The Birds of September 11 by Brandon

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On my way to Ground Zero on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I stopped for a slice a pizza and to clear my head. The previous week had been a somber one; every anniversary recalls the past, but some make you reflect on what's happened since, and a cloud hung over the intervening years. The nation felt like a different, far darker place than before that fateful morning.

Of course, it's easy to mythologize the past. Even the weather of 9/11, an archetypally perfect fall morning, takes on metaphorical overtones: a time of innocence and bounty, golden and pure, as yet untouched by shadow. Through the lens of memory, the United States was running a surplus, the economy was strong, things were good.

Of course they were not. A year before, the dot-com bubble burst, and with it the fantasy of economic security in an information age. A few months earlier, the Enron scandal surfaced -- a Byzantine mix of accounting fraud, rigged markets, political corruption, ill-conceived deregulation, greed and meanness and outright theft -- perpetrated by people who preached the virtues of free markets, and loaned the President their corporate jet.

Enron, we learned in years to come, wasn't an exception. It was a business model for big capitalism in the early 21st century. The same basic blueprint could be read in the financial meltdown of 2008, when investment bankers -- who rewrote laws that once restrained them, pushed high-interest mortgages at the peak of a real estate bubble, bet trillions of dollars that mortgages would be paid even when they obviously wouldn't, then tried to hide these facts -- crippled the economies of North America and western Europe, and very nearly took down the world.

The consequences were quite different for poor and middle-class people than for hedge fund managers and investment bankers. Within a few years, as unemployment soared and cities went bankrupt, the people most responsible for the crisis were even wealthier than before. And between Enron's stock plunge and Lehman's bankruptcy we'd had two disastrous wars, state-sanctioned torture and surveillance, the body politic's split into alternate partisan universes. Pervading it all was a sense of inescapability. Around and around we went, a society spiraling downward and unable to change course.

I jotted down my thoughts, finished eating and walked to Ground Zero. There I said a prayer for the departed -- I don't believe in God, but sometimes one just prays -- and continued to my evening's destination, the Tribute in Lights, which is projected above lower Manhattan each 9/11 night. You've probably seen the tribute, or pictures of it, twin electric blue beams that disappear in the heavens and can be seen from sixty miles away. It is beautiful and utterly haunting and simply immense. For one night, it turns the rest New York's fabled skyline into a row of votive candles.

The year before, I'd seen the tribute from Governor's Island, just below Manhattan in New York Bay. I'd gone there for a concert, and during the opening act people drifted to the shoreline, where they looked at the tribute in wonder and confusion. There was something unusual about the beams: Sparkling white points of light spiraled slowly inside them, hundreds if not thousands, almost like confetti, but confetti wouldn't have been visible from that distance. It also wouldn't have risen. A few people said the lights made them think of souls.

The next day I learned from a friend that the lights had been birds. New York City sits directly in the Atlantic Flyway, the easternmost of North America's four great migration routes. Each fall, millions of birds fly down the Atlantic coast, a stream of energy and life stretching from Greenland in the summer to Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America, in winter. Along the way the birds funnel down the Hudson River valley, passing mostly unnoticed above the city that never sleeps.

Scientists aren't precisely sure how birds navigate their miraculous passsage, but the general mechanisms are understood. They sense Earth's geomagnetic field, which provides a frame of reference calibrated by the light of stars, sun and moon. Under certain conditions, however, such as moonless, overcast nights when the brightest lights are man-made, these biological compasses spin awry. Birds fly in circles until dropping from exhaustion onto sidewalks or stoops, or escape so drained as to die later in their journey.

September 11, 2010 had been one such night. The waxing moon was a thin, dim crescent. Clouds covered lower Manhattan. Birds had also gathered for days in wetlands north of the city, grounded by storms that blew against them, but finally the winds shifted to the south. In a tailwind flood the birds were released. The brightest light in the region came from the Tribute in Lights, projected by eighty-eight 7,000-watt xenon searchlights into a dull dark sky.

When I called New York City's chapter of the Audubon society, I learned that more than 10,000 birds -- yellow warblers on their way to Central America, redstarts headed to Mexico, probably tanagers and thrushes and orioles, too -- were pulled in over night's course. Five times Audubon volunteers briefly shuttered the spotlights, giving circling birds a chance to escape.

It seemed a noble thing to do, keeping our memorial to tragically lost life from accidentally taking lives; and so, for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, wanting to honor the day with more than remembrance, I volunteered, arriving just before dusk at the rooftop parking garage where the tribute's spotlights are installed.

Night fell. The sky over New Jersey turned from blue to purple to black. The lights hummed. Audubon volunteers lay on their backs, staring into the beams and trying to count the birds. There weren't many. Previous nights had favored flight, preventing the buildup seen a year earlier. Except for a few wispy clouds, the sky was clear, and the gibbous moon would soon be full. There seemed to be more people than birds: family members still grieving, tourists posing, a British man with a burn-scarred face who'd been installing floors at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and who mourned the Muslim lives lost since.

Only once, when clouds covered the moon a few hours after midnight, did birds enter the beams in significant numbers. The clouds soon blew away. The birds followed. As dawn approached, the beams were empty. Six days later, the first protesters arrived just down the block, at Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street had begun.

From The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. To read more, pick it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play Books or Kobo.

Photo: Dennis Leung

A Spring Chorus by Brandon Keim

Somewhere in my mid-thirties I lost the ability to concentrate for long periods of time while listening to music or the radio. Listening to sounds of nature, though, still puts me in the right frame of mind, and with inspiration from the great soundscape recorder Bernie Krause I've started recording moments for my own listening and working pleasure.

Here's an excerpt from a recent evening beside a small pond along the northern tip of Rock Creek Park. After light rains and a warm day, the amphibian community was ready to party.

On the Meaning of a Winter Butterfly by Brandon Keim

One morning several weeks ago, during a freakish warm snap of mid-winter sunbathing weather, I had coffee in a pocket forest down the street. An orange flutter caught my eye. There, on the leaf litter, radiating in a sunbeam, was this little guy.

A butterfly in February. Such an unexpected and beautiful sight. And I didn’t know what to make of it. Not just in the sense of not recognizing the species, though I didn’t, but also the fact of his appearance during that unseasonable warm spell. I wondered whether he’d been awakened too early, before the flowers that sustained him had bloomed. Maybe he was doomed.

So on the one hand, a beautiful and marvelous little being; on the other, a sign of our climate-changed times, in which nature’s synchronies are scrambled and animals starve and ecologies collapse.

These days a lot of moments have this vibe. What ought to be small moments of pleasure come with an asterisk: is it all just going to fall apart? Is a bluebird or an old oak tree just a last glimpse of a world already contracting, so that on an evolutionary time scale we’re like spectators enjoying the minor aesthetic details of the sixth great extinction?

I pushed those thoughts away and took a photograph of the butterfly. Later I looked him up: an eastern comma, one of the first species to emerge in spring. During a warm spell they might come out, then go back to hibernating when it’s cold again. Instead of flowers they feed on tree sap and rotting fruit. There was plenty of that around.

The butterfly would be just fine.

After the Election: Some Thoughts on Nature by Brandon Keim

As someone who spends a lot of time writing about and thinking about nature, I've found myself considering what place this has in society right now. Does anyone really want to hear about migrating warblers? And even if they do, does it matter?

To this I offer the reflections of George Orwell in his essay "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad." "The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers," wrote Orwell — yet still he delighted in blackbird songs and flights of kestrels, blooming primroses and a toad's chrysoberyl eyes. Amidst the wreckage of postwar England, nature was an affirmation of life.

One might argue: isn't that just escapism? Sure, birds and flowers and rabbits are nice, but aren't there much more important things to think about now?

I feel some of that, too. Tweeting a picture of a bluebird does feel frivolous. And yet — the rest of the living world doesn't cease to be important or beautiful or deserving simply because of our own turmoil. And if political duty demanded we stop noticing lives other than our own, that would be a sad and destructive thing. We'd be much the poorer for it.

Whatever one's political persuasion or life's circumstances, our days are far richer for treasuring that bluebird. Perhaps we might even find in a late-blooming patch of asters some common ground. I've my own politics, at odds with a great many other people; but nature, I hope, transcends all that. It might even help see us through. 

A Good-Bye to Late Fall by Brandon Keim

A Snail's Tale by Brandon

Earlier this week I visited Pelham Bay in the Bronx. On the low tide-strewn beach I gathered several empty snail shells — Neverita duplicata, also known as the shark-eye or Atlantic moon snail — only to learn yesterday, while arranging them in a terrarium, that one was still very much inhabited.

He* had retreated into his shell, stopping up the opening with his foot, and though he'd spent several days in my backpack, out of water and in indoor heat, I hoped he might yet be alive. After all, an intertidal life is already one of extremes. Googling "how long can a snail survive out of water?" also returned at least a couple stories of aquarium snail-owners who'd accidentally dropped their animals on the floor, found them months later, returned them to water and watched them come back to life.

Those were not the same species, or probably even the same genus or family, as my snail. And it's the internet. But still: a flicker of hope. At least I owed him the possibility. So today I set off for my nearest salt water, the East River, which enters the Atlantic not far from my apartment.

I caught a bus on the B44 line, which the city's transit authority split last year into two services: the standard bus, which covers about half the route, and the select bus, which completes it. Supposedly this makes the journey faster and more efficient. In practice, it often means taking the standard bus part-way, then waiting twenty minutes and a half-dozen more standard bus arrivals before the select service arrives.

Which is annoying on a chilly day, but also a reason to strike up a conversation — "... and all this for a snail!" — and so I ended up talking with two fellow passengers. Somewhat unexpectedly, they didn't seem to think my errand crazy. "That's awesome!" said one, a young woman, who advised me to open my snail's Ziploc bag. "He needs to breathe," she said.

The other, an older woman with a distinct Jamaican accent and kindly, I-saved-you-some-dinner demeanor, complimented me on not killing. "I never kill," she said. After all, other animals are simply trying to live their lives, just like her. And it was only fair: how would she like it if the animals she met wanted to kill her?

True, she might step on an ant sometimes, it can hardly be avoided, but she wouldn't swat flies. In summer, she opens her window and lets them out. In winter, she lets them be. "My husband chases them around," she explained, "but I say, 'Just wrap up the food!' The fly just wants to be warm." When waiting for a subway train and seeing a rat on the tracks, she revealed with a slightly conspiratorial air, she would even toss them food. "I can't stand seeing a hungry animal," she said.

The bus reached its final stop. We said our good-byes. I walked several blocks to the river. In that neighborhood it's kept off-limits behind fences and warehouse walls, but in a parking lot beneath the Williamsburg Bridge I snuck past a security guard and down to a section of fence just above the water line.

Concrete and stone transmuted the the rumble of far-above traffic into something like the sound of wind. A family of brants fed in the shallows, bobbing on a ferry's wake. I threw the snail over the fence and into the river, where he landed with a splash.

* Or maybe she, or even — given the marvelous sexual variety of gastropods — s/he.

Barrow's Goldeneyes by Brandon

Common on the West coast but rare in the East, there are just 250 Barrow's goldeneyes in Maine. They spend their winters here, feeding in open waters near the coast, and summer in Arctic breeding grounds. Goldeneyes are monogamous, forming pair bonds that last for life; they also demonstrate what biologists call site fidelity, returning to the same place in winter and summer.

This group — six altogether, three male and three female — live for at least part of the year on a stretch of stream in eastern Maine. It makes me happy to think that, when temperatures drop below freezing, a deep sparkling cold, these beings are in their element. They hold steady in the current, diving and surfacing as a group, calling to one another and bobbing on waters resplendent with winter's reflected colors: blue sky, white snow, evergreen boughs and the glorious low golden sun.

Bumblebees in Autumn by Brandon

Early in autumn and late in the afternoon, when grasses and flowers gone to seed glow under a strong low sun, bumblebees gather on goldenrods and aster. They sip nectar from these, the season's last blooms; pollen dots their coats. At dusk they remain, sometimes sharing a flowerhead. Their hive spans over, this time is their last, but also their own.

Resting on petals, faces buried in pistils — how glorious it must be, olfactories sensitive to single molecules of a blossom's scent, to lie on a bed of pollen! Falling asleep with the satisfaction of a job well done, a stomach full of sunshine. In the morning they're gone: off to enjoy another day, or resurrected in a sparrow's song.

The Value of Dystopia by Brandon

In response to Michael Solana's "Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology," which had inspired "We Need Dystopias Now More Than Ever."

Solana's essential message is, "Technology is our salvation, so why do those pesky Luddites keep trying to challenge progress and scare us?" Science fiction, like life, has always contained both utopian and dystopian themes, optimism and pessimism. If dystopias are suddenly overrepresented — which I think is untrue — it's probably worth asking why they're so popular, and maybe even trying to learn from them.

Perhaps they'resymptomatic of something important: frustrations with roots in very real social grievances, as with the co-existence of extreme poverty and technological near-omnipotence in Elysium; or concern with how tech's extraordinary possibilities are often subverted for cheap and exploitative purposes, like in Andri Snaer Magnason's Love/Star and M.T. Anderson's Feed; or, per Paolo Bacigalupi's fiction, the day-after-tomorrow imminence of resource scarcities and ecological catastrophe; or misgivings about the interconnected, seemingly fragile nature of globalization's networks, which are exposed by so many zombie/outbreak movie plots.

From a certain perspective, The Hunger Games is a parable for a moment when teenagers and young adults struggle to find jobs in a hypercompetitive marketplace. It's also an obvious parable of unconstrained big-government power. Solana's take is, "So what the hell are we supposed to make of the Hunger Games?"

An interesting historical aside is how much dystopian sci-fi — here I use the term "dystopian" loosely, as does Solana, who seems to think any story with conflict, such as Battlestar Galactica, is anti-technology — was written by cyberpunks of the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of those authors, such as William Gibson and Charles Platt and Bruce Sterling, were also early adopters and techno-proselytizers. They had a front-row seat from which to appreciate science fiction's great, lasting lesson: that technology is inseparable from human nature, culture, economics and history.

Antibiotics and washing machines and packet-transfer protocols and high-yield crop varieties are all tech. So are AK-47s and online identity theft and flash-crashes and multiple pesticide-resistant corn. The Google campus is a marvel of technology's possibilities; so was the East German surveillance state. The world is a messy place, as is progress. Sci-fi, and its dystopias, reflect and reflect upon that tension. They nourish critical thought. Rather than embracing tech on faith, as an article of secular theology, we'reencouraged to understand that technology isn't a magic-wand principle that absolves people from the hard work of progress.

Instead Solana sees technology as "perhaps the only thing" that can solve society's most pressing problems. He calls for a Panglossian science fiction, its highest purpose to "prepare people to accept the future without pain," an antidote for those Luddites who "have challenged progress at every crux point in human history."

It's telling how he refers so flippantly to that social movement. (And, the copy editor in me can't help but mention, so nonsensically: "At every point in human history"? Did Ned Ludd, smasher of mechanical looms, also invent a time machine?) Luddites weren't broadly anti-technology, but rather opposed a particular piece of machinery that threatened their livelihoods. I've no idea whether their stance was beneficial to society at large, but calling it anti-progress is a stretch, unless one thinks progress and technology are synonymous, inextricable and very simple. ("Why do we keep writing sad stories about the West African slave trade, when we could be writing fabulous tales about fast ships and cotton gins!")

We need fewer dystopias and more Star Trek, laments Solana. And indeed Star Trek is one ofour most powerfully positive, and flat-out powerful, sci-fi stories. But what makes it so inspiring, apart from the transcendent fun of a good adventure smartly told, isn't holodecks or transporters or photon engines. It's the vision of an egalitarian, multiethnic and muscular democracy, in which great power is wedded to humility and generosity. As for the technology, the Klingons and Borg and other bad guys have it, too.

Image: Enokson/Flickr