Roxana Robinson

A mockingbird's cry of desperation

By Roxana Robinson
March 5, 2009
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I LIVE on an ordinary city block: concrete and pavement, urban and austere. Behind our apartment building there's a meager garden space, hollowed out among the tall surrounding structures. The garden is always in shadow, like the bottom of a well. Right now it's bleak and wintry.

For some reason, a mockingbird is in residence.

Mockers are large, gray, handsome birds, with flashy white markings. Cheerful and noisy, they like to sit in trees and carry on a kind of musical invasion. They sing other birds' songs, in long virtuoso performances. "I'm the cardinal," announces the mocker, "I'm the white-throated sparrow." Mockingbirds, if you would believe them, are the entire avian community.

Mockers don't migrate, so there's nothing odd about this one being in the Northeast in midwinter. But they're country birds. They like open, brushy landscapes, and they don't usually sing so early in the year. It's strange that this one is here in this dark, little urban space, and that he's been singing since the beginning of January. And he sounds awful. Late at night he repeats other birds' songs, over and over, but there's something wrong. His voice is ragged and hoarse. He sounds desperate, not jaunty. He's shrieking, not singing.

It's painful to hear him. Of course, one mockingbird, croaking miserably on a city block, isn't proof of what's wrong in the natural world, but I can't help wondering. I can't help feeling that the natural world is so badly damaged, the repercussions so widespread, that a desperate bird in my backyard might reflect exactly where the rest of us stand. At 4 in the morning I hear his raucous cries: Desperation is a note anyone can sing, and it's one anyone can recognize. If this is the song of the avian community, it's in trouble.

The problem isn't necessarily the result of human behavior, though it might be. Because of our bad habits, one-quarter of all mammals are threatened with extinction. Habitat destruction, climate change, and pollution: By 2050 we may lose a third of all animal and vegetable species. The rate of species extinction is around 1,000 times the natural level. Our creatures are dying.

The Bush administration deserves credit in this regard: For eight years it wreaked havoc on the natural world. When the president's own report declared that global warming was occurring, that it was caused by human activity, Bush dismissed the findings and produced an energy policy that encouraged the production of greenhouse gases. Last December Bush proposed regulations that would cripple the Endangered Species Act.

Today, there is no argument within the objective scientific community over the fact of global warming. The few voices of dissent have direct financial ties to the oil and gas industry, which has a compelling reason to sow doubt. ExxonMobil's annual revenues (over $300 billion) exceed the gross domestic product of most countries. This may invigorate our economy, but it comes at grievous cost to the rest of us. We are losing species, we are losing clean air and water, and we are putting private profits ahead of public health. The choice that the Bush administration made is one that will echo far into the future.

It's excruciating to hear the mocker's songs and do nothing. I'd like to tell him that he's not alone, that we're all in this -- polar bears, timber wolves, emperor penguins, the human race. The oceans, the plains, the skies. I'd like to tell him that we're all endangered, all trapped in a place badly stripped of natural systems. That we're all waiting for spring, but that the worst of the winter is over. I'd like to tell him about change: Obama yesterday ordered a review of those regulations; our new president sees the natural world as our habitat, a place to be cherished, not plundered.

That's what I'd like to tell the mocker. Each night, I hear his hoarse cries and wonder if it's the last time. I don't know how long he'll last, in this dark, wintry place, but I hope he'll hang on. And I hope we're all listening.

Roxana Robinson is an author, most recently of the novel "Cost."

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