Paper Wings (Deborah Kennedy)
“The fate of animals is… indissolubly connected with the fate of men.” Émile Zola
Yesterday, no one watched the river of red-winged blackbirds
flowing southward, the hawks’ spinning on a rising wind
or the arc of an osprey’s wing diving into open water. Tonight
the seven o’clock news tells the story of birds falling from the sky
around the globe. The TV screen briefly shows, in black of night,
lolling heads, dirty piles of wet feathers, fished from muddy water
by men in vinyl suits. Unpreened feathers hang strangely heavy.
All the result of natural causes, pliant faces repeat again and again
as they map contagion’s spread, night by night. They will not
read the acid acronyms PCB, DDT, PBDE. They will not even
whisper the cool, round syllables of carbamate, selenium, or mercury.
They will not point to colored diagrams of chemical tracks etched
through bones and burnt through bodies’ shields. Wings fold
like crumpled paper, birds plummet from the skies. Men, faces
covered with white masks, stuff bodies in plastic sacks stretched tight
and full, heave bags into the back of trucks, heavy tires spray loose gravel.
What hole is deep enough to throw away the whole world?
The quiet spreads in wetlands, woodlands, and flyways reaching
north and south. Like smoke in still autumn air, the question rises
if the wind of birds is empty, how will the flesh of my flesh take flight?
Paper Wings: Holes in the Sky
The Avian Decline is the scientific term for a loss of birds and bird species that is quietly sweeping the globe due to a variety of threats. Alarmingly, recent studies predict that by the end of this century, one quarter of all bird species will be extinct. Human activities are the primary cause of bird loss. Their habitats are lost as construction and extraction industries destroy natural areas. Their food sources are destroyed or contaminated by agribusiness’ use of pesticides and herbicides and other many widely used chemicals. Also, birds often collide with power lines, windmills, and windows. Also, the avian flu, a new bird disease, is speeding this already rapid loss and has caused the deaths of immeasurable numbers of wild and domestic birds. The combination of these challenges is leading to precipitous declines in many bird populations.
One threat, the widespread use of common chemicals, is proving to harm humans as well as birds. Many scientists recognize an especially disturbing interaction of animal biology with a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors—these chemicals mimic animal and human hormones, the chemical messengers that regulate growth and many key metabolic activities. Many endocrine disruptors mimic human sex hormones and may have especially detrimental effects on the reproductive health of animals and humans.
In a thriving human population, the proportion of female to male births is usually fairly stable at 48 to 52 percent. An increasing number of studies show a significant drop in the percentage of males born in communities exposed to high levels of industrial chemicals. This circumstance is most starkly illustrated in studies of the Canadian Aamjiwnaang First Nation community, which is situated near large chemical plants where the birth of healthy males is declining precipitously. Today, scientists suspect chemical exposure may also partially explain increases in penile deformities, drops in sperm counts, and numerous other deleterious health impacts. We cannot predict to what extent these new harms imperil our children’s future fertility.
Rachel Carson, the noted biologist and environmentalist, understood the connection between threats to the natural world and threats to our own health. Ever prescient, she said: “But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
Our incessant war against nature is leading not only to these declines of bird populations, but also to profound hazard to ourselves. If we understood the connection between these disappearances and the threats to our children and ourselves, would we continue to turn a blind eye to these losses?
The illustration depicts a central metaphor in the poem—paper wings—suggesting the fragility of birds and indeed of all life.