Winged messengers: The precarious lives of birds

That we can see reverence for birds as old-fashioned or sentimental is merely another indicator of our own outmoded thinking with regard to human success, writes John Burnside.

Urban singers: roosting white wagtails are lit up by a street light. Photo: David Tipling

Birds and People
Mark Cocker and David Tipling
Jonathan Cape, 592pp, £40

If ever a book was timely, it is this gorgeously produced 600-page compendium of ornith - ological facts, images, myths and narratives. Mark Cocker, whose marvellous Crow Country reshaped our rather prejudiced views on corvids, and the leading bird photo grapher David Tipling explore the many ways in which “people’s lives are entwined with, and are very often shaped by, their encounters with birds . . . how birds live within us – and how they have been, in the words of . . . Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘good to think’ and to reflect upon”.

Yet, as much as this book is a celebration of birdlife, informed by that mixed sense of wonder and careful inquiry that Cocker has called “the poetry of fact”, it “inevitably contains many stories of our exploitation of birds, both in the past and in the present” – and sadly this is in large part what makes it topical. For although most of us no longer feast on parrots’ tongues or bathe in flamingo blood, as some Romans once did, millions of songbirds are still caught in mist nets, or on lime-sticks, all across the Mediterranean, while (to take just one example) over half the European population of northern lapwings has, in a single human generation, been lost to agricultural changes that not only degrade and pollute the land, but also produce inferior, polluted foodstuffs. As miraculous and varied as the lives of birds may seem (Cocker notes that “the entire class . . . has occupied more of the earth’s surface, on terra firma and at sea, than any other vertebrate life form”), their existence all too often becomes precarious when they are obliged to cohabit with people. It is hard not to despair when we read how, not so long ago, that consummate bird-lover W H Hudson claimed “to know English country estates where they killed nightingales because the celestial song kept the pheasants awake”.

Nothing illustrates this troubled relationship between birds and people as keenly as the recent controversy over the death-bywind- turbine of a white-throated needletail – a member of the swift family, not pictured here, but noted in passing as “one of the fastest animals on earth . . . recorded at 170kmph (106mph)”. Though badly sited horizontalaxis wind turbines are increasingly recognised as a significant threat to raptors and migratory birds in particular, this specific death was an environmental anomaly: the needletail, which normally breeds in China and Mongolia, was far from home and its death can only be accounted as an unhappy accident, irrelevant to the overall debate about the damage done to birds and bats by wind turbines. Nevertheless, it quickly became the focus of the unease many of us feel about our disregard for birdlife – and that unease deepened significantly after a comment piece in the Guardian by the RSPB’s “head of climate-change policy and campaigns” came across more as an apology for the wind industry than a reasoned defence of birds:

The fact is that the infrastructure that supports the kind of lives we have become accustomed to kills wildlife. Since 1980, we have lost 300 million birds from Europe’s farmland, victims of ever more intensive farming. Barn owls, suffering from a lack of suitable hunting grounds, can often be seen hunting alongside major roads; as a result, about 30 per cent of the species’ deaths are attributed to collisions with vehicles. Energy infrastructure in particular is a killer. One study compared the fatalities as a result of wind power with nuclear and fossil fuels. It looked at deaths across the full lifecycle, including extraction of raw materials and the impacts of any pollution it causes, and found that for every gigawatt-hour of electricity generated by wind power there are about 0.3 fatalities. For nuclear it was 0.4 and for fossil fuels it was 5.2 to 17 times greater than wind.

There is no attempt here to examine “the kind of lives we have become accustomed to”; it seems killing birds is what we do and there’s an end on’t.

For some of us, such reckoning of “acceptable” bird mortality sticks in the craw, no matter what the circumstances, but it is also worth pointing out that this rather blasé position on bird death rates sits uncomfortably with research done elsewhere (by the Spanish Ornithological Society, or by various groups in Scandinavia, the US and elsewhere). What that position does reflect, however, is the danger posed to birds not just by our appetites, or our supposed sporting instincts, but also by ideology. When recently I inquired at Friends of the Earth Scotland why they were so unconcerned about turbine-related bird (and bat) mortality rates in Scotland, I had this response:

That wind turbines pose a major threat to birds is a common misconception – in the US alone, it’s estimated that less than 40,000 birds [sic] (of all kinds) are killed by turbines each year, while up to one billion are killed by flying into windows . . . The same goes for bats, where numbers as [sic] negligible compared to bat deaths by other forms of human intervention. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), it’s not just pollution and habitat destruction. People accidentally waking bats from their daytime sleep kills [sic] far more bats than wind turbines ever could.

When I wrote back to suggest that, when it comes to the environmental damage done by wind turbines, taking the AWEA’s word for it (as both industry folks and faint-hearted greens have consistently done so far) was the equivalent of accepting the American Coal Council’s assertion that coal has “a strong environmental track record that continues to improve”, I received no response at all.

Yet, while this particular threat to birdlife continues to be shrouded in controversy (mainly, I suspect, because of disinformation spread by industry lobbyists and the kinds of lucrative “consultancy” deals that have been struck between some NGOs and energy companies), many others are common knowledge. The ill-regulated and excessive use of pesticides worldwide; the slaughter of eagles and other predators in rural areas (because, in the words of one mid-20th-century gamekeeper quoted here, “my job was to kill everything that His Lordship couldn’t eat”); and a range of other factors, such as deforestation and the recently documented mass destruction of grasslands to provide cheap biomass crops – these are all known.

Sadly, the overall numbers are huge: as Wallace P Erickson, Gregory D Johnson and David P Young noted in 2005: “We estimate that from 500 million to possibly over one billion birds are killed annually in the United States due to anthropogenic sources including collisions with human-made structures such as vehicles, buildings and windows, power lines, communication towers and wind turbines; electrocutions; oil spills and other contaminants; pesticides; cat predation; and commercial fishing by-catch.” Killing birds is, indeed, what we do.

In 1789, Gilbert White observed in The Natural History of Selborne that the parish in which he lived was “a very abrupt, uneven country, full of hills and woods, and therefore full of birds” – and there is ample evidence that such diverse and uneven terrain is as beneficent to the human spirit as it is to avian life. Today, we would be more likely to render “abrupt and uneven” as “diverse”, yet for all our apparent understanding of such concepts, our way of life, from the land we drive through on the morning commute to the food in our supermarket trolley, has been engineered to depend on the elimination of the abrupt and the uneven.

Still more in thrall to a Gradgrindian business ethic of efficiency and reductionism than we choose to admit, we may claim to be a bird-loving nation (the RSPB has around one million members). But when the abrupt and the uneven are under threat, too many of us forget the greater good that depends infinitely more on the birds and the bees than the supposed truths of hard economics or the paper prosperity of City traders. For that reason alone, reading The Natural History of Selborne in a post-Reaganomics world is a salutary reminder of this steady addition to our well-being.

It even comes across in White’s prose, as Richard Mabey points out in his biography of the parson-naturalist: “What is striking is the way Gilbert often arranges his sentence structure to echo the physical style of a bird’s flight. So ‘The white-throat uses odd jerks and gesticulations over the tops of hedges and bushes’; and ‘Woodpeckers fly volatu undosu, opening and closing their wings at every stroke, and so are always rising and falling in curves.’”

A similar spirit – that “poetry of fact” that renews and re-envisions the natural world – informs Birds and People, making it a worthy addition to the tradition of such writers as White and Hudson. Yet it also raises a question that haunts all eco-critical thinking today, the problem Tolstoy formulates as: “What then must we do?”

How do we even imagine a world where a book that avowedly “explores and celebrates” our relationship with birds need not refer so frequently to habitat loss, deforestation and various forms of direct persecution? For some time now, books and documentaries about the natural world have tended to flipflop between desperate warnings of present and impending losses on a catastrophic scale and informed celebration of what still remains of the wild; and the debate as to which of these approaches is the more successful will no doubt continue. However, it is clear that, to rediscover the abrupt and uneven in our parishes, we must begin by reawakening our imaginations from the slumber of reductionist economics – and on the evidence of Birds and People, it seems better that we err on the side of celebration. This comes out as much in Tipling’s extraordinary photographs as it does in Cocker’s prose. The haunting image (on page 496) of a “roost of white wagtails in a neon-lit city street” is a wonderfully persuasive instance of that celebration: the birds seem to subsist in light and the curious gaze the central pair turn back on the camera is strangely inclusive.

“We are all responsible for everything and everyone in the face of everybody,” says Dostoevsky, “and I more than the others.” Taking that declaration as a starting point, Emmanuel Levinas created a philosophy in which each of us is confronted with what he calls “the face” of the other, which both implores and challenges us not to do it harm, but to respond to it from a position that goes beyond mere respect, or even compassion – a position that, because it understands the necessity of the other to our own continued being, approaches the deeply unfashionable condition of reverence. That we can see reverence for birds as old-fashioned or sentimental is merely another indicator of our own outmoded thinking with regard to human success, a solipsistic mode of thinking that takes such absurd indicators as GDP or the Dow Jones as measures of prosperity.

As Cocker points out, “To assume that we alone are all that matter and to contemplate with any kind of equanimity the loss of these other species, or a part of them, is to risk losing our very souls and silencing our own imaginations.” Reading Birds and People, it becomes possible to see that a more imaginative economics (grounded, perhaps, on such indicators as Avian Health and Diversity, say, or a Dawn Chorus Audibility Index) could be built around Gilbert White’s abrupt and uneven parish, “full of hills and woods, and therefore full of birds”. We would all be the richer for that.

John Burnside’s most recent book is “Something Like Happy” (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

LINDA BROWNLEE / CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES
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“Trump is a great opportunity for us writers": Zadie Smith on fighting back

The author of Swing Time on Michael Jackson, female friendships and how writers can bring down Donald Trump.

In a packed college lecture hall at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 22 November, Zadie Smith joined me on stage to talk about her fifth novel. Swing Time is the story of an unnamed narrator and her childhood friend – “two brown girls” – which begins at a church hall dance class and never quite lets them go, throughout their divergent lives. Despite being a little jet-lagged from her flight from New York – where she lives with her husband, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, and their two children – Smith spoke with the cool, lucid intelligence familiar from her essays and criticism as well as her fiction. “You’re so quiet compared to American audiences,” she said to the crowd. “American audiences say thing like, ‘Uh huh! Yeah!’ just randomly in the middle of things.” Met with reverential silence, she was free to navigate fluidly between racial identity, female friendship, Barack Obama’s legacy and her love of Mad Men.

New Statesman Swing Time is about many things, but it is dance that gives the story its rhythm and arc. What’s your own relationship with dance?

Zadie Smith For me, it’s a joy. I’m a 41-year-old woman; I don’t dance that much any more. My children don’t enjoy me dancing in any context, but I love to watch it, and I found out writing this book that I love to think about it.

 

NS As a child, the narrator is absorbed by classic musicals and through them she discovers a handful of black dancers – the Nicholas Brothers, the young Jeni LeGon – who take on huge significance for her. Did these figures have that kind of impact on you?

ZS No, Jeni LeGon is someone I only found out about writing this book, so I had to construct what it would have been like to know about her aged five or eight; it’s like a fake memoir. But I loved that kind of early dance, and I recognise the instinct a lot of black and Asian children of my generation might have: the sense of counting the brown faces wherever we saw them, in a slightly desperate way. I definitely did that, in my everyday life, switching on the BBC and hoping to see Daley Thompson, or whoever – this kind of search for a reflection.

 

NS There were major black stars in the 1980s: the narrator’s friend Tracey idolises Michael Jackson and Prince.

ZS Michael Jackson’s a really interesting example, because he’s such a traumatising figure for a whole generation of kids! You were offered him as this wonder – this incredible black dancer – who then you had to watch throughout your childhood become un-black. You had to have this magical thinking and believe that he had a mysterious skin disease that does not manifest in that way in any other human on Earth, and that all this surgery also had nothing to do with it. It required a great deal of denial, and I think it did something very odd to a generation of children. He certainly loomed large in my mind as a figure of such penetrating self-hatred and self-disgust. Perhaps I have a suspicion of role models exactly for that reason, that you’re offered something – a model of behaviour or thought – but it can only ever be narrow. And then, when it goes traumatically wrong, as it did in poor Michael’s case, you’re left slightly rudderless.

 

NS You wrote that the Nicholas Brothers remind you of a line that a mother tells her daughter, that she needs to be twice as good as the other kids. This sentiment crops up in NW and in Swing Time, too.

ZS When I meet black British kids of my generation, that’s what all their mothers said to them. But with the Nicholas Brothers, I was also thinking about talent, because the novel is about different relations of power: in friendships, in families, between countries.

One of the things power is based on is the feeling that someone has a natural right to a certain amount of things. If you’re born into a situation, what accrues to you because of that? If you’re born into an unfortunate situation, what do you deserve in replacement for that? Politics lies along those lines. But talent is interesting because people on both sides of the political divide tend to think of it as a natural bounty not to be interfered with. The Nicholas Brothers are so extraordinarily talented that it’s a kind of offence to our most democratic thoughts. Why do these boys dance like that? How is it possible to have those kinds of gifts in the world, and what should you get because of them?

 

NS Did the Nicholas Brothers get the recognition that their talent deserved?

ZS Well, it was complicated, because they would do these extraordinary routines, but the studio always ensured they weren’t integral to the plot, so that when the films went south of the Mason-Dixon line, you could just cut the offending scene. So that was their experience – a very painful one, I think. But they were extraordinary professionals and Astaire spoke so well of them.

When I was a kid, what preoccupied me even more than the movies themselves was the idea of what was going on behind the scenes, between these black actors and the directors, the producers, the other actors. Because even though someone like Fred Astaire was a supporter of these artists, he didn’t actually actively help them on set. There’s a moment in Easter Parade when a maid comes in with a pug in her arms, and that maid is Jeni LeGon. Astaire knew who she was and how talented a dancer she was and yet he allowed her to appear for 35 seconds in a movie, passing him a dog.

 

NS In Swing Time, the narrator goes on to work for a pop star who is busily incorporating African imagery and clothing into her routines. What’s your take on this idea of cultural appropriation?

ZS Aimee, the pop star, says something that I don’t disagree with, which is that art involves an act of love, and of imitation. I would maybe use the word “voyeurism”. I think of myself explicitly as a voyeur, somebody who wants to be inside other people’s lives. To write On Beauty, I wanted to know: what’s it like to be a middle-aged, white male academic? Or in The Autograph Man, what’s it like to be a young, Chinese-Jewish guy who collects autographs? I guess sometimes the reader thinks it’s not appropriation when I’m writing about an older, black American woman – but I’m not an older, black American woman. It’s all voy­eurism on my part. But the way it’s argued a lot of the time, on both sides, is so vulgar.

Also, I feel that the identity facts of your life are so profoundly contingent – where your parents happened to be on the day you were born – that I can only take identity ­seriously as an act of commitment and love. I don’t think it runs through your blood. It is a compulsion. You have chosen to become, for example, British, even if you were born British and your great-grandfather was British. Being British is a kind of engagement; you have to commit to the idea of a culture.

 

NS In terms of identity, the narrator defines herself by the light other people cast on her. She’s almost a negative space.

ZS I felt that I wanted an “I” who was like a void, partly from my own sensibility – I recognise myself as a person of some passivity – but also in response to the performance of a certain kind of persona, particularly among young people. My students have a very firm sense of their “I”, or say they do, and they take that “I” on to the various social platforms and into their lives. It’s a type of presentation. But the kind of person that I was thinking about is asking, “What did I do here, there and then? What does it mean?” She’s working out, “Who am I?” but it comes from action, not from a series of staged performances. I knew it would be a slightly unnerving experience, because we’ve got so used to opening a book or reading a blog or watching Instagram and being presented with this full technicolour person with all these qualities. I felt that maybe in my novel, I could try something else.

 

NS When asked about the target audience for their book, writers usually say that they don’t write for an audience, or they write for themselves. But you have said that Swing Time was written explicitly for black girls.

ZS That’s how I felt when I was writing it. I did have somebody I was trying to speak to, and that might be no different to writing the kind of book – as writers often say – that you might have hoped to read when you were young. I was aware of an explicit imagined reader. I can’t deny that was in my mind. These are not normal times, and I think even writers as domestic or comic as I generally am find themselves in a more political place than they would in peaceful times. Being in America the past few years, I felt I had a lot of things that I had to get on paper, to get off my chest.

 

NS One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the relationship between the two girls. Do you think there’s something particularly fraught and complex about female friendships?

ZS I feel that perhaps in the past – because so much was written by men, because the women were with the children – relations between women have been depicted with very simple concepts like envy, or the idea of the bitch fight. And now that women are writing so much more frequently and the men in their lives are helping with the children, I think you’re getting for the first time in a very long time a different depiction of intimate female relations.

One of the things that strike me is that the much-vaunted envy between women is also a kind of radical imagination, in that women are always in each other’s business; they can imagine each other’s lives with great intensity. When I was writing this book, I was with my daughter at a children’s party, parting from another girl who wanted to know every little thing about where we were going next. I compared that with my son, who, if he’s saying goodbye to a friend, is just like, “See ya!” and doesn’t even remember they exist until the next morning.

That ability of girls to project their imagination into somebody else’s life can have toxic elements, but also seems to me an extraordinary fictional instinct, and might explain the domination of women in the novel historically, when so many other art forms were practically blocked for them. The novel, to me, is a woman’s art. I don’t say men don’t have enormous achievements in it, of course, but it has a strong female element, exactly because of that projection, which can be called empathy, I suppose, but is also a deep curiosity and voyeurism.

 

NS We tend to associate male relationships with power struggles, but aren’t female friendships equally involved in exchanges of power and power games?

ZS Right. I think it can be sometimes invisible to men, because the form of the power game can be so inverted. There is a very funny Amy Schumer sketch of four women meeting in a park in New York and competitively downgrading themselves: “You look nice!” “No, I look like something pulled out of the trash.” On it goes until they explode. All women will recognise that, and it’s a compulsive English habit. I do it all the time. Someone says to me, “You look nice.” I say, “Oh, Topshop, 15 quid.” That habit maybe doesn’t look like power from the outside, but all women know exactly what they’re doing when they’re doing these things.

 

NS In your fiction, mother-daughter relationships seem equally fraught.

ZS Even though I know a lot of women have difficult relationships with their mothers, what’s amusing, and kind of moving, too, is the amnesia. When they have children, women cannot imagine the idea that maybe this lovely two-year-old will one day do ­anything to avoid calling you between Sunday and Sunday – they can’t conceive of it, even as they’re doing it to their own mothers. I guess I never had that illusion about motherhood. I always thought, “This is going to be terrible,” so anything that’s good is a kind of bonus. I was very surprised when my kids started saying the normal things that kids say, that they love you.

Then there are the sweet delusions of what you want and what the child wants. I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said to me things like, “I’m going to go and get a massage, because if I’m happy, the child’s happy.” You want to believe that you want the same things at the same time, but exactly the opposite is true. The child wants everything, and it’s the mother’s decision how much she’s going to give. I find that battle kind of comic and sweet and interesting, and certainly having children has reanimated it in my fiction.

 

NS What was your involvement in the recent BBC television adaptation of NW?

ZS When they started, I was pregnant and I just couldn’t engage with it at all. So I just said, “Do whatever you like.” I saw it only two weeks ago on my laptop – very anxious, with my husband, Nick, late at night – and I was just so happy and amazed at that scriptwriter [Rachel Bennette] and all the things she cut so effectively. I’m not in the habit of being moved by my own material, but the power of it struck me, particularly the section with Felix. You see so many people stabbed, all the time, in movies and on TV, and you never really understand the weight of the life being lost – and the actor playing Felix managed to die.

I’m going to try to adapt Swing Time for TV, probably with Nick, because he’s much more of a plot guy. I’m excited. I love telly.
I don’t have original taste – I love all the usual suspects. I think Mad Men is stunning.
I felt like it was a dream life that I was in, and when it was gone I felt really depleted, like I couldn’t have that dream every night, with all those beautiful men and women in it.

 

NS You’ve long been associated with the idea of “multicultural London”, but what comes out strongly in your recent work is a sense of division. Do you feel more pessimistic about London as a mixed community?

ZS Particularly in America, I’ll be asked, “Are you a supporter of this thing multiculturalism, and now can you admit that it’s failed?” What’s being said is that the conditions of your childhood were a kind of experiment, and it turns out it hasn’t gone well, so we’re going to revoke that – it’s over now. I find it kind of unnerving, because millions of people around the world are still living with each other in mixed situations, and I also don’t accept the premise that a homogeneous society is by its nature more peaceful and more likely to succeed. The Romans, the Greeks, the Northern Irish, England for 400 years . . . There’s no reason to believe that. I never felt that a heterogeneous society was perfect. But I think there are promising things in my community, and I don’t accept the idea of an experiment shut down, finished: these are people’s lives.

But what certainly is the case, I feel, is that you cannot, on the left or on the right, assume that a historical situation will remain in perpetuity. If you value things in that ­society, you have to restate them, reimagine them, and the kind of housing crisis we have in London now makes various conditions I grew up in impossible. There will always be rich and poor but, as [Thomas] Piketty makes the case, the gap is so extraordinary now. To have allowed it to get to this almost feudal situation, I don’t see how it can’t create deep cracks within civilised life. The ­division in London is a financial one. It feels extreme and it has extreme consequences.

 

NS In 2008, you wrote an essay full of cautious hope that Obama’s mode of speaking might be the thing required to pull the country together. How do you feel looking back at that moment now?

ZS On the morning of this election, I heard a young black girl on the subway ­speaking very loudly about why she’d voted for Trump. One of her reasons – a kind of “Face­book fact” – was that Obama created fewer jobs than Bush, which I believe had been going round the right-wing sites. In some of the big car towns, Obama saved so many jobs – but it’s hard to sell the counterfactual idea that there would be 800,000 fewer jobs here had this not happened.

But I think another counterfactual will be in his favour soon, and that is all the ways in which Obama is calm. Recently in New York, we had a small terrorist attack in Chelsea. Try to imagine Donald’s response to that. And so I think that over the next four years, all the ways in which Obama has not done many things that would have led us into terrible situations will become very clear, very quickly. It’s a painful way to secure your legacy, but that’s the way I see it.

 

NS As a New Yorker, what has your experience been over the past few weeks?

ZS I left the morning after it happened, because I had to go to Europe. When we turned up at my son’s daycare, the teachers were crying. My friend told me that the pizza delivery guy came that evening and burst into tears at the door. It was traumatic.

My gut feeling is that the job of American journalists and writers is going to be to somehow defy the normalisation of what’s happening. I think there are positive signs. It blows my mind that a man who is meant to be preparing to be leader of the free world watched Saturday Night Live [in which Alec Baldwin played Trump] and tweeted three times about it. So, in one sense, it’s a great opportunity for all of us artists, comedians, writers, because he’s so easily wound up! It gives the press an opportunity to be a real fourth estate and do something significant. Which could perhaps lead to impeachment. It’s promising, from our point of view.

“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage