This morning a Cooper’s hawk picked off a mourning dove from underneath the bird feeder in the front yard, then perched on a pile of leaves in the woods to eat it methodically over the course of an hour, tearing off bits of flesh, tossing them back, discarding the feathers, ignoring the freezing rain that dripped on her shoulders. I’d filled the feeder last night in anticipation of the snow, and the squirrels being squirrels dumped a third of its contents onto the ground, which bounty lured the dove to the raptor’s waiting embrace. I’m reduced to pimping for hawks. Not to mention the leaves I’d raked into a pile last month for Ivy to jump in now gave the hawk vantage for glancing round, after every mouthful, to check that no one was scoping her lunch. No one was. The feeder had cleared, the finches scattered. The neighbor’s miniature dachshund was safely inside. And all this went on twenty feet from the window where I watched, looking up at intervals from my work, writing documentation for a web application, which seemed, in context, thoroughly pointless.
Recently I read a collection of essays called The Virtues of Ignorance in which the authors argue, variously but collectively, for the merits of a worldview based on an acceptance of our own ignorance. Not that we ought to make no effort to learn, but to recognize that whatever we do learn will forever be dwarfed by what we still don’t know and approach the world with a humility appropriate to that state. I have a great deal more to say about this book at some point, but for now I’ll quote from Steve Talbott’s essay, “Toward an Ecological Conversation”:
There were several sick chickadees at my feeder that winter a few years ago, and I began to learn why some people view feeding stations themselves as an insult to nature. A feeder draws a dense, “unnatural” population of birds to a small area. This not only encourages the spread of disease but also evokes behavioral patterns one might never see in a less artificial habitat. And, if feeders are problematic, what was I to think of my own habit of sitting outside for long periods and feeding birds from my hands?… By what right do I encourage tameness in creatures of the wild? The Virtues of Ignorance, p. 101
There are, Talbott notes, two classic answers to the dilemma. The first is what he calls “radical preservationism” — to withdraw entirely and leave nature alone. The second is to attempt to manage our dwindling wilderness scientifically. But while we can never have enough knowledge to manage nature with full assurance of success, to urge perfect caution would forbid any and all action, and “it is as dangerous to make ignorance the excuse for radical inaction as it is to found action on the boast of perfect knowledge.” Neither answer really satisfies, and indeed both share a common assumption:
Both camps regard nature as a world in which the human being cannot meaningfully participate. To the advocate of pristine wilderness untouched by human hands, nature presents itself as an inviolate and largely unknowable Other; to the would-be manager, nature is a collection of objects so disensouled and unrelated to us that we can take them as a mere challenge for our technological inventiveness. Both stances deprive us of any profound engagement with the world that nurtured us. Ibid., p. 103.
We are thus called, Talbott says, to live “between knowledge and ignorance.” Human beings have a model for this already — the domain of human relations. We deal with other human beings — whom we can never know perfectly, yet with whom we must interact — by engaging them in conversation, and we must engage nature in conversation as well. Talbott explores the idea of ecological conversation in some depth, but I was drawn back to it this morning, watching a hawk feed on the dove I had lured and fattened for him, as I thought about the inevitability of unintended consequences.
I could claim that I feed the birds from a sense of responsibility. My lifestyle, simple though it may be by the standards of many twenty-first-century Americans, is insanely lavish by any other standard, and I displace more wildlife than I’d be comfortable accounting for. I don’t see radical preservationism as an option; I’ve already put my foot in it. But really, my reasons are more selfish: I love the birds. (I’m partial to woodpeckers, and I admit I was glad it wasn’t one of them that became a hawk’s lunch today.) I enjoy watching them — literally; they bring me joy, the hawks every bit as much as the songbirds, all the more because I don’t really understand them. As Talbott writes,
While we live in our environment, we are not wholly of it. We can detach ourselves from our surroundings and view them objectively. This is not a bad thing. What is disastrous is our failure to crown this achievement with the selfless, loving conversation that makes it possible. Only in encountering an Other separate from myself can I learn to love. Ibid., p. 111.
I sat apart from the drama this morning, watching from my snug, well-lit, industrially manufactured home, yet I had everything to do with it. I created the habitat and maintained the vacant lot from development, I encouraged the doves to be easy pickings, I made the hawk her comfortable perch. How does one judge an action — by its intent or by its consequences? Even I can’t say how pure my intentions are, and how your assess the consequences depends, today at least, on whether you’re the hawk or the dove. All we can do is join the conversation, make our best effort, and accept our measure of responsibility for the outcome.
And if it brings some entertainment on a gray, slushy day, all the better.