March 27, 2008
Books: Bird-watching and ‘the Jewish question’
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Are we divinely fashioned creatures -- exiles from Eden, waiting to return home? Or have we lost that myth and are now permanently adrift -- are we wandering Homo sapiens with no hope ever of finding a home?
About seven years ago, I wrote a story for The New Yorker about the ivory-billed woodpecker. This bird was -- perhaps is -- our largest woodpecker, a beautiful black-and-white bird with a long white bill that haunted the bottom land forests of the Deep South. Considered extinct since 1944, the bird has aroused speculation and inspired searches ever since, but in 2000, I went down to a swamp in Louisiana because someone believed he had seen the bird.
I was deeply taken with the poetry of the ivory bill's story. For one thing, its common name, the Lord God bird, seemed to reveal a hunger to find more than just a bird.
That name was never much in common use, actually, but the popularity of the name today makes sense, revealing the desire to find in nature, or perhaps behind nature, something transcendent -- something divine. As if birds, poor beleaguered fragments of unspoiled nature, were like the sparks the mystics believed we must each gather up to repair the world.
Me, I kept scribbling in my notebook the abbreviation, "I.B. Woodpecker," and I realized the bird somehow had merged with that long-time famous employee of The Forward: I.B. Singer.
The I.B. Woodpecker, too, was the last of its kind, a scrap of natural history evoking a vanished world, a wild world that had produced me biologically, even if I could not go there anymore -- just as Singer's world had in part produced me culturally, even if I could not find it.
One of the poems I keep returning to in "The Life of the Skies" is by Robert Frost. It's called "The Oven Bird," and it focuses on a humble little warbler. In the poem, the bird laments the encroachments of civilization.
It says, "The highway dust is over all." And the poem ends, referring to the bird's song: "The question that he frames in all but words is what to make of a diminished thing."
I'd always assumed this poem was written in the middle of the 20th century, but in fact it was written around 1906, not much later than Cahan's ill-fated birding trip to Connecticut. Amazing that the highway dust is over all, only a few years after the first automobile was mass produced in this country.
And there was something else about the refrain of Frost's bird that spoke to me at the deepest level: "What to make of a diminished thing." Certainly that line had a Jewish reverberation for me.
Jews have been asking that question, how to make due with fragments -- with a scrap of the Temple, with a tiny fraction of the population promised Abraham, with a wounded post-Holocaust population -- for a long time.
But it isn't a specifically Jewish question, and it becomes more universal all the time. Everyone in the modern world must ask what to make of a diminished thing.
It is a religious question, an environmental question, a national question, a global question and also a personal one. It follows us on the journey we must all make to find ourselves in a post-industrial, post-Darwinian world.
For me, the journey began after a word spoken at the Shabbat table, by looking up.
Jonathan Rosen will discuss "The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature," at the Central Library on April 1 at 7 p.m. as part of the "ALOUD" series. For more information call (213) 228-7025.
Jonathan Rosen is the author of "The Talmud and The Internet" and the novels "Eve's Apple" and "Joy Comes in the Morning." The former culture editor of The Forward, he is the editorial director of Nextbook.
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