What could be worse than counting birds at Christmas? A lot…
The Bird feeders, Central Park © Alan Messer.
From left to right and top to bottom: Cooper's Hawk, Tufted Titmouse, Gray Squirrel, Red-winged Blackbird, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-throated Sparrow, American Goldfinch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Downy Woodpecker, Brown Creeper, Cardinal, Dark-eyed Juncos.




Chapter 10: Go Figure!
The trouble with numbers.


"In this world which is officially so full of respect for economic necessities, no one ever knows the real cost of anything which is produced".
- Guy Debord

Each Holiday season, around the third weekend in December I get to meet up with my pal Alan Messer, the artist and author of the above mosaic of feeding winter birds. The point of our annual rendezvous: to clamber up the steep, wooded slopes of Fort Tryon Park, a small scrap of ecologically dysfunctional, urban parkland wedged within the urban grid of hilly, north-western Manhattan, round about 201st street, just north of Washington Heights, to count birds, very meticulously in fact; everything from Pigeons and House sparrows to the odd, over-wintering rarity, such as a Catbird or an Oriole (if we're lucky).

It is our brave and loyal contribution to an all American tradition - the annual, nation-wide, century-old, Christmas bird count. A social event, mainly, for under-socialized nerds, curmudgeons, misfits, moral outcasts, male dancers as well as ordinary beautiful people - and opinionated, urban serfs like ourselves. Our Central Park alter-egos usually flush up something rare, like a Boreal Owl, or an over-wintering Palm Warbler. Not us. We never see that much in the way of 'good' birds, but I don't care, because we get to see each other, and talk, and laugh, and share ideas and dark feelings about our impending futures.

Plus, to be guaranteed at least one visit with a best friend in the city of Manhattan, statistically speaking, can be claimed as a victory over time and money (or the lack thereof) and the confusing whirligig of business as usual - so I count our holiday-time meeting as a blessing.

From the subway exit, Fort Tryon looks like a Medieval, fortified, hilltop town. Something the Cathars might have built, say, in southern France. It tops at 260 feet above see level, it's the second highest hill of Mannahatta - the 'island of many hills', and the views rival those afforded by Trump Towers. It's no Yellowstone, for sure, but part of the universe just the same. The general area, including Inwood to the North, used to be lived in by native Americans, possibly the Weckquaesgeek Tribe. Today the hill and the Park are surrounded by an outlay of rent-controlled apartments packed full of full-o'-life Dominicans (with their window sill gardens) and people like Alan and myself: do-gooders, liberals, free radicals - workforce or cancer to America's elite, depending on your point of view.

This year Alan and I meet, like every other year, at 7:30 am on a dismal and damp Sunday morning, down at the end of Dykman Street (off northern Broadway), on the shores of the Hudson, just to the north of the Park's entrance, where a little Dominican food shack (and its chickens, and roosters…) as well as a small harbor full of small fishing boats, grace the meeting of land and water. Barges plow south through the gray river in front of us. We'd think we were somewhere else (where exactly, I don't know…) were it not for the Henry Hudson Parkway bridge, replete with white noise, looming over our heads, here to remind us that we're gathered here this morning to count birds in a polluted and polluting aggregation of Techno sapiens, in the forgotten and messy back yard of gentrified New York City. The monocultures of Asian Bittersweet and Mugwort that line the sidewalk and mark the border of the Park we're about to enter don't help, either.

What else could go wrong? There is a brownness and grayness of winter in the city's outer-perimeter that bears a resemblance to northern England at the peak of the Industrial Revolution. Our health? Alan is a tall guy with a bad foot and I'm a tallish guy, with bad knees. We both have grey hair, we're still in our forties. We enter the Park. We move slowly. We try to hide our respective limps. Joggers jog by. Dog walkers and skate-boarders. All of freakin' fitness USA. We hear someone mock us in the distance, laughing: "bird-waaaaaaaatchers'. You wouldn't tell by the sight of us that both Alan and I were in Punk bands when we were kids (young adults). Wait a minute: wasn't that like, yesterday? The pink neck ties?

Nowadays, Alan 'churns through the morass of managerial muck', as he likes to put it, in a downtown office building, but most of the time he's up all hours painting and sculpting birds like a madman in his home studio. Me, I'm paid to teach and proselytize, gonzo-style, on behalf of the environmental community. Alan is from Oregon, originally. I hail from planet earth, an ex-pat, a corporate brat.

We start climbing the damn hill. We enter its 'woods'. So far we've counted two pigeons and heard a crow. No leaf litter to speak of. No top soil either. A few benches and empty paper cups litter the hardened 'forest floor'. A small, fenced-in, kid's playground, to the left. The Park is an environmental sink, an embodiment of the ecologist's worst nightmare: the positive feedback loop. We're on an ascending, curving path punctuated by sudden staircases made of stone slabs. Fort Tryon was carved into a pyramidal chunk of 500 million year old schist and you can see the rock everywhere, strewn about in big chunks of grainy, carbon-colored mineral that's freckled with shiny fragments of Mica. We pass giant boulders of the stuff and big roots wrapped around them. Oaks, maples and ash (or is it hickory?) tower above us. Did I just see a goblin behind that tree?

I did, and it was wearing an Ipod.

"I love the texture of these rocks, and the color, it's almost a deep anthracite," observes Alan.

"Alan, you ever see a talk by this geology prof out at Queens College, Alan Ludman, he says the first violent thing about New York is our geological history. Continents have been going back and forth like an accordion and this place has somehow managed to be caught in the crossfire most of the time. Collisions, rifts, subductions, volcanoes, faults, the place is a war zone."

The going is steep. We stop to pant. Still no more birds. We carry on. The path turns a corner, then another one, then crosses another path, then a road (in a Park?) then loops around. We hear a car go by. Fort Tryon Park is tattooed with a rambling web of crisscrossing trails and yes, roads for vehicles, that from space probably look like goo-trails left over by a pack of French garden snails. Don't believe me? Look at a map. The park's brochure claims "8 miles of pedestrian paths", and informs us that the place was landscaped by the Olmstead brothers (sons of the guy who did Central Park). Were they drunk?

"Alan, the city's website says this park used to be a place for the filthy rich, they had ominous houses and horse carriages and stuff. Then it was purchased, revamped and handed over to the City by Rockefeller, who also bought and donated the entire Palisades, across the Hudson, just to save the view."

"Think there's any Inwood marble in these rocks?" asks Alan, taking note of two pigeons overhead. Alan tends to answer my queries by switching subjects and he always walks out in front, too. Keeps me on my toes, my mind alert. He's fitter than I am, and taller too, so I feel like I'm his younger brother or something. I lag behind, and whine, per usual.

"Bet you we won't see any birds this year, Alan. 10% of the worlds' species are in decline. 25% will be functionally extinct by 2100. Expect disease and pandemics as a result, the death of entire ecosystems deprived of their avian agents, the seed-dispersers, the pollinators, the seed controllers. Remember the Passenger pigeon? Used to eat acorns, which kept the mouse population in check. Now mice are everywhere. And so is Lyme disease. In the past 500 years we've lost an estimated 25% of all individual birds. That's a big chunk of biomass removed from planet earth. I'm telling you, we're toast."

I shut up. I need air, water, and sugar, primarily. A third cup of coffee would also work. Luckily, our friend Adele, who we met earlier at the base of the Hill, has given us the mandatory Chocolate Chip Cookies of her own making - she does so every year. So I start eating a cookie. Adele is the bird-count coordinator for northern Manhattan (and as sweet as her cookies). Bird count coordinators have the unforgiving task of rounding up us volunteers and then centralizing everyone's data in his/her area and then diligently sending the results onto National Audubon, the godfather of Christmas bird counting in the US. With the data go envelopes full of 1, 5, 10 and 20 dollar bills, contributions from participants like us. We are promised letters of thanks from the head office - we never get them.

"Alan, I rant, we've been high-jacked. This annual pagan ritual of ours, this bird count we loved as kids cause it was simple fun, now it's a giant fund-raiser in disguise… Plus, all we're doing is footwork for some Ivory Tower academics."

"That's why they call it citizen science, Dave. Look!, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, two House sparrows. Is that a Junco over there to the left of the Maple?"

Alan peers ahead through his binoculars.

"Which Maple, Alan?"

"Wait a minute, White-throated Sparrows, 6 of them".

"Hey, isn't that a Black-backed Gull, overhead? Do I count it?"

"Only if it's not flying."

"It is."

"Then don't count it."

"Who sets the rules?"

"They do."

"Who's they?"

"Dave, some whig in a lab publishes the data and gets all the recognition for unraveling the population dynamics of North American birds, okay? And this is Christmas count #107 and today they're 50 000 of us volunteers out in the rain and snow using decimals and obeying protocol. But please, don't get started…"

"Alan, 60% of American productivity is unaccounted for by the 'official' economy… the whole concept of GDP is a joke… I say we revolt."

"Dave, check out the under-tail coverts on this Carolina wren horsing around in that Multiflora rose, to the right. I'd never noticed the corrugated effect."

The Carolina wren is a small bird with a diminutive tail and even less conspicuous under-tail coverts. But Alan pays attention to details, even those of a bird's booty. Detail is what keeps him floating, I think. It's one of the secrets of his painting, too, his love affair with small places and the unspoiled horizons of overlooked things. It is why I love Alan; his relentless underscoring of detail rescues me from my latent penchant for megalomania, simplistic world views, sweeping statements and unconstructive platitudes.

"Alan, I just read Kunstler's latest piece in Orion Magazine. The US state department says that world oil production already peaked in December 2005 at 85 million barrels a day and that it's stayed flat at around 84 million ever since, and that we just consumed 85 million so far this year already, which means that demand now exceeds world supply. He also says no ethanol nor bio-diesel will save our ass, that we're history, basically, at least our current way of life is, the Wal-marts, the FedEx's, Las Vegas. He says the whole kit-and caboodle will blow."

"Dave, a Cardinal, a Chickadee, a Nuthatch, one o'clock, 50 yards, mid canopy."

"This is the year Alan! We're going to see something good, Alan! A Sabine's Gull! A Bohemian waxwing!"

We climb higher. We're half away up the hill. My knees are hurting. I realize that people who climb mountains usually tend to be thought of as heroes who legitimize the excruciating reality of their own death wish with historic one liners, like 'I climbed it because it was there'… A lot of them die, too, in the freezing cold, they give their lives away to some innocuous romantic idea of 'reaching the summit'; in the process they exemplify the idea of progress and the ascension of man to higher realms, to 'greatness'.

"Alan, I think I'll write a book one day about some old geezer who 'conquers' a bunch of mountains with a shopping cart and for each ascent he deconstructs one aspect of the progress myth and plants an upside down flag on each consecutive summit with the words 'so what', or 'big deal' or 'I need a drink' tagged in with graffiti."

Alan points me to a downy woodpecker, climbing a black birch (a tree, that if you scratch its bark, smells like root beer), says I should watch the bird carefully. I do, reaching for another cookie.

"So?"

"Dave! Come on! Look at what a black and white bird does to a tree's bark! It contradicts the apparent brownness of the trunk, it reveals it for what it really is, a composite of infinitely parsed purples and lavenders and stuff, by contrast alone. By opposition. You should see a black-and-white warbler do that - it will completely light up its surroundings, put stuff into perspective."

The woodpecker continues to climb, inspecting the bark's crevices for dormant insect larvae. It passes a splotch of lichen. It highlights, in a flash, just how green a splotch of lichen can be. "Downy: 1…" Alan takes note of the woodpecker, does a quick sketch. "Alan, you know all this hyperbole about how a century ago Americans would go out and hunt birds on Christmas, blow them out of the sky, and that these Christmas bird counts were introduced by some founding father of birdwatchers to promote conservation, replace the massacre? Well, what if it was all a hoax, the likes of corporate journalism and American plutocracy. Seems to me all we're doing out here is counting leftovers. Birds that made it. Little feathered heroes. This whole event reeks like a real brown-noser, too, a curtsy to the power system, a diversion, a politically correct veneer to gloss over bigger, uglier crimes against terrestrial nature and the whole of humanity. Denial, for nerds. We're like those retard musicians on the Titanic who played that sappy Victorian muzac on deck while everyone in third class was drowning. It's like for everything else in this country, our optimism is perverse, meaning we get to chose what we ignore."

"Which explains the President we have…"

Alan's heard my shtick before. But you haven't, so here it is: I fear the current endeavor to survey biodiversity, whether you're helping to sort through bugs and plants and birds in the Amazon like I have, or counting pigeons hiding under cars in Manhattan, like I am now, contributes close to zilch when it comes to conservation. It is exploratory by nature, therefore as inherently expansionist as the system it pretends to stop. Ultimately, it just softens the image of Empire, a little. Makes it look like it has a conscience. It's a PR move, a correcting mechanism built in to the sanctimonious aims of universalism, like NGO's and the peace corps. Bird counts? Bioprospecting for useful drugs? Same spiel, same bulldozer: sophisticated metrics and intrusive research that reflect the girth of our own greed. The whole biodiversity craze, the one published in National Geographic with glossy photos, nothing but a performance designed to make us colonialists look cool and feel better about ourselves, so we can say 'hey, at least we're aware of what's going on… at least we're trying.' Yet all we're really doing is studying the 6th mass extinction, the one we perfected. It's sort of narcissistic when you think about it: we get to document our own work, the biosphere's demise, in real time, revealing trends and patterns as we go along; plus we get to play with new technological gizmos and binary wizardry and new computers whose manufacturing contributes way more to environmental destruction than they do to protecting the environment. It's like reality TV, or Debord's 'Society of the spectacle'.

What about all of the new and valuable data that's collected? It gets stored, analyzed, digitized. It serves to be shown off and help build personal careers, it gets published then either lost in the unfathomable pits of bureaucracy or locked away by privately financed universities; knowledge subverted by industry, commoditized, converted to currency, withheld, held secret, or patented, and protected by corporate personhood - or just plain ol' gets printed on paper which means more trees cut down anyway.

"Alan, you should see how my High School students out in inner city Brooklyn react when I tell them about New York philanthropy, the 1ooo dollar dinner servings at a fund raiser in Manhattan to feed the poor. Or the fundraisers for the environment that I've been to. Or take Bill and Melinda Gates recently 'uncovered' for investing their Foundation's money into the same fat cat transnational Oil gigs and pharmaceuticals who's crimes the Foundation pretends to alleviate… It's not only absurd in a sort of Camusian way, it rivals state hubris as the epitome of cynicism. Thing is, we can't even accuse Gates and lovely wife Melinda, theirs' is just another example of how the world's new economy was designed. It's a systemic problem… Alan… are you even listening to me?"

"Finish your cookie."

"Alan, real wealth funneled to the North, stolen from third world people, ripped out of the South…raped…not to mention this idea of 'giving back', 'trickling down'... It's grotesque! Do you think most people are unaware, or do they just not give a damn."

"Blue jay! overhead! It's the Happiness of pursuit, Dave."

"Alan, you know what the ecological footprint of my 1000 dollar pair of Leicas is? We're part of the process, Alan. Why don't we just stop counting altogether. Screw the science. Let's kick back and contemplate, look at black and white birds and purple bark and green lichen and grow some potatoes or something so we don't starve to death. Contemplative biology, with a green thumb."

"Dave, quick, there goes a Cooper's or a Sharp-shinned over the hill. Diving to the west, towards the Hudson. The rectrices look rectangular, the eye to head ratio's kinda small, hmmm, probably a Sharpie. Last year we had two, right? Juveniles?"

"Alan, listen to me, these numbers we're generating, all these statistics, they just serve to cover up decline and entropy more than they reveal it, I'm telling you. They're fodder and dressing for the media, fuel for the big machine, the stuff of sound bites on CNN or some Animal Planet, couch potato special…"

I look down. A used condom. The roach from a spliff. Urban ecology, what a life…

"Hey Alan, Opium production and export increased 2000% after we invaded Afghanistan. That's $180 billion street value, plus a walloping $3.6 trillion once you launder it into Stock Markets and it gets processed by the likes of Chase Manhattan."

"Dave, you just quoted numbers...If we're lucky, this year's count might turn up a trend related to global warming, that way we can make the news, show that birds are spending their winters further and further north."

I sense irony in Alan's voice.

"See what I mean, you facetious ass ! All we'll accomplish with some rare birds is give the Parks Department another great occasion for a soon to be forgotten photo-op and another, quick-to-be-trashed, column in the New York Post. Fill for advertisers. Ultimately, we'll just be helping to fuel more consumerism."

"Seriously, Dave, warblers and birds that would usually be in the Caribbean by now are popping up all over America this winter, from what I've heard, it's December and Garter Snakes are still slithering and moths still fluttering under streetlamps and Forsythia is already in bloom and Morning Cloak butterflies are already flying and we're all gonna die, Dave."

(The following day I did manage to catch a glimpse of this year's Christmas bird count media title, in the New York Post: "Flock shock!" Apparently, somebody saw 500 grackles fly over Central Park, when they 'should' have been further south. The Parks commissioner was there. The adds on the page were for Samsung, WaMu and Continental).

"Back to the numbers issue, Alan. They've always troubled me. They seem to put a cold finish on the warm texture of reality and experience, don't you think? I mean, straight lines and calculus and fractals are great for discovering how smart we are, as a species or as individuals, but I think they tend to fare poorly in the hands of technology and industry; namely, the human military endeavor. If you're good in math or physics you can unravel the mystery of quarks but you also get to inadvertently design the atom bomb or program the computers that derivative hunters and hedgefunders use to plunder the planet with their financial schemes."

"Red-wing Blackbird, over head, way up, heading south…"

"Alan, I found this great passage in Carl Sagan's Cosmos, his TV shows are airing again on Discovery. He says the Greeks really flipped out when they discovered that the square root of two was irrational. The Pythagoreans feared the citizenry would find out that their world view of a perfect mathematical universe might not make 'perfect' sense after all, so they suppressed the knowledge of the square root of two from the public eye. The outside world was not to know…."

Alan sits down on a bench for a breather, eyes still riveted to the trees above us, to the skies. I join him. Swollen knees.

"You know Mike Klemens?, I ask, the turtle guy who works for WCS, the guy who's fighting sprawl up towards Westchester and Connecticut? Well, he says things haven't changed much since the Greeks, the majority of scientists are still elitists, condescending of the public, thinking that knowledge is somehow sacred, unworthy of the 'bewildered herd', to be kept within the Ivory Tower, protected from contamination by the masses."

"See Dave, Americans aren't morons after all, they're just deprived, cut off, zero access…hear that? Two more crows…calling…oh! Wait, look, Cedar Waxwings! Over there, straight ahead, the Hawthorne tree, eating berries!"

We stand up and continue climbing. In silence, for once. We walk under Plane trees, Linden Trees, there's Winter Jasmine all around, in sunny, yellow flower. We reach the top of the Hill. A Japanese-like garden and esplanade, full of Heath and Beauty Bush and the tired stalks of sleeping perennials surround us, spread before us. We look beyond, straight down at the Hudson below, the igneous cliffs of the Palisades on the Jersey side, the opposite shore, westward. The George Washington Bridge, to the south. Awesome. No Grand Canyon, for sure, but part of the Universe, nonetheless. Old women walk the esplanade with their dogs. A middle aged dude with a sizeable hinder does Yoga. In-vitro twins zoom by in their Humvee-for-babies contraption; Mommy's on her cell phone! More joggers... An American Airlines jet screams by, just overhead, north up the Hudson valley, then banks to the right, eastward, towards La Guardia. What a life.





Manhattan. Central Park bird feeders.


Manhattan. House finch feeds on suet.


Manhattan. Dark-eyed Junco at feeders.


Manhattan. White-breasted Nuthatch feeds on suet.


Manhattan. Goldfinches, Red-winged Blackbirds & Pine Warbler.



"Dave, 10 more waxwings, on another Hawthorne, straight ahead."

"Alan, what really gets me with numbers is that they're also good for exterminating people, like the Nazis did, using IBM technology. Or sacrificing human lives by factoring them in as rational segments of some savvy mathematical equation, in the name of efficiency, like the clinical McNamara in the Fog of War: "If we do this, we'll kill so many men, if we do that we'll lose only 10 000 more." Abstraction is a lethal proposition, Alan, it always has been."

"Stalin said that 'one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic'."

"Yeah, and look at how many poor sods he offed. 'Risk management', Alan, 'Risk management'…Today the same ice-in-your-veins attitude travels undercover, all around us, in stealth mode, camouflaged by the comforting, promising, reassuring euphemism of 'risk management'. It's the reigning axiom of our business-minded, cost-effective, profit-seeking society. The reason of God has given way to a god of Reason and cost-benefit analysis. The Pentagon, the Kagan brothers, the WSJ, William Kristol and our beloved commander in chief invoke it all the time: is protecting vital American interests abroad worth our sacrifice, i.e., the investment? Of course…why even ask? Peel off words like 'freedom' and 'liberty', then look at the benefits, follow the money. Pragmatism is the new covert ideology. Look, imagine some conservation dude had invoked the same sort of logic and proposed that the Red-Tailed Hawk, because it is so abundant elsewhere, in the hinterland, be allowed to be sacrificed in Central park, and Pale Male's nest removed…All hell would have broken loose."

Alan looks at me, stolid like, through his glasses. "There's a hermit thrush behind you Dave, on the ground, behind the bench, with some White-throated Sparrows…There's one thing Buddhists never got into…" I look at the thrush, "what?" "Sacrifice, Dave, sacrifice…Life as commodity. Neocons believe we're on a special mission, Dave, to spread our way of life around the globe, at all costs, whatever it takes - that includes the lives and resources of others. They say they speak for a majority of Americans, that we all carry this messianic drive, so deeply in fact it's actually subconscious."

"Speaking of anthropology, I saw John Waldman the other night at the Historical society talk about sharks and the roles of predators in old New York and how our attitudes have changed towards them. Used to be New Yorkers would kill anything and everything, especially sharks in the estuary where crowds would gather with guns and blow the suckers out of the water from a pier. Now we're protecting Pale Male, some bloodthirsty, pigeon-porking, rat-raking, bird of prey who also happens to be the ultimate patriarch, the King Ramses of buzzards. How many offspring has that bird sired? It's actually been documented, written up in the Times, with charts and family trees. Pale Male, the new role model. I say we go shoot the fucker, for the heck of it…"

"HA! The ghost of Edward Abbey! Heyduke lives!"

"Come to think of it, screw Pale Male. Let's shoot the creators of NAFTA for crimes against humanity instead…then plead self-defense."

"Dave, take the Military-Industrial complex. Add on Big agriculture."

"What?"

"They had so much ammonium nitrate leftover from bomb making that they converted it to fertilizer to grow corn, and called it the Green Revolution, so now we have all this corn and beef-fed corn and oil to keep it all harvested and distributed and packaged and delivered and stocked in supermarkets and then we fight more wars with more bombs to secure more oil just to keep the whole damn agro-complex going. Its Farmageddon, brother!"

"Where did you hear that?"

"NPR. I'm a liberal, Dave, and that's what we liberals do, we listen to NPR. Ha-HA! For every dollar we spend on food, the farmer gets 8 cents. The rest ends up as profits, equity funds, you name it, this year's Wall street bonuses were the highest in financial history."

"Yeah, and I heard a special on NPR once claiming Socrates was a bigger ass-hole than Machiavelli, so…?."

"The subsidies, Dave…Whoa, two more nuthatches to your left, on that Pine tree…rappelling down. Actually, there's this guy I've heard, some organic farm down South who's using sheep rotations that poop on his field after it's been harvested then a battery of chickens that swing through and eat up the worms in the sheep poop and scratch the ground and till it and make for this unbelievable organic yield the following season that are driving all the other traditional farmers nearby absolutely bonkers."

(Note to the reader: typical conversations with Alan are like what goes on in a particle accelerator in Switzerland, or a trip through Hypertext, come to think of it. I say something and some unpredictable keyword embedded in my usual logorrhea punches a button in his brain and off he goes. And vice-versa. And so onward we tango, on our chaotic pas-de-deux, unwittingly embodying the new story-telling of our time: the freedom of every individual to sit down in front of Google and weave some haphazard narrative through cyberspace, some day-to-day, personalized script. Forget linear arcs, make-sense plots, dissertations and other antiquities such as the one I'm trying to write. Down with the monolithic, tightly packaged essay that develops but one, single proposition; that tells us what to think, what thought to embody and what doctrine to belong to. Kill the Op-ed. Delete and reboot. In with the multi-dimensional, the multi-intentional, the multi-lingual plasmoid plot of the post-territorial, post-national, post-Cartesian world of the Noosphere. Long live contradictions, oppositions, the multiplicity of voice. Real life. Free-association, as the dominant meme. In today's intercourse, we can start off our day with the Wikipedia definition of String Theory and end up with Grandma's recipe for Banana Split. And still make perfect sense.

"Mockingbird, 5… Carolina Wren, 3…"Alan starts to tally up the morning's observations.

I carry on in gadfly mode: "The problem with numbers Alan is they're used to draw up the blueprints for rigid orthodoxies. They're supposed to be a guarantee for objectivity, yet you can twist them and spin them any way you want, depending on your own callous and mendacious calculations, ha-ha, your own bloody subjectivity…Same with words and rhetoric, too, I guess, but with words at least you can write stories. Numbers can't do that on their own, they're here to back agendas, prove talking points, run machines. Seems to me they have less to do with knowledge than with the crass accumulation of power, a means for manipulation and control, a mere technology."

"Morning Dove, 1… Great Black-backed Gull, 2… Ring-billed Gull, 2… Dave, take Margaret Rubega's work on the evolution of bird beaks in waders… She spoke at the Museum... She says the opening and closing of the beak is an archaic and conservative trait, evolutionarily speaking, that all birds use the same open-and-close gesture but in ingeniously different contexts."

"Alan, take the infamous bell-curve, it's a totalitarian proposition, by definition. Our so-called democracies, they amount to giant machines built on economies of scale whose premise is: minorities will be and should be sacrificed. If 80% is what's best for 'all', then so be it. The majority rules. You're different? Part of the remaining 20%? Tough luck. Just another victim of 'risk management', a waste product. Take the example of the New York Water supply. Giardia is a problem for a few New Yorkers, but not enough for to justify revamping the entire Croton filtering system. Too expensive. Much cheaper to take care of a few sick folk who hell, might even die. I hate to think what goes on in the airline industry. Can we afford to lose one bird by not repairing it? If insuring the victim's families costs less? Hell yeah."

"White-throated Sparrow, 35… House Sparrow, 45… Rubega says a turnstone will lift stuff by opening its beak, by first wedging its bill beneath the targeted object, the clam or the lump of seaweed, and an ocean-going phalarope will open and close its beak just the same, except this time it's a way of using the physics of surface tension and water adhesion to suck up the drops of water that contain their prey, the phytoplankton, that's in the water…get it?"

"I guess phalaropes are probably full of plastic then, since they've found plastic particles as far out as the middle of the Atlantic, it's so pervasive it's been incorporated by the metabolism of phyto and zooplankton way out in the middle of the ocean.... Alan, remind me, why is it that without ever proceeding as we do, that nature, in her wondrous productivity could generate 4.6 billion years of ecological design, resulting in coral reefs and rainforests and turnstones and phalaropes and things so complex that the added surface area of all life on earth is superior to the surface of Jupiter? And yet not once, not one freakin' single time, has the biological process emulated or used the human template of hierarchy and industrial enterprise, its logic of efficiency, its bell curves. I'll tell you why: because in the evolution of life on earth, without extreme individuals free to do their eccentric things at distal ends of the spectrum we would simply not exist. Change would not happen, time would stop. Life on earth is all about wild confusion and heated chaos, and differences, and minorities, because diversity is the only known barrier against entropy, by entropy I mean death and extinction and the cold and sterile emptiness of deep space. Problem is, Alan, an honest Cowboy cannot stand chaos and confusion, because he can't brake it, ride it and brand it. He thinks it equates with death and wilderness and the bloody Indian, so he resorts to cold-blooded, linear equations: the straight line of gunfire, the castrating efficiency of a barbed-wire fence, spreadsheets and surgical strikes, crew-cut lawns and golf carts. The honest cowboy trusts only violence, because violence and death are the closest things to his own, immediate fear."

"Cardinal, 3… Robin, 9… Canada Goose, 31… yeah, that's why we're hooked on artificial flavorings and the flesh of tortured animals, too. In our country fat is a product of fear. We're genetically crafted to store excess layers of blubber if we sense the probability of leaner times ahead. So the scarier things get, the more insecure we feel, the more pounds we pack on, subconsciously. And since we live in a atomized society of zero community and loads of fear run by fear mongerers then it's no wonder we're freakin' obese. Now that we're scared of terrorists and bird flu and global warming and Armageddon and all that baloney I say we'll only get fatter and fatter!"

"NPR?"

"Noooo, my friend Chas, the East village angler, eats Hudson bass for a living…full of mercury but doesn't care…says we're already screwed as it is…Red-Winged Blackbird, 2; Hermit Thrush, 1; Dark-eyed Junco, 4."

"Alan, I'm at the point where I'm teaching my High school students how IMF and World Bank-backed structural adjustments in the 'developing' countries are sacrificing the jobs and lives and cultures of millions in the global third and fourth worlds, in the name of so-called economic expediency, and how the WTO keeps pushing for commodity production in exchange for currency for import, from the streets of Flint, Michigan all the way to the thatched roofs of the Amazon. The kids love it, they get to articulate their own experience. Most of them are third world immigrants and have a first hand understanding of what I'm talking about. By the way, David Korten says the US has the same profile as the third world countries we're eviscerating. We mass produce agricultural goods like soy and grain and we are the largest debtor country on earth and our wealth disparity is equal to that of Namibia."

"Takes one to know one, Dave. Red-bellied Woodpecker, 3… Nuthatch, 3… Goldfinch, 2…Downy woodpecker…1. My friend Peter Ligieri, the sculptor, he says civilization is run by mafias, anyhoo, not the Mafia, but by mafia-style psychology, mob and vendetta mentality, whatever the legalities of the system, whatever the cover, the veneer…nothing but hitmen and offers that no sucker could refuse."

"Alan, did you ever stop and wonder how the Manhattan grid might affect our everyday life? Ever notice how easy we are to find when you live, say, on the corner of 28th and 7th, apt 20b? Sounds like social engineering, State control, Big government and its privatized proxies, a.k.a. Big Brother. This fanatical belief in scientific efficiency, we're digging our own global grave, you know."

"Dave, was it one song sparrow, or two?

"What really peeves me Alan is the way the elite and their obedient managerial watchdogs claim realism as their basis for action and then blame us flowery lot for being a bunch of childish dreamers, utopians. How can they claim to be realists when they are so far removed and disconnected from the real, gritty bloody world for which they are partly responsible? How can they claim 'realism' at places like Davos and ignore the value or tragic ending of one single human life, often the result of their decision-making, their policies? The reality that goes with the pain of loss, of losing a limb, your entire family, your home, an entire hillside, your village, your forest - to truly experience and feel this reality, the dominant reality of our time, is to be the true realist in my mind. The idealists are the ones in private jets, not us."

"Black-capped Chickadee, 2… Tufted Titmouse, 4…"

"I wonder who's agenda those numbers will end up on?"

"Which numbers?"

"Your 4 Tufted tit-mice…tell me, do they always travel in pairs?"

"..and one Sharp-shinned Hawk, Dave"

"Are you imitating that psycho computer in 2001?"

"By the way, Dave, thanks for all your help, this morning, Dave…"

"See what I mean! Numbers reinforce the vertical value system. They legitimize an up and down, a high and a low, a superior and an inferior. A master and a servant. A perfect world above, a dirty one below. Again, blame it on the Greeks. Sagan says Plato and Aristotle were totally comfortable in a slave society, says they offered rational justifications for oppression and believed in the alienation of the body from the mind. They separated matter from thought and divorced the Earth from the sky, the ruling class from the meek. Good ol' Carl. 'Billions and billions of stars…' He says these divisions have dominated our thinking ever since. But what if it's a primordial human trait, Alan, as old as eeny-meeny-miny-moe…all this thinking in gradients …nothing more than the ingenious yet ruthless proposition of the Hobbesian mind of the human male. Simple folk like you and me, manipulative, hunter-gatherer apes decked out in suits with shades."

"Or ex-punk rockers with pink neck ties and bad hair."

"Pray we never enter the power pyramid, Alan."

"Remember last year's Coopers' Hawk? It took out that pigeon on the path right in front of us, in that blizzard, and this jogger guy who trotted right by it - without even noticing this huge bird of prey at his feet, and the blood and the feathers in the snow, right there, in front of him, and you started yelling at him, but he couldn't hear you because of the snow storm!"

"Messer, I'm hungry, let's go eat."

"Yeah, porridge sounds good.. Wasn't it Gödel, the 20th century mathematician, who used logic to prove that no one mathematical system could logically prove itself?"

"Yep, most important breakthrough in the history of science. Never made the news, too scary, just like the square root of two…"

We stand up, walk, exit the esplanade, head back down the hill.

"Alan, Ludman says Manhattan used to be a chain of mountains as high as the Himalayas smothered in ice that it had its butt eroded off by wind and water and the fundamental amorality of time."

"Is that a line from your book?"

"Yeah."

Alan knows I'm writing my opus major on this nature of New York shtick. He understands 'where I'm at'. When artists like us are on to 'something', a thread, a scenario, a paradigm, we are quick to be absorbed by the all-encompassing nature of our 'vision'. It's a place where all is subsumed, the vision itself, the ideas that support it, the thoughts that lead up to it, the other people involved (in the event that we even notice them). Passion is a Black Hole. Every action, every footstep, every conversation,…all is analyzed, selected, processed, swallowed, digested by the compulsive brain in overdrive. Our obsession, a flushed sponge of boiling infatuation, requiring and claiming every utterance, every drop of energy in our immediate surroundings; except we never become the discerning or objective and wise person we wished for. At the end of the day we take only what we need, what serves our agenda, what props our platform, no matter how rational we think we are. My friend Sigmund would say it's a sexual process. I say it's totalitarianism waiting to happen.

"Alan, us writers, we're raging, tiresome, fanatics. Clients from hell. A threat to society. Imagine artists as politicians in power!"

"Ha! That's what politicians are, Dave!"

"Chas?"

"No, NPR…"

"Didn't your Ligieri friend also say an artist pollinates society, like a bee pollinates the woods, moving around the world, seeing things, taking ideas from one place to another, bzzzzzz."

"Dave, the usual Diner, on the corner of Broadway?"

"Yep." Alan zooms ahead.

"Alan, wait a minute, you heard of this guy Costanza up at the University of Vermont? He's put the value of earth's environmental services, everything from air to water to bee pollination at some 33 trillion, almost twice the world's GDP. Mainstream economists are furious, on the grounds you can't factor in amorphous externalities. Christians and environmentalists are outraged, shaming him for even daring to put a price tag on the sacred. He's touched a nerve, got everybody thinking, pretty clever."

"Dave, the earth will be commoditized. Funding for the Hubble telescope has been cut under Bush, re-allocated to space travel and conquest, new engines and rocket designs. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is dead, gone. Our leaders are already headed for heaven. Envision extraction wars, gene wars, ownership of space and star wars, such is our destiny! You and I will be left behind."

"Ligieri?"

"No"

"The Rapture?"

"No, some NASA guy on CSPAN, before a congressional committee, saying lives would be lost on the way to Mars but such is 'the greatness of human destiny!'"

(Alan speaks like a musician, words and emphasis build up towards the end, in timely crescendo.)

We stop for another breather. "Alan, did you ever meet John Tanacredi? He's worked on Horseshoe crabs… he once told me that in his ecology classes, engineering majors couldn't grasp the idea of ecosystems and how they worked… The more he insisted that life systems were not hierarchies, but holarchies, sets of relationships embedded within larger sets of relationships….like Russian dolls, with zero command and control, no centralized power, no watch-maker…the less the engineering students got it."

"Oh, there goes a red-tailed Hawk. Juvenile. Just swooped between those two oaks. Let me add that to the list".

"Anyway, it makes you want to believe in personality types, Alan…Maybe some people are just born with the worldview that we can correct and improve the world, manage it top-down, modify it from the outside; they're usually the ones who think the world itself is based on a blueprint in the first place, a plan, be it that of a Creator or the one embedded in life's genetic code - which are two versions of the same creation myth, if you think about it. Others, like me, I guess we seem to like life just the way it is, a self-creating and improvisational universe, made of relationships instead of atoms, maybe that's because we can see just how contextual and self-referential and uncontrollable reality really is. How free it is."

"Don't worry, Dave, they'll only put you in jail..."

On our way down the hill, Alan and I walk past the much acclaimed Cloisters, glory of Northern Manhattan, facsimile of a monastery from the quote unquote dark ages. A clone.

"You know how this building was erected, Alan?

"Now what?" "The Rockefeller family. They had entire segments of architecture brought over from some medieval joint in Europe. There's this web site I found that implies how grateful we should be to this great philanthropist of ours for building it! Doesn't that sound a tad feudal to you? As feudal as the dark ages themselves? How fitting. The site also has this banner that says "God Bless America".

We meander down through more segments of the park's "8 miles of pedestrian pathways". Alan sees another Red-tailed Hawk. "What's needed, Alan, is the sum of all our stories, not mine or yours alone, but all of them, in dialogue. Networks, not institutions. An ecosystem of voices - with no other conductor but the orchestra itself, like a real ecosystem. An eco-democracy. My buddy Lou says the future is anonymous, that we're at the end of his-tory. He says we'll witness the birth of galaxies of independent thinking minds and their published, readable interpretations of the world, all collated into one intertwined whole on the internet - the likes of the natural world - a world without leaders, a world without God, a world without superstars; just a world of animation and spirit and soul. Global panarchy, with lots of good fun and fiestas to go to - except this time we'll be making our own clothes and growing our own food, locally."

Alan and I continue, downwards. We can see Dykman street through the bare branches. The diner. My favorite diner. Parkview restaurant, full of hipsters with hangovers, Dominican families and authentic greasy food. Cholesterol and Wonderbread and bad coffee for the Masses.

"I'm ordering the usual feta cheese and spinach omelet, Alan…I can already feel it slide down my throat!"

"Nah, porridge…"

"Alan, I have one last request before we sit down and indulge and talk about shit like the Oscars and the corruption in Albany - I'll be sending you a list of grievances*, I'm sending it out to all my friends as a Happy New Year email blast… loads of bullet points, ideas and thoughts gleaned from my angry mind over the course of 2006. I want you to read it."

"Full of facts and figures and stats and numbers, I presume…to prove your point?"

"Nothing but...not to mention the ones I purposefully omitted.

"Good, Dave, I'll give you a painting in return…"

* Dave's dung list…




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