Skip to content

Polarized views of nature mirror our politics

August 29, 2014

We recently posted an article about our on-going debate with the Audubon Society regarding its misguided support for the projects that are destroying the urban forest in the San Francisco Bay Area.  That article provided a few examples of our widely divergent views of nature:

  • We don’t see how birds will benefit from the destruction of tens of thousands of trees and countless plants that provide food and cover for birds and animals.
  • We don’t enjoy walking in nature with a judgmental eye, which points fingers at plants and animals that others claim “don’t belong there.” We are unwilling to divide nature into “good” and “bad” categories.
  • We don’t think humans have the right to pass a death sentence on wild animals because they prefer another animal, which they claim will benefit from the death of a potential competitor.
  • We don’t consider a “managed” forest a “more natural forest.” We don’t think humans are capable of improving what nature can accomplish without our interference.  We don’t think a public park that is routinely sprayed with herbicides can be accurately described as a “natural area.”
English sparrow.  US Fish & Wildlife photo

English sparrow. US Fish & Wildlife photo

However, these widely divergent viewpoints about nature are not inconsistent with the extremes of our polarized politics in America.  Just as we don’t expect to change the minds of those at the opposite end of the political spectrum, we don’t expect to change the minds of those who view nature through the darkly colored lens of nativism.  Just as elections for public office are decided by the independents in the middle of the political spectrum, the debate about the future of our public lands will be decided by those who have not yet formed an opinion about what is best for nature.  Today’s post is addressed to them.  We will tell the “independents” about two recent op-eds published by The New York Times which represent the two extreme viewpoints about nature.  Both op-eds use sparrows as representatives of the natural world, which we hope will make the differences in these viewpoints starker and therefore clearer.

First a word about how important the “independents” are to the debate about the ecological “restorations” which are dictated by invasion biology.  Political independents are usually not more than a third of the electorate.  But, a survey conducted by University of Florida suggests the majority of the public are still open to learning more about “invasive species.”  They report that 62% of Floridians they surveyed said they are not knowledgeable or only slightly knowledgeable about invasive species.  Ironically, the same survey claimed that “a majority voiced support for raising sales tax to combat invasive species.”  One wonders why voters who acknowledge that they know nothing or next to nothing about invasive species would be willing to tax themselves to combat something they don’t understand.  In any case, if Floridians are typical, the majority of the public needs to know more about invasion biology.  We hope they have access to balanced information that is not written by those who make their living killing animals and poisoning our public lands.  Million Trees was created over four years ago for that purpose.

“The Truth About Sparrows”

Some time ago, we told the story of how sparrows were brought to America in the 1850s by people who believed they would eat the insects that were killing trees.  We concluded that article by saying that 150 years later house sparrows are no longer despised as alien intruders.  We were wrong.

In May 2014, the New York Times published an op-ed entitled “The Truth About Sparrows.”  The op-ed was written by Peyton Marshall, whose mother was an exterminator of house sparrows.  This was no idle pastime for Ms. Marshall’s mother.  It was her mission.

Eastern bluebird, public domain

Eastern bluebird, public domain

Mom’s crusade against house sparrows began when Ms. Marshall was a child.  Mom loved bluebirds at a time when their population was dwindling in the east where they lived.  Mom decided that house sparrows were to blame and so she took it upon herself to kill every house sparrow that had the misfortune of entering her yard or within reach of it.

Mom began by trapping the house sparrows.  “Good” birds caught in the traps were freed, but the house sparrows were put into plastic garbage bags and asphyxiated.  Mom started the family car in the garage and wrapped the open end of the garbage bag around the tailpipe.  When the birds did not die, she consulted her husband who informed her that the car was a diesel and would not produce enough carbon monoxide to kill the birds.

So, mom took her operation on the road.  She helped elderly ladies with their groceries in the parking lot in exchange for a shot at their tailpipe.  When dropping off her children for play dates and birthday parties, she asked their parents if she could make brief use of their cars to kill birds.  Polite parents watched in horror as they became accessories to this execution.

Ms. Marshall concludes her story by noting that the population of bluebirds has rebounded since she was a child.  But mom continues to trap house sparrows in her yard and now uses a less public means of killing them:  “Now, she uses a carving knife and cutting board, at her leisure, in the privacy of her own kitchen.”

Although Ms. Marshall doesn’t say so, we doubt that the recovery of the bluebird population has much to do with the extermination of house sparrows in her mother’s backyard.  The recovery of the bluebird population is attributed to building nest boxes that substitute for the dead trees which are their preferred nest sites.  There are few dead trees in urban and suburban areas because people consider them hazardous and unsightly.  Once again, animals pay the price for the choices of humans.

“What the Sparrows Told Me”

The New York Times published “What the Sparrows Told Me” in August 2014.  It is a fitting antidote to the grisly tale of the sparrow exterminator.

Trish O’Kane, the author, was a human rights investigative journalist in Central America for 10 years before moving to New Orleans to teach journalism.  Less than a month after arriving in New Orleans, she and her family were displaced by hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Four months after the hurricane, she rented a room in a dry part of town so that she could return to her teaching job.  It was a hard time for everyone in New Orleans, but her gloom was deepened by learning of her father’s terminal cancer which would kill him in a matter of months.

Ms. O’Kane had never had an interest in birds before, but she knew she needed “to focus on something beautiful, something positive, something alive,” and so she did:

“I bought two bird feeders.  Each morning I sat on that back stoop and watched those sparrows.  Instead of wondering what was going to happen to the city, to the Gulf Coast, to the planet, I started wondering why one sparrow was hogging all the seed.  I started thinking about their resilience, their pluck, their focus on immediate needs.  If they couldn’t find food, they went somewhere else.  If they lost a nest, they built another.  They had no time or energy for grief.  They clung to the fence in raggedy lines heckling one another like drunken revelers on Bourbon Street.  Their sparring made me laugh.“

Audubon Park, New Orleans.  Public domain

Audubon Park, New Orleans. Public domain

Ms. O’Kane started holding her classes in Audubon Park, named for John James Audubon.  Her students began to find the same solace in watching the birds going about their business, finding a way to survive, carrying on.  And that gave her and her students the strength and the will to do the same at a time when life was hard in New Orleans.

Ms. O’Kane is now a doctoral student in environmental studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison.  She has found a way to connect her interest in human rights with her new found interest in birds.  She teaches an undergraduate course in environmental justice in which she pairs undergraduate students with middle school students in a mentoring program called Nature Explorers.  Many of the middle school children are immigrants from Central America.  She finds that they enjoy learning about the birds that migrate between Central America and Wisconsin, just as their families did.  The birds, like the people of America, are citizens of the world.

Ms. O’Kane tells us that many of her undergraduate students are frightened of the future of our planet.  She likes to start each new class with the story of the sparrows in New Orleans:  “I tell them that the birds are a gift to help them get through each day, a way to enjoy the world while we change it so that young people, everywhere, have a chance.”

Whose eyes do you choose to look through?

It’s no secret that our viewpoint regarding nature is more closely aligned with Ms. O’Kane’s.  If you haven’t yet taken a stand on the issue of what plants and animals are welcome in your ideal nature, think for a moment.  Which of these starkly different viewpoints do you prefer?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Drechsler permalink
    August 29, 2014 1:31 pm

    Like the European Starling and Rock Pigeon, the House Sparrow is legally considered “non-native” and thus disposable: Not merely disposable, but “torturable” as well.

    In the Bay Area the House Sparrow is caged and then used by the “Golden Gate Raptor Observatory” as live bait to lure raptors in their capture and tagging operation.

  2. Dee Seligman permalink
    August 29, 2014 3:17 pm

    As someone who would have been considered “disposable” during WWII, I think we need to reconsider our judgmental approach to all species, which I believe have a right to exist, without human management other than, perhaps, where sound and reasonable agricultural practices are at risk. Your piece provides a shocking contrast in different approaches to ordinary sparrows that serves as a correlate to a much larger issue.

  3. September 4, 2014 8:53 pm

    Thank you for yet another wonderful article. I’m sharing.

    There is so much hypocrisy in the nativist movement, with most exempting their own “non-native” plant or animals. And how many regularly buy non-native fruits and vegetables grown in California, because really, all that people eat here is not native. How can they justify that double standard? I don’t care if they do, if they just stop killing my plant and animal friends.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: