The thing with feathers

On the second day of our trip, at approximately 1:15 in the afternoon, a large black-and-white woodpecker with the characteristic color pattern of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker flew across the bayou at close range in front of [Bobby] Harrison and me. We cried out simultaneously, ‘Ivory-bill!’ and paddled frantically toward shore. As soon as we landed, we took off through the boot-sucking muck and mire of the swamp, climbing up and over fallen trees and through branches, with camcorder in hand and running. Although the bird landed on tree trunks briefly a couple of times, we weren’t able to catch up with it or take video.

Fifteen minutes later, I suggested that we sit down and write detailed field notes, before we’d had a chance to think much about what we had seen or to confer with each other.

As he finished his notes, Harrison sat down on a log, put his face in his hands, and began to sob. ‘I saw an ivory-bill,’ he said. I stood quietly a few feet away, too choked with emotion to speak.

– Tim Gallagher

The ivory bill — sometimes called the white-back, pearly bill, poule de bois and even Lord God bird — was known for the two-note rap of its bill as it ripped into tree bark in search of edible grubs and beetle larvae.
– Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press

Its notes are clear, loud, and yet rather plaintive. They are heard at a considerable distance, perhaps half a mile, and resemble the false, high note of a clarionet.
– John James Audubon

If you’re not a birder or a conservationist, you may well be wondering what the fuss is all about. After all, it’s not a big story like the Michael Jackson trial. Not to mention the papal succession – that was huge! And you mean to tell me you think the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is biggest story since the fall of the Berlin Wall? C’mon! It’s just a bird.

Even the usually savvy on-line environmental magazine Grist failed to grasp the full import of this story, omitting any mention of it in their daily digest of news links yesterday. When I wrote to complain, a friendly editor responded right away by pointing me to their blog, where the story had indeed earned a few, superficial lines – “Everyone thought it was extinct, but apparently one has been spotted (grainy video here). Cool!” – under the headline “Big news for the bird nerd crowd.”

Perhaps if it were “only” a story about a lost-and-found, mysterious and magnificent bird, this attitude would be understandable. But I’m not even a birder, and the news had me crying and dancing around the room (and that was before I started drinking).

This is a story about us. It’s a story about the possibility of redemption and the persistence of hope, “the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson once observed.

Back in the 1930s and 40s, when the last known ivory-billed breeding territories were threatened with destruction, we knew full well what we were about. Once found in old-growth bottomland forests along the coast from eastern Texas to North Carolina and in the Mississippi floodplain as far north as southern Ohio and Illinois, it had dwindled to just a few known locations as a result of an orgy of logging that climaxed in the first decades of the 20th century. As the Cornell Lab’s website puts it,

Before European settlement, some 52 million acres of the southeast were a wilderness of bottomland hardwood forests–those that develop in the floodplains of slow-moving rivers and streams. These forested wetlands have their tree roots in wet soil and their trunks often in standing water. Nearly half of the southeast’s bottomland hardwood forests were found in the Mississippi River alluvial plain, the river’s age-old delta, spanning seven states. Today these forests have shrunk to less than one-fifth of their original 24 million-acre extent. It is in this vastly diminished forest that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was rediscovered in Arkansas in 2004.

What remains of the once-grand bottomland hardwood forests of the Mississippi Delta, today clings to the rivers of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana–a thin skeleton of their former abundance. No other wetland system in North America has suffered such a tremendous reduction in area as have the forests of the Mississippi delta, now considered one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the world.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of traditional blues music. To me, it’s no accident that some of the most haunting and evocative folk songs ever recorded were the work of African American sharecroppers, lumber camp and levee gang workers in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. (My first reaction on hearing my brother Mark’s phone message, where he said something had been rediscovered “right across the river from Rosedale,” was to begin whistling Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” – “Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, take my rider by my side…”) When I traveled to the Delta two years ago, I was shocked by how thoroughly the land had been tamed – drained and leveled and monocropped with cotton, a forbiddingly bleak landscape. Thin ribbons of trees clung to the sides of streams and oxbow lakes. There was nothing remotely colorful about the poverty that was everywhere on view. Yet last night, as I celebrated this astonishing news, who did I want to listen to but R.L. Burnside, Bukka White and the incomparable Johnny Shines? Contrary to stereotype, one can find plenty of life-affirming messages in the blues. But they’re not immediately obvious; you have to really listen. This is worlds away from the bright and shiny superficiality of most American pop music.

The Nature Conservancy and its partners, too, have been avoiding the bright lights. For the better part of a year they’ve been laboring in secret to preserve as much land as possible before going public with the announcement. That’s because everyone in the conservation community remembers what happened the last time we had a chance like this: we blew it. Or rather, one very rich and greedy man blew it. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s last confirmed sighting had been in the 300-square-mile Singer Tract in Louisiana in 1944; everyone realized at the time that this was one of its very last strongholds. The National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology made a concerted effort to purchase the land, but its owner refused to sell. In 1948, knowing that he was quite possibly consigning a species to oblivion, Mr. Singer (he of the sewing machine) had the tract clearcut to make way for soybean fields.

Three years ago, after a fruitless effort to confirm rumors of the bird’s persistence along the Pearl River in Louisiana, John W. Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab, expressed the frustration conservationists felt toward this tragedy far more eloquently than I can:

Despite scattered reports from Louisiana to Florida ever since, no definitive proof exists that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers persisted beyond the doomed birds studied by Tanner [in the Singer tract].

How could we do this? Today’s renewed interest in the Ivory-billed Woodpecker should kindle much more than dim hopes of a dramatic rediscovery. Whether or not the bird still exists (odds are strongly against it), the ivory-billed story demands our full attention as a vivid symbol of the most comprehensive conservation failure of 20th-century America. By 1900, millions of acres of virgin pine and hardwood still existed in the southeastern United States. Who could have predicted that in our individual, corporate, and public lusts for materials and revenue, we would lack the foresight or collective will to save even a single tract of this primary forest? Quite simply, we cut it all.

For years, I’ve lived with frustration about this inexcusable mistake. Now, I’ve even wept about it along the banks of a Louisiana bayou. With a hand resting on a four-foot-diameter water oak trunk, my mind flooded with black-and-white images of men standing at the base of trees nearly four times as wide. I’ll never see such a sight. Nor will my children. Nor will theirs. The 20th-century frenzy consumed trees that had been alive since before Columbus arrived. Will anyone ever be allowed to see such a forest again?

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker existed because forests were vast and the trees immense. By taking literally every stand of big trees, we drained the woodpecker’s lifeblood. Today in a few places, the forest regenerates and even faintly recalls the forest primeval. If the Ivory-billed Woodpecker did survive the bottleneck of our thoughtless, century-long massacre, then it could flourish again, for there are places like the Pearl River where conditions are steadily improving. But they still have a long way to go … and they are still at our mercy.

If the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct, we should nevertheless vow to resurrect its ageless habitat of giants as a monument to that landscape’s greatest bird, and allow a generation of Americans far distant from our own to walk under those forests once again.

But now, miracle of miracles, we have a second chance. As my 41-year-old brother Steve wrote to me yesterday, “This is the story I’ve been waiting to read since I was six years old.” Pica of the aptly named blog Feathers of Hope put it this way:

The world’s a mess. All the work I see being done around me every day to study, preserve, explain the natural world seems like a drop in the ocean, given the devastation we are wreaking on the planet. Yet today, all of it — ALL of it — is given new hope.

So I think I’m far from the only one to whom that “high note of a clarionet” sounds as if it could be a blast from Gabriel’s trumpet: the dead have risen! Fate knocks not once, it seems, but twice: a two-note rap. You can hear it too. Just step outside.

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