could be worse than counting birds at Christmas?
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,
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
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
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,
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
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
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
"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
"Only if it's not flying."
"Then don't count it."
"Who sets the rules?"
"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
"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.
"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,
"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
"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.
"Dave, 10 more waxwings, on another Hawthorne, straight
"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
"Dave, take the Military-Industrial complex. Add on
"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,
"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
"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
(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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Your 4 Tufted tit-mice…tell me, do they always travel
"..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,
"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
"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?"
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
"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!"
"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
"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
"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!"
"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
"Good, Dave, I'll give you a painting in return…"
Dave's dung list…