By Donella Meadows
–May 27, 1993–
“There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example — where had they gone? The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted…. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”
When I moved to my New Hampshire farm 21 years ago, that quote from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring seemed outdated. The nation had a new set of environmental laws. Some of the pesticides Carson was concerned about were on their way out. As I listened with astonishment to each morning’s bird symphony, I felt grateful that there was no reason to worry about a silent spring.
I didn’t know a song sparrow from a purple finch back then. The chorus sounded like one big cheery racket to me. Gradually, though, I began to sort out the voices as I worked around the farm. The phoebe taught me his name by rasping it over and over while perched on the garden fence. I connected the “sweet-sweet-sweet trillirillirill sweet” down by the brook with the flashy yellow warbler. I read that the crazed child playing downscales on a panpipe in the woods is the veery, a secretive thrush I have never seen, though his mad harmony is the very essence of green, cool, June evenings.
The bird sounds are especially precious to us northerners, because for six months we hear only the tough guys — the blue jays, chickadees, cardinals, and crows. It’s like listening to a barbershop quartet when you’re used to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. So, like many of my neighbors, I wait eagerly for each returning voice in the spring. I write the dates in my farm book, along with the ice-out on the river and the blooming of the wild shad. The redwings, juncoes, and robins come earliest. The song sparrows and some of the warblers are next. The orioles, yellowthroats, and thrushes are the last to arrive.
That habit of noting voices and dates clued me in to the fact that the chorus was thinning. First the whippoorwills disappeared — such loud singers in the summer nights that their absence was deafening. Then the redstarts were gone from the treetops. This year there are no white-throated sparrows calling “poor Sam Peabody-peabody-peabody.” I’ve heard only one veery, way back in the forest, and not a single wood thrush.
Nature fills vacuums. I hear new bird sounds, mainly starlings and cowbirds. The cowbirds are part of the problem, because they move into clearings to parasitize the nests of other birds. House finches are replacing purple finches. Some beautiful singers, tufted titmice and rose-breasted grosbeaks, are coming further north, but it’s hard to take comfort in that, because it could be a sign of global warming.
Several years ago I called around to find out whether I was imagining these changes. The experts said surveys were showing sharp declines in migratory birds, but bird populations are so variable and so hard to count that they couldn’t be sure there was a real problem.
Now they are sure. This month’s National Geographic summarizes some of the numbers. Wood thrush down 40 percent in 25 years, redstart down 48 percent, eastern wood-pewee down 33 percent, orchard oriole down 29 percent. One expert guesses that the miraculous multitude of birds flying north across the Gulf of Mexico each spring has dropped by 50 percent since the 1960s.
It’s hard to take arms against this sad decline, because the perpetrator appears to be the whole human enterprise. Population and economic growth push back the forests in the birds’ tropical wintering grounds. The migration routes are obstacle courses of cities and toxins. Here in the north suburbanization fragments the forest and brush. I’ve been an unknowing perpetrator myself, bringing dogs and cats to this farm, cutting selectively in the forest, turning a swamp into a sheep pasture.
So, when yet another voice fails to return in the spring I don’t know what to do with my grief and anger and guilt. I don’t know how to talk to people like my former city self, who can’t even mourn with me, because they don’t know what they’re missing. How can I stand up at the hearing on the next shopping mall and describe the ethereal flute of the wood thrush? How can I explain to Congress the joy of gardening on a bright May morning, while an oriole showers down golden trills from the top of a maple tree?
I could make an intellectual argument — that the birds are sensitive probes reflecting the habitability of the planet. That their chemistry is identical to the chemistry in corn and cows and people, so if they are disappearing, we should be seriously concerned. That even if, because of their hemispheric travels, the birds are uniquely threatened, they are connected with everything else. They eat insects, they carry seeds. If their strand of nature frays away, will the whole cloth stay intact?
But those mind arguments aren’t the real ones for me. The real ones are inexpressible. They arise from wordless experiences so full of beauty and mystery and joy that I can’t stand the thought that future generations won’t have them. What I’d really like to do is plead with the human race, “don’t have so many kids, don’t grasp for so much stuff, stop covering nature with pavement. Look at the treasures we’re losing!”
One can’t make passionate appeals like that in polite places, of course. So maybe it’s better — or is it? — to bear in silence the knowledge that spring is turning from a time of joyous reunion to a time of dread, as I wait for the next small silence.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993