|In his book Extinction: Evolution & The End of Man, palaeontologist Michael Boulter reviews past cycles of evolution and extinction on Earth, and sudden cataclysmic extinctions (caused by meteorites or massive volcanic eruptions). He predicts with scientific detachment the probability that the next great extinction has already begun, and that man is very unlikely to survive it. We are simply not endowed with the right attributes and physical adaptability. The next flourishing of life on Earth, says Boulter, will be dominated by creatures of the air — the birds and insects. It was by taking to the air and evolving into birds, after all, that the dinosaurs survived the last great extinction. AprËs nous les dragons.
This winter I’ve taken up a new hobby, birdwatching, and as with all my new hobbies I start with a flurry of research. The incredible sophistication of the design of birds — aerodynamically, thermodynamically, and socially — is endlessly fascinating to me. Birds have a body temperature of about 108F, although some birds like chickadees are able to lower their body temperature by up to 20F at night in winter, a process called shallow hibernation that helps reduce body heat loss. Unless injured, birds rarely freeze to death, even in -50F temperatures. Their feathers have extraordinary thermal qualities, and can be fluffed out to increase these qualities further. Their usually easy and carefree ‘work’ schedule stretches out to an exceptional four hours per day in very cold weather, as they bulk up on fats and proteins, which they work off at night by shivering, generating enough extra heat energy to sustain their body temperature. There’s no indication that this shivering is uncomfortable to them as it is to us (perhaps it’s more akin to the way we shiver in the throes of passion). They don’t go to particularly great pains to find the warmest possible shelter on cold nights, preferring, like human homeless people, the closest unoccupied place out of the wind over much warmer, more crowded, places further afield. Their evolved body chemistry also allows them to fly at heights with thin oxygen despite their rapid respiration rate — they have auxiliary air sacs beside their lungs, that also allow diving birds to stay underwater for 15 minutes at a time. And their metabolism allows them to fly thousands of miles, for three days at a time, without stopping or landing, during migrations that can take them from one end of the earth to the other, at speeds up to 100MPH.
I especially like watching the chickadees and sparrows, which scientists believe are, in this part of the world anyway, the only species that are somewhat dependent on the welfare of bird lovers for sufficient food during the winter. The chickadees announce my arrival at the bird feeder with a unique and elongated trill, repeated among the group that hang around the massive old evergreens beside our house. At first I thought this was a warning — human in area message, but they’ve become so tame in my presence now that I know this message is seed guy’s here — lunch is on. They soar from the evergreens to the sunflower seed feeder with three graceful and elegant dips, making perfect stops on the small plastic rods below the feeder openings, grab a seed and take off, the next one arriving just as it leaves. The sparrows tend to arrive later, and are more sociable, dining at the mixed seed feeder a dozen at a time. Just before sundown they’re at their most voracious, bulking up to fend off the coming night’s cold. To the shyer juncos, cardinals, finches, nuthatches, creepers and wrens, this seed is less critical fare, and like the occasional jays and crows, chipmunks and squirrels, they’re content to eat the seed that’s been blown, kicked or dropped from the feeder by the chickadees and sparrows.
The most remarkable thing about birds, of course, is their aerodynamics. Birds have between 1000 (hummingbirds, whose aerodynamics would need a completely separate article) and 25,000 feathers (swans), of at least six different types. These feathers, which evolved fairly rapidly and dramatically from reptilian scales, are almost pure protein, almost weightless, and staggeringly complex and intricate in their construction and variety. The dominant contour feathers themselves come in multiple varieties. They’re used for flight, and include the very different wing and tail flight feathers, plus some feathers that biologists think are for protection, body aerodynamic shaping, and colour. The colours of birds, by the way, are a reflection of what the birds eat — the pigment comes from their food — and hence a message to migrating birds of what foods are locally available. But the colour of birds is even more complex than that: Part of the colour of birds is due to microstructure of the feathers themselves, and is a result of refraction of light rather than pigment on parts of the body that can’t aerodynamically sustain the weight of pigment (most birds’ thousands of feathers are so light they would not, all together, register on the most sensitive household scales).
The down feathers are for insulation, of course, and of completely different construction from the contour feathers. The other four types of feathers — semi-plume, filoplume, bristle and powder — are utterly different again. No one really knows what they’re for, though educated guesses include environmental sensing, protection, cleaning, and sound muffling (in the presence of insect prey). The feathers can be manipulated in all directions in an almost unlimited number of sophisticated ways. The elegant pinpoint stops on the feeder rods are made possible by a simultaneous angling of the wings, a manipulation of the wing tips, and a turning down and fluffing out of the tail feathers to increase drag. No human technology has even come close to the precision and intricacy of these manoeuvres. Like our fingernails, the closest human evolutionary cousins of feathers, birds’ feathers grow from a root to full growth, and then the cells that permitted the growth, their work done, die. Every feather is replaced by a new one on average every nine months. The musculature of birds is focused in the wings. Fused, incredibly strong bones replace muscles in other places to minimize weight. Birds have three eyelids to protect their vital eyesight, which is up to eight times more acute than ours, much better able to distinguish colours and detect movement. Birds can see with startling, crystal clarity things we see only as a blur.
When you study nature in this way, without judgement or condescension, a way that has only been done in our culture for a few generations, it changes your whole worldview. When I was young, growing up in a prairie Canadian city, I was fascinated and terrified by nature. My favourite animals were wolverines — I learned stories about how they would attack much larger animals. The sheer otherness of nature, its difference from the world ‘people’ lived in, was the stuff of boys’ dreams. I could be Davy Crockett, staring down bears and wearing ‘coonskin caps. If I could overcome my aversion to beetles and spiders and snakes, I could learn wilderness ‘survival’ skills, how to stay alive despite overwhelming hardship, deprivation, scarcity, cruelty.
Where do we get this crap? How do we get this strange, warped sense of what the world is like beyond the fragile, flimsy, artificial walls of ‘civilization’? Why do we so misunderstand, romanticize, fear — nature?
Today, I’m fortunate enough to live adjacent to wilderness. Half of our four-acre property is pond and swamp and forest and cannot be touched, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Right behind us is a six hundred acre tract of wilderness. I’ve wandered into the forest and seen magnificent grey wolves no more than 20 feet away. I’ve seen foxes and coyotes and stags flee at my approach. I’ve been stared down by a 100-pound, three foot long beaver. Snakes and strange, primeval insects share the patio as I sip my morning tea. Even before I studied the birds, I knew they didn’t live their lives in misery, constant terror, near-starvation. My childhood pity for the birds huddled against the cold has long ago given way to a sense of awe and envy.
I did some research to try to understand the prevalence of the myths that make us so misunderstand and even, if we were to be honest with ourselves, fear nature. There seem to be three theories, all of which relate to our tendency to fear what we do not know and understand:
The physical theory, espoused by anthropologists and environmentalists, is that we fear nature because we’ve been physically separated from it for so long that we’ve become ignorant of its beauty and grace and peacefulness, and prone to believe the sensationalist nonsense of nature being cruel and savage. The moral/psychological theory. espoused by students of religion and philosophy, is that the salvationist, acquisitive culture, the culture that has become ubiquitous on Earth since the invention of agriculture, urbanization and the spread of western religions, teaches us relentlessly that we are morally and spiritually separate from ‘the rest of nature’, and that our relationship with nature is adversarial and competitive, and as a result we have become psychologically separate from, and hence unable to understand, what nature is really like. The third, scientific/intellectual theory, is that our brain’s evolved size, complexity and capacity for abstraction has so expanded our imaginations that, with the lack of direct empirical contact with nature, we imagine nature as huge and ominous and mystical and terrifying and full of danger.
As I was putting together the chart of the three theories above, I began to realize that they’re interrelated and inseparable and they reinforce each other, and it’s the insidious combination of our physical ignorance of nature (for most of us anyway), the relentless psychological indoctrination we receive about nature, and our vivid imagination about things that we don’t understand, that together produce the total fiction of nature as dangerous, difficult, tragic and fearsome. The problem is that the underlying causes that have led to these fictions — overpopulation and environmental stress, our acquisitive/salvationist culture, and the evolution of our brain and imagination — are themselves connected and self-reinforcing. So the only way we’re going to be able to achieve a reconciliation, a re-connection, between man and nature, on any kind of universal scale, is to deal with all three causes at once.
I think the way to do that, aside from having to do a lot of education in a very short period of time, is to stop moralizing and rationalizing about nature (in either adversarial and ‘noble savage’ romantic ways) and start to think about nature in A Third Way. Religion and philosophy are rooted in, and hopelessly tainted by, our cultural anthropocentrism. To try to understand nature from the perspective of anthropocentric morality is as futile as trying to understand the motion of the stars using ancient Earth-centric Aristotelian astronomy. To try to describe nature from the perspective of anthropocentric rationality is like trying to teach someone your language when you have no shared vocabulary or grammar to build on.
The Third Way is to understand nature instinctively, intuitively. Trusting your instincts makes things that are inconceivable morally or rationally, as easy for humans to conceive of, and understand, as they are to birds. Scientists have been trying rationally, scientifically, to understand how birds fly, and the staggering complexity of birds’ aerodynamic apparatus since Da Vinci, and have hardly made a scratch in that understanding. Meanwhile, instinctively, birds know what they have to do to fly. It is, to them, staggeringly simple, obvious. The instinct is hard wired in them. Moralists and philosophers have been trying to construct codes of conduct and behaviour to explain and modify human behaviour since before the invention of language, and still every century we kill and damage each other in greater degrees and greater numbers, behave in successively more barbaric and less ‘civilized’ ways. Meanwhile all the other life species on Earth, who have neither capacity nor need for moral codes, conduct themselves in amazingly collaborative and synergistic ways that optimize the quality and quality of life of every creature on the planet — save perhaps man. The instinct to do so, to know what to do and how to do it, is part of them. They don’t have to learn it. There is nothing romantic or mystical about this. It is just listening to the simple, inherent language of evolution.
This same instinct is hard wired in us. It was for three million years, long before we developed moral codes and rational skills. We’ve simply forgotten how to listen to these instincts, how to trust them. But despite the efforts of moralists and scientists to sublimate our instincts for 30,000 years, to replace them with something uniquely human, it’s very hard to bury three million years of knowledge coded in our DNA. Just learn enough to set aside the fear-mongering crap the moralists want you to believe, and enough to suspend your stupefying belief in our technology’s superiority over the elegant natural science of a hummingbird’s wing, and take a walk away from the trappings of civilization, the universe of human myth. Walk in a place relatively untouched by man’s heavy hand and just listen. You’ll remember your instincts as soon as your head clears.
If you were to ask me if, at age 52, I would be willing to give up the rest of my life for the chance to experience five years as a songbird (an average lifespan for such birds — though crows and geese live 15-20 years and parrots 80 or more), to give up the security and intelligence and property I have accumulated and live free of the demands of human life, spending an hour or four each day finding food, and the rest of the day simply living, just being alive as part of this wonderful, magical world, to be completely free of any demands or restrictions, to be able to fly, I would say: In a heartbeat.
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What I Wanted to Believe
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