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.
Photo: Brandon Keim/Flickr