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
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
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!
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
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,
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
*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!