Why I Write

By:  Richard Telford

Rich- LI Sound 1973

The author as a budding naturalist, Long Island Sound, 1973

 

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

Atticus Finch to his son, Jem, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

Few literary models of courage are more affecting than Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s protagonist attorney tasked with defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman, in segregated Maycomb, Alabama in 1934.  Atticus knows, of course, that he has lost the case before it has begun, but on principle, and to instill a sense of fairness and justice in his own children, he accepts the case.  On its face, he loses the case, but there are small signs, hopeful signs, that he has effected the beginnings of profound change.  That change will be long in coming, but it must, Atticus knows, begin somewhere.

The racial divisions of segregated America in 1934 offer an apt point of comparison for the current polarization of views on the present environmental crisis.  It goes far beyond the acceptance or non-acceptance of climate change.  It is evident in the burgeoning floor plans of American houses, in the disposable mantra of American consumerism, in the power of large corporations to purchase governmental influence through highly paid lobbyists, in the invocation of terms like “tree hugger” and “liberal” as pejoratives, in the widespread ignorance of or indifference to the crisis’s scope, and in the accelerated and catastrophic loss of biodiversity worldwide that has led Richard Leakey, Richard Lewin, Niles Eldredge, Elizabeth Kolbert, and others to argue that we are, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetrating the sixth extinction.

Just today, in our local paper, a letter writer declared climate change a “political hoax,” admonishing a previous week’s writer who thought otherwise, “Take your head out of the plastic bag it must be in and start breathing…it will do your brain cells a world of good.”  Such ignorance wears me down, but I think too on the fact that in 2014 Tom Robinson’s case would result in acquittal, if it even went to trial, and I am reminded of the human capacity to change for the better, often in spite of ourselves.  Like Atticus Finch, I take courage from the belief that such change is not completely out of reach.

In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell describes how the advent of the 1936 Spanish Civil War gave to his writing and to his life a purpose that had been previously absent.  He writes, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.  It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”  It likewise seems nonsense to me that any serious writer of prose in 2014 can ignore the profound and irreversible changes we are imposing on the world’s natural systems; nor can we ignore our growing emotional and intellectual disconnection from those systems.

Just as the direction of Orwell’s writing changed irrevocably in 1936, I find myself unable, these days, to disconnect my writing from the ecological crisis that surrounds me.  How aptly that crisis is reflected in the materialism and waste of our age, in the largely vacuous social media blitz in which we envelop and lose ourselves. Whereas Orwell wrote in the face of Franco and Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini, potential destroyers of all previously known social, political, and moral order, we find ourselves writing in the face of ourselves, a global citizenry that, often without malice or even awareness, directly threatens the Earth’s natural order as it has previously existed for millennia.  We must inevitably write against an enemy who is, in fact, ourselves.

For Christmas in 1975, when I was six years old, my father gave me a copy of Jo Polseno’s 1973 book Secrets of Redding Glen: The Natural History of a Wooded Valley, which, though a children’s book, is extraordinarily rich with insight.  On the flyleaf my father wrote a short inscription: “A guide for our naturalist.”  Polseno’s story of “a glen where the wild geese fly and the salamanders live” fired my curiosity.  His rich prose and Audubon-styled paintings placed me as an observer at the center of a complex, beautiful landscape; it was a role I innately understood, as is evident in the inscription my father wrote.  As Rachel Carson famously noted, how easily a sense of wonder takes hold of the child’s mind, and how easily we willingly forego it in adulthood.  At the age of forty-two, when I contemplated a return to graduate school to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies, I once again thumbed through Polseno’s book, both for its substance that had moved me so much as a child, and for the inscription in it that expressed such foresight.

In “Why I Write,” George Orwell articulates four “great motives” for writing prose: 1) Sheer egoism, 2) Esthetic impulse, 3) Historical impulse, and 4) Political purpose.  Despite his own profound sense of political purpose in writing, Orwell cautions the reader not to incorrectly conclude that his “motives in writing were wholly public-spirited.”  All writers, he notes, are vain; however, when the writer “struggles to efface one’s personality” from the work, he argues, writing of real value can emerge. It is this kind of writing to which I aspire.  As Orwell did in 1946, I offer my own four motives for writing:

1)      Of necessity: I am unable to stand by and watch the systematic, unchecked loss of the world’s biodiversity.  Though at times I feel paralyzed by the enormity of the effort required to help arrest the trajectory of the sixth extinction, I cannot give up hope.  This is as much a selfish attitude as it is an altruistic one, as I do not care to live in a world resigned to its own doom.

2)      For aesthetic reward:  The act of writing allows me a heightened, sharper view of the world.  It forces more intense observation, a slowing down of time that otherwise rushes past.  Writing strains me to find and fashion language that may, if I am persistent, capture at least an iota of the natural beauty that surrounds me.  Even if I cannot capture it for others, I can see it myself.  Here again is the duality of motive so central to Orwell’s argument.

3)      For posterity:  I am convinced that only through the collective small acts of a caring minority can we arrest the present environmental crisis. Meaningful writing is persuasive, and it is needed to convince at least a portion of the unknowing or indifferent citizenry that anthropogenic climate change is no hoax.  Such writing, at its best, can awaken or reawaken curiosity, can provoke empathy, and can inspire advocacy for the natural world.

4)      For my children:  Gazing at a group of turkey vultures circling in dihedral flight, or a magnificent specimen poplar, or a dew-soaked orb-weaver web stretched between saplings and lit by early morning light, I cannot help but want for my children to be able to see these things too, both with me in the present and long after I have returned to the earth.  Here, I suppose, my motives are once again dual in nature, selfish in that they are framed around my determination  to give to my children a biodiverse and sustainable world, and unselfish in that I would wish these things for all children, and for all people generally.

Alan Paton, in his deeply moving 1948 novel of South Africa, Cry, The Beloved Country, argues that moral conviction is the only foundation upon which we can build a purposeful life and meaningfully address the world’s most grave crises, of which our present environmental crisis is a stark example.  At one point, Paton writes in the voice of Arthur Jarvis, a young, white South African man who cannot morally accept the segregationist polices that would officially become Apartheid shortly after Paton published his novel.  Paton writes, “I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only what is right.  I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.”  The belief that the preservation of biodiversity must trump our individual wants is just such a star, and I anchor myself to the conviction that writing with purpose is one way in which that star can be followed.

Naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, in the final pages of his 1978 book A Walk Through the Year—the last book he would publish in his lifetime—wondered “if the time will ever come when such a book as this will seem like a letter from another world.”  At present, it is hard to ignore the feeling that we are hurtling toward just such a time, but we can mitigate that feeling through deliberate, collective action, through the written word and otherwise.  Such action may not be expedient, but it is right.  In an age of such ecological uncertainty, what other compass can we follow?

In Defense of Vultures

Turkey Vulture Sketch

A sketch from my field journal of a car-struck turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), July 17, 2012.

By Richard Telford

Author’s Note: This is the first in what I anticipate being a long series of posts on the natural history and conservation of vultures. While these posts will likely not follow a rigid order, I hope to eventually meld them into a longer, more substantive work titled In Defense of Vultures.

Epilogue

A light, easterly breeze bent the slender stalks of Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod that had emerged in early summer from the patchwork quilt of little barley and fescue, overtaking red clover and thistle long past their blooming. Just as the breeze undulated the complex fabric of disturbance obligate plants, so too did life itself undulate there, in short, complex cycles in which plant overtook plant, each bringing an equally complex host of pollinators, predators, migrants, and breeders, all quickly mortal in the short-lived life-burst of the summer pasture.

Such were the observations I recorded on July 22, 2012 as I sat on Lois Cole’s small memorial bench nestled among the trees in Monument Pasture in the Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut. By 1:30 the temperature had reached 80 degrees, and I sat adding species to a master site list while the raucous pasture music in all its forms reached its daily crescendo. Ten minutes later, a shadow at the periphery of my downward gaze drew it upward, first to the brightly lit mass of an old eastern white pine at the pasture’s southeast edge, then across the pasture itself, finally up to the azure sky marked by a scattering of cumulus clouds.

Perhaps thirty feet above, the penumbral form of a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) drifted in its rocking, dihedral flight, circling the pasture several times before disappearing beyond the tree line. This dihedral flight, in which vultures utilize thermal columns and expend little energy, allows them to outcompete facultative vertebrate scavengers. This evolutionary adaptation is critical for vultures, the only known terrestrial vertebrate obligate scavengers, and thus vultures serve a concomitantly unique systemic role. Vultures increase the energy cycling of natural systems, moving energy stored in carrion quickly through the trophic levels. They likewise serve a critical sanitation function. Despite historic, cultural maligning of vultures as filthy scavengers that spread disease, they in fact check the spread of carrion-based diseases, aided by a number of evolutionary adaptations.  These include exceptionally caustic stomach acid that can break down bacterially toxic carrion, featherless heads that resist the crusting of putrid flesh while feeding, and, in the case of the turkey vulture, acutely sensitive olfaction that will prompt rejection of the most toxic remains.

These and many other adaptations, some of which will be examined in subsequent posts, confer a unique ecological role upon the turkey vulture in particular and on the other 21 extant vulture species worldwide more broadly. Such niche roles necessarily create a duality for the species that fill them; while these species are especially critical to systemic function, they are also highly prone to extinction when the systems they occupy are disrupted. Such vulnerability is illustrated by precipitous population declines in the Gyps genus group in Asia and Africa, due principally to poisoning from livestock carcasses containing diclofenac, a commonly prescribed veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug which causes rapid renal failure in exposed Gyps vultures. The Oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), for example, has suffered a staggering 99.9% population decline in India. These potentially catastrophic vulture losses will be examined more closely in a later post.

I focused little on the natural history or conservation of vultures on that warm July day. Instead, in my journal I noted the “low, lumbering flight, riding along warm air currents, still-winged and seemingly motionless.” The vulture was, I felt (and still feel), “an apt metaphor” for life, showing us the importance of “embracing life’s currents; changing direction by slow, deliberate degrees; conforming to the world’s parameters rather than trying to force the world to conform to our desired ones.” I concluded my observations by writing one simple word loaded with complex implications: “Magnificent.” Here was an illustration of the way in which scientific observation and emotional response cannot be fully separated, despite traditional calls for objectivity. In observing natural systems, how can we help but see ourselves, even if only through stark contrasts of what we may have been millennia ago, are at present, and may be in the future? Without such connections, how can we avert what Richard Leakey, Roger Lewin, Niles Eldredge, and others have termed the sixth extinction?

Five days after my initial turkey vulture observation at Monument Pasture, a shadow at the periphery of my gaze once again drew my attention. Driving home on state route 97, having finished a long morning of observations at Monument Pasture, a dark shape in the summer weeds at the road edge drew my gaze. A large wing rose up as I passed, and I could see the distinct, articulated wingtip feathers of a turkey vulture, likely car-struck. I pulled my car to the shoulder and walked heavy-heartedly back towards the vulture, its wings periodically unfurling, cutting the hot, dry air with the sound of delicate paper crumpling. I was distressed by the obvious suffering of an animal that, five days earlier, had evoked in me the deepest awe. I wondered if this could be the very animal that, days earlier, had silently circled Monument Pasture.

Reaching the vulture, I realized it was already dead; its bluish eyelid was drawn tight, a small heart-shaped pool of blood darkened the ground near its beak, its frame neither expanded nor contracted with breath. The light, broad wings that in life had allowed its effortless soaring now caught even the slightest breeze, drawing the splayed bird upward by inches only to drop it again like a downed kite. I quickly rough-sketched the vulture in its entirety, first feeling grief, then wonder, then gratitude. Realizing the gift of observation that this vulture had unwittingly given me through its death, I knelt beside it for another ninety minutes, painstakingly sketching its head, seeing the beauty of its graceful flight mirrored in the complex beauty of its functional adaptations. Gazing at this young vulture’s hooked, tearing beak, its bald head that would resist the caking of putrid flesh as feathers could not, its large, open nostril through which the ground beneath it was visible, it was clear to me why Thoreau, 158 years earlier in Walden, had written, “We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast.” If we wish to avert the sixth extinction, perhaps the beauty of function must be invoked to foster conservation-mindedness as readily as the beauty of form.