousness. One can only hope that the planetarization of the species' outered "body" will eventually bring about a corresponding planetarization of its awareness. Even in the best-case scenario, the Earth will be a much less diverse, much emptier place by the time that day arrives.

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From what I've been able to tell, Hidden Valley's population of ebony jewelwing damselflies has fallen off too. Since I began observing them in 2010 or so, I've watched as the area they most frequent has gradually shifted. Eight years ago, they most preferred the fringe of Clark's Pond where the water spilled into a creek. Since then the water level of the pond has fallen, and for the last few years the outlet has run dry (except after periods of heavy rain). In response, the damselflies moved over several yards to a separate creek with which the overflow from the pond used to converge. That stream has been running a little thin these last few summers, too.

Years ago, I was accustomed to seeing dozens of damselflies on a visit to the woods, often in the same place. This year I've seldom seen more than two.

I don't like any of this.

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