Earlier today I went out back to refill the bird feeder. I walked through a couple of inches of new snow, each step providing a pleasant crunch; otherwise the day was silent. I reached up and removed the feeder from its limb, filled it, replaced it, and began the return walk to the house. I had gone maybe ten feet when the air was filled with chick-a-dee sound. Turning, I saw the tree had filled with birds and said birds were greeting, and thanking me!
Our resident birds have come to know us well over the years. When we forget to fill the feeder they will flock to the front porch and reproach us when we come to the door, or hang out on the back stoop, literally looking in the door and windows as we attempt to eat dinner. Once one literally stopped our car, hovering in front of our windshield as we attempted to enter the garage.
I remember a summer evening many years ago. At dusk, a family of raccoon sat on the fence in what was then our back yard, and sang to us. My wife ran inside, grabbed the kids and her guitar, and returned to sing back. What followed was miraculous: a bursting forth of song, solos, duets, and full choruses.
It seems to me we have more in common with the other animals than our culture likes to believe. Maybe the only real difference between us and other species is that we can imagine the future and, therefore, know we will die. Of course, we do not know that other creatures do not foresee death, we only imagine this based on our apparently unique neurophysiology. In the end this very notion might just be hubris.
I read recently that Shakespeare was a signer for the Acts of Enclosure, essentially barring commoners from access to his land. The Acts of Enclosure were a series of Parliamentary maneuvers designed to force peasants off traditionally common lands, thereby allowing landowners to use their lands to increase personal wealth. The effect, however, was desperate poverty for many of those denied access to fields and woodlands.
When my Sioux ancestors were forced onto reservations, they faced a sort of inverse enclosure. (My eastern woodlands Native ancestors faced a different form of displacement.) Plains Native cultures were largely nomadic, moving to take advantage of available resources, and to avoid placing undue stress on local ecosystems. The people moved with the seasons; they were an active part of the great world of Nature. Enclosure stripped them of access to resources, and attacked their sense of self and culture.
Of course, this intentional separation of people from the land was a technique used throughout the U.S. as colonists surged forward to empty the land of Natives so that they could literally enclose the land for their own uses. Now things have gotten so bad that food, medicine, and water are enclosed, access to them is limited not just for Natives, but for the great-grandchildren of the colonists.
Still, enclosure continues. Our brothers, sisters, and cousins the birds and animals are confined to ever shrinking spaces. Often the resources they need for life are in critically short supply or absent. Yet, knowing this, we continue to fragment and enclose the landscape. Climate change amps this process up; we are left with the Sixth Extinction.
I’ve heard eminent scientists suggest that if we humans can survive another thousand years we can colonize the stars, leaving Earth behind. As a Native person I find this a difficult idea to grasp. Apparently we are to accept the extinction of untold species as simply collateral damage, a necessary evil of interplanetary expansion. I imagine this idea arises from the Western psychological paradigms of adjustment and individuation, a sort of soulless vision for life, devoid of empathy and relationship.
When I hear such pronouncements I am reminded of the still very much in vogue idea of Manifest Destiny, and the genocide it was used to justify. Only now, the living world, the Mother who gives our lives and souls, relationship and meaning, is being sacrificed, along with our wild kin.
This seems a sort of illness, and a heavy price to pay for someone’s colonial dreams. As for me, I’ll prefer to remember that I am just another animal, and share what I can with those who lived here long before people arrived. It seems good to have their company on this journey, and I refuse to accept the concept that life would be just fine without them.
– Michael Watson
© 2016, essay and photograph, Michael Watson, All rights reserved