The Grounded Age

The skies are quieter these days.

The Anthropocene is officially grounded. No, this warning does not pertain to those marvels of science engendering time aloft by engineered finagling of lift, thrust, or flotation—which would include balloons, zeppelins, propellered or jet-fueled winged tubes, the whirling bladed hoverers, the engineless elegant gliders, the unmanned spy/killing crafts, the supercaffeinated daredevils in shiny skintight squirrel suits, or Richie Rich-manned rocket ships that have elevated human ego to new hypercapitalistic heights. This grounding has nothing to do with our hominid obsessions with the clouds, and everything to do with those beings who by simple whim can do what we must to gain tower clearance for; flip switches and push buttons for; manipulate rudder and flap for; regulate helium flow and adjust angle of attack for.

Three billion birds gone in the last fifty years. Intending no disrespect to ostriches, rheas, emus, cassowaries, kiwis, Guam rails, kakapos, penguins, and the rest of the flightless avians—this current predicament is Rachel’s worse nightmare dropped dead as a pesticide-poisoned rain crow from the tree. Billions gone in the time it took to go from cloth-covered wings at Kitty Hawk to sound barriers breaking and nuclear bombs wiping out entire cities. In less time than I’ve been alive, we’ve laid waste to billions. When unfathomable, uncountable, sky-darkening, flocks passing for days, limb-breaking, kill-with-abandon, without-cause-or-pause abundance, dwindles to one pathetic dead-ended, matronly named individual in a midsize midwestern city zoo cage, what does that say about us? When the next bird on the forever gone roll—the Carolina parakeet—with a contrived Indigenous name dies in the same cursed aviary, can Emily’s hope defined as soul-perched things with feathers be taken to heart? Is there any coincidence that, at the same time when so many birds were being sent to the smite shed without second thought, the Gilded Age was turning out technological innovations and sociopathological interventions one after the other—camera, telephone, automobile, airplane, repeating rifle, mustard gas, trench warfare, aerial bombardment, X-rays, missiles—humans were perfecting the art of doing away with themselves by warfare, Indigenous genocide, constitutionally sanctioned enslavement, power-brokered misogyny, and ramped-up colonialism?

Who will miss the last of the once common things?

What does “billions” mean exactly? I see grains of sand on a square foot of beach, or blades of grass on a prairie. The stars or particles of dust we come from, the number of miles and years distant just now reaching us as light from lamps that no longer exist. Light that once even shone on plumbeous backs and rosy breasts of passenger pigeons, on the cypress green backs of Carolina parakeets. Light that once shone on heath hens, on big-beaked dodos, on great auks, on clam-eating Labrador ducks, on ivorybilled woodpeckers worthy of Lord God status. Light that shone on Bachman’s warblers, dusky seaside sparrows, Eskimo curlews, and birds no one ever saw or even had the chance to name after some genocidal racist, faded into oblivion within a few measly human generations. For all these birds, we made the way to gone-ness simple. We plowed under, cut down, paved over, warmed up, sprayed out, and burned down everything we could.

What names will we hang on the last blackbird’s aviary cage? Would Donald or Karen fit? How about George or Breonna? Would anyone protest their disappearance? Would we defund our avarice? Who will miss the last of the once common things?

The billions aren’t conceptual or modeled or opined in labs somewhere. They are a palpable loss, an absence of plumage, of song and of calls. Every bird I see, whether the allegedly common northern cardinal or the “list-worthy” olive-sided flycatcher at the top of the neighbors’ dying maple snag, is worship worthy. I know the causes for all that ails us birdwise, but in my avi-centric skin, blacker than most would like, too left-leaning for many, too southern, too rural, not Black enough for some, I know what the silence of a May morning portends. I know what the quiet sky minus migrating thrush thrups on a full-mooned October night portends. I know what the shoreline with only a few red knots to untangle from the mixed flock of shorebirds portends. Grounded. Wings clipped. Skies emptied. I can feel the heaviness of them draining, can feel what Daedalus must have felt as he watched his son. That the fall was inevitable. The plunge predictable. And that it was avoidable. Fly, but respect the limits of your being.

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Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.

A native of Edgefield, South Carolina, J. Drew Lanham is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, which received the Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Southern Book Prize, and was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal. He is a birder, naturalist, and hunter-conservationist who has published essays and poetry in publications including OrionAudubonFlycatcher, and Wilderness, and in several anthologies, including The Colors of NatureState of the HeartBartram’s Living Legacy, and Carolina Writers at Home. An Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University, he and his family live in the Upstate of South Carolina, a soaring hawk’s downhill glide from the southern Appalachian escarpment that the Cherokee once called the Blue Wall.