Thought this Bosch painting was funky ? Try spring bird migration in Queens. Or the Ramble, in Central Park. Epitome of the urban paradox. .




Chapter 6: Why we drink.

Wednesday, May 24th. There is a hole in the County of Queens. A puncture in the Grid. Stand at its edge on a good day in May, at 5 am, when the city lights dim and the morning comes, and look up through the trees that rim this 'gap in the map' and watch the urban starscape fade to blue. Giant Tulip trees surround you and the 'hole', embracing both. They mingle with parties of pin, red and white oak. A community of wood. The Ents of middle-Gotham are in session, in a circle, watching over this rare singularity. Steadfast you remain, at the edge of this tear in the fabric of all things urban; in the dark, you wait, your back supported by the solid trunk of a sourgum. Be informed: at the 'hole', the ground is muddy and projects a halo of fetid musk. Also, repress all ADD's and kill your freakin' Blackberry. This place commands the patience and silence of hunter-gatherers so please revert to stealth mode and just relax; breath deeply with your eyes wide-open and you shall see, trust me, a surprise worthy of a million world economies.

While you're waiting, you can practice your 'feel': winds from the south-west are faint, but real, a warm caress on your left cheek, this is the 'invisible hand' of mother earth, stroking your face, at the ungodly hour of 5 am, with no one around. You might think you're alone, in a city of 9 million, as you stand by the 'hole', this small irregularity on the eastward fringe of New York City, but you're not. You have Gaia, the offspring of chaos, by your side - she just kissed you on the cheek.

6 am and sunrise. Look skyward, crane your neck, pretend you're a tourist. Slowly, but surely, first a trickle, then a cascade of small songbirds. Hundreds of them. A snowfall of feathers. Fall out! Out of nowhere it seems. Through a wormhole. Kirk to Enterprise! They're alighting in the branches, 100 feet above you. Use your binoculars: the birds mingle with the orange and lime-green petals of the Tulip tree, the catkins of the Oaks. Tanagers, warblers, thrushes. They bounce around. They flit. Roll over Duracell bunny! These guys are on a mission. They have traveled hundreds of miles over night and they're super hungry (and you have traveled one hour by subway from Manhattan to greet them, so…). They've been migrating for weeks from way south, South America even. They're nocturnal migrants; they navigate by using the stars as reference points. They too, have discovered this 'hole', this fracture, this opening in the impervious cover of the county of Queens. They're attracted to it like paperclips to a magnet. They begin to buzz and trill and whistle the second they land in the trees and then, just as quickly, start to glean the upper twigs for inchworm caterpillars, products of the urban food-chain.

They sing as they hunt, then sing some more… The prerogatives of birdhood! They do not stop to sleep. They are pumped for reproduction.

On a good day in May, by the 'hole', you can see hundreds of these high-metabolism bundles of tropical biodiversity. Weighing in at only 9 to 12 grams, they're feather-weight, quite literally and are also known as 'Neotropical' species; i.e.: they live south of the border 8 to 9 months out of the year yet choose to invest our hemisphere each breeding season, and to raise a family in our midst, before returning to the jungles and coffee plantations of Central and South America in the fall. Some, like the Blackpoll warbler, head even further north to nest, to the far cold reaches of the boreal forest in northern Canada - no visas required.

For now, they grace us with the colors of postcards and Caribbean cocktails: Scarlet Tanager, Red-eyed vireo, Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Blue-winged warbler, Cerulean warbler, Indigo Bunting. Pick your favorite primary. Maybe you prefer contrasts, aposematics: Black-throated Blue warbler, Black-throated Green warbler. Need something really exotic? How about Chestnut-sided or Golden-winged warblers. Erotic? Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Care for some desert? The Bay-breasted Warbler looks like a piece of milk-chocolate dipped in cherry liqueur. Or the Blackburnian, looking like it just dunked its head in orange juice. Such playful vibrancy of color: Miro on acid!

These 'neotropical' birds, all immigrants, every single one of them.

If you wait a while longer, you'll get to see them from just a few feet away. Slowly, inevitably, as the clock creeps towards 7 and then 8 am, joined by resident cardinals, Blue Jays and the ubiquitous black-throated brown (a.k.a. the common house sparrow), all of the above begin to cascade downwards, fluttering in spirals, towards the 'hole'. As if sucked down, vacuumed, swallowed by a vortex. Truth is: they need a drink, a bath. They have flown all night. Flapped their wings thousands of times, exhausted their fat reserves, their 'fuel'. They have lost water by evaporation. They need to reload. Reboot. Refresh. This 'hole' (you've already guessed) is a water hole. A small puddle of yucky brown urban brew, in a remote corner of Forest park; yet it holds the power of life. It is the only water for miles around (of cement). For all life in need, an Oasis. A new beginning.

From water we come, to water we return. Raindrops. I'm not joking. What's a human fetus swimming in amniotic liquid ? It's a fish in the ocean, transported onto solid ground and over evolutionary time. We have brought the ocean onto land because without it (our very own cradle and life support system) we'd be toast. Very dry toast indeed. What's a bird in an egg? Same thing. Yet another fish, transformed over time and across space, in its sheath of calcium shell. Basically, a fragment of re-organized seawater in a nest, come ashore, like some D-Day gizmo, minus Spielberg and the Normandy ketchup-fest. Understand: we are our own amphibious vehicles. All of us. 60 to 70 % water held together by a backbone. We, as terrestrial and aerial and ground-breaking as we might seem, neotropical birds and humans alike, turtles and snakes and bumblebees too, are reorganized fragments of water. Ocean water. Plodding (or jet-streaming) puddles of H20, with a pinch of salt, a few tablespoons of carbon and a hint of nitrogen thrown in. Shaken, not stirred. For 4 billion years.

Thanks to whom? To the mighty Pre-Cambrian and all that bubbled before it, crucible of our autopoiesis. We exist because we emerged within some primordial chowder (picture Adam and Eve as clams, 'in an Octopus's Garden…'), then gradually morphed and split, from the first singular prototypical cell (first the membrane, then the peptides within..) to the plethora of multicellular, dorky, limbed and boney (or not) billions of creatures of today's planet, those who chose to stay in the water as well as those who spread out over the land. To which I might add: Our 'coming-out' (on foot and onto terra firme) is a mind-boggling feat of physics. For ocean water (i.e.: very simple physical matter) to have succeeded in winching itself out of the deep, fueled by solar energy alone, for to occupy the earth and atmosphere… is more than mind-boggling; it's liberating. Imagine the Headlines: 'water initiates conquest of space by invading land'. Mission accomplished!

 

Click on a pic for a nature flick!
 

Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
Queens
 

Scarlet Tanager.
Queens
 

Baltimore Oriole.
Queens
 

Black-throated Blue Warbler.
Manhattan.
 

American Redstart. Manhattan.
 


Northern Waterthrush.
Manhattan.

 

Magnolia Warbler.
Queens
 

Blackpoll Warbler.
Queens
 

Parula Warbler.
Queens
 

Chestnut-sided Warbler.
Queens
 

Wilson's Warbler.
Queens



Problem is, where to next? Well, according to my old friend Sigmund (an Austrian fellow) we're so scared of death we end up fearing any outcome, i.e.: the future. That's any future. So we spend our lives in a permanent state of regression, like neutered house cats. We confuse the courageous with the bluntly stupid, acts of devolution. Things like going to war or sucking one's thumb. Take David Blaine: he's so visibly scared of tomorrow he decided to publicly reenter a pseudo fetus at Lincoln square; symbolically, the womb of all life: the ocean. Crybaby! Sorry Blaine, but there is no turning back. We have no other choice but to protect our water.

Our watershed and all our waterholes. We need a collective pool of 'environmental awareness'; let me rephrase that: we need some serious 'humanism'. Lemme explain: to bathe in clean water, to drink clean water is to be clean water. Like I said, from water we come, to water we return. Raindrops. Privileged vessels within the water cycle. Poison the water, poison yourself. Poison the aquifer, commit suicide (the reverse can also work). Fide the words of David Suzuki: 'We are a blob of water, with enough organic thickener added so we don't dribble away on the floor'. Immediate, rational, conclusion: we are the environment. There can be no distinction possible.

Accordingly, one cannot protect 'nature'. One might only protect oneself. To 'preserve the environment' is preposterous (and anyhow, just another playing out of our purported 'dominion over all life'). What we need to protect is us and our experience in nature. What did I say? The human experience. Secular humanism. Mike Fellar taught me that: "Give me all the lofty reasons for conservation, global warming, ecosystem services, all that jazz. What I want is for my kids to be able to smile and giggle and laugh and climb a tree and chase a butterfly. That should be our reason. Confer Martin Buber and the 'I and thou'."

The environment of which we are a part will either protect itself - or not. Gaia's decision. Will she self-regulate, and disgorge ? Will we be 'evaginated' into the craphole of memory? Our carbon atoms and Hydrogen and Oxygen sure won't. They're all stardust, practically immortal. Indestructible. They'll be recycled. Reincarnated. Good karma!

For now, at the waterhole in Queens us people and Neotropical migrants and Tulip Trees alike, we exist thanks to them. The atoms. The molecules. Simple shit. They, the elements, buzz back and forth; H20 out, H20 back in*. Around and around. Keeping us alive. How generous and how kind. Confer the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The inchworm. Need more proof? Come to the 'hole', the 'gap in the map' and see for yourself. Peer into this small puddle of muck. Narcissistic bundle of reorganized ocean, you!

Incidentally, on a good day in May you will see more than just birds at the 'hole'; you'll bump into packs of people come to watch the show. Unlike other good 'spots' in the City, everything here happens at very close range. The birds are determined to drink and to bathe, and equally fool-hardy. So they look 'tame'. They land a few feet away, at your feet. It's the closest you'll get in NYC to a 'Galapagos effect'. The waterhole is small, the size of your living room, so the birds converge, they concentrate, they crowd. Think about it: latino birds, from South America, most have traveled thousands of miles in a few weeks, winging it de noche, landing for a swim and a drink, just a few feet away. Eye-contact. Epiphany. Rainbows of red, orange, blue, green, yellow and every nuance in between. All the while they warble and they chant. Sweet birdsong, icing on the cake.

The rarer the species, the better, of course. Something to compete for. Because birding is a national neurosis, something we share with the Brits, a hand-me-down trait from the Victorian gentleman's obsession with 'collecting' specimens. Throw in a few gallons of capitalistic cultcha', the most aggressive city in the world (NY) and you have the Big Apple birder. Endearing, yet incurable. Rabid. Us birders, we've got avian OCD, we crave numbers, we compete for the 'biggest' list; we're the zoological equivalent of the Wall Street trader (minus the moola). We forget to watch and observe and study, most of the time we just consume what we see. Then on to the next bird, the next species. We covet, we lust for possession, we're delusional. We don't say "yesterday, I saw a Summer Tanager". We say: "I had a Summer Tanager."

Need to interpret the world around you ? Listen to it. It's all in the collective slip of the tongue. O Sigmund, where art thou…

And we compete for such ridiculously small and ephemeral increments of 'power'. Some other birder sees something you haven't -- so you're jealous. Childish. Will we ever?

Watching a bird can be so much more. Today, at the Hole, Val and I rinse ourselves with fresh Canada warbler (bright yellow with a necklace of blue tear drops), a Hooded Warbler (bright yellow too, with a hood and chin strap of jet-black). Oh ! Look, there's goes a Wilson's warbler, with his black Yamika! Over there, quick, a male Black-and-white Warbler. The most beautiful of all. Why ? "Because it reveals the infinity of nuance in the world around us, that's why." This spiced-up quote is from our friend Alan Messer (the bird artist). Here's what he showed us: when you pause to observe a Black-and-white warbler (it actually looks like a zebra with wings; only the lines are horizontal, not vertical), and you see it land on a branch you'd have previously discounted as brown and dull and boring, all of a sudden the bird reveals the true nature of the bark as being a complex meshing of infinitesimal patches of violet, green, Bordeaux, mauve. Pale blue-grays and dark ambers suddenly stick out. Thanks to the stark contrast of the very black and white bird, a flying counterpoint, a winged reminder. Tree bark (technically, dead plant skin) is a kaleidoscope of what, ultimately, we always tend to overlook: the obvious, the common. The usual. Ever play camouflage ? Same idea. The best ones at it are the artists, our 'pollinators' of society, our observers of beauty. Preservers of what fertility we might still claim as a species. Thank you, Allan. Thank you black and white.

Conclusion. Go to the 'hole'. Take the 4 am subway, the F or the E. Get off at Kew Gardens and stumble into the woods. The visual impact of a neotropical migrant at close range at 6am is shocking. Two simple colors in combo and you cry 'how beautiful'. Your body pumps out a rush of adrenaline. Your heart beats louder. Throat tightens. Flushed cheeks. The fix. The addiction. Quick, a glass of water.

With many carbon atoms to share,
xoxo
Dave and Val

Epilogue: there are two very interesting spots to birdwatch in spring as hundreds of species of birds (and millions of individuals) pass through NYC. Not only from an ornithological but also from an anthropological (again!?) point of view. This waterhole in Queens and the Ramble in Central Park both attract birds, birders and gay prostitutes. You can be standing there in the bushes, contemplating the 4 colors of a Parula Warbler, drooling with wonderment, when suddenly, in the back ground, male to male fellatio. Whoa! Urban ecology 101! What with all us nerdy birders in the foreground, the colors of the birds themselves and the hunks in the background, scenes like this could only have been spun by the great Hieronymus Bosch himself.

*Try this experiment at home: say 50 of you guys are reading this webpage. Everyone of you breathe in… now, breathe out. Statistically, one of you just inhaled a carbon atom that belonged to Cleopatra's body. Nose or hinder? That is the question…

p.s.: Val and I will be in the jungles of Venezuela on our NNYN-Green Hollow outreach program with the Ye'kuana tribe and Cornell University, working on land demarcation, GIS mapping and solar technology with the village of Jodoimenna. Our next blog (in July) will tell you the story of our trip. Have an excellent month of June!





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