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There’s a calmness to predawn New York mornings, like the peacefulness found in old empty places of prayer; night sounds are ending and making room for day sounds; there’s a space in between two worlds where slow blue light appears, and stillness. Even birds are silent as they assemble on rooftops and branches. If there’s an order to their seating arrangement, it isn’t easy to comprehend.
It’s at this juncture that the entire city is changed. Buildings that were once shadowed and ominous glisten with light and gold; a breath of breeze moves a single leaf, curtains sway, and darkness surrenders to the unshakable determination of dawn. Air fills with the smell of hot sun touching wet grass and the songs of birds, fading in and out like radio signals, the closer to dawn the clearer the sounds. In the stillness the birds slice through the air as if they owned the city. Perching on ledges, on stop signs—as if stop signs were a natural part of their environment—and in trees planted on rooftops, they call to each other at daybreak and the world with all its fragility and stillness comes alive.
There’s a difference between stillness and silence. Silence is awkward and uncomfortable, often resulting from inconsiderate actions. Stillness is restful, and in the early morning it’s the color of light blue.
Somewhere behind my apartment building, a bird gives one bold whistle, as if this were the moment the new day could begin; others, sounding like obnoxious schoolboys whistling at girls, make loud, slow-motion, two-part calls. Timid repetitive chirps steady as raindrops follow the calls of robins perched on a high wire fence. None of these birds are birds of prey. Birds of prey don’t sing.
In the early morning, before people are torn from dreams and the smell of coffee bursts from delis and vending wagons, before avenues are clogged with long-necked buses inching their way to somewhere, before all of it, there’s a space in the city that belongs to the birds.
One cold winter I spread seeds on the windowsill for cardinals who’d lingered into December. Their scarlet feathers in the gray, bare environment were like roses or blood, depending on my state of mind that particular day. I woke up late one morning to find minuscule snowshoe-like prints in the snow, back and forth and back and forth, as if the cardinals had been pacing and pacing, waiting for food, then given up and flown away.
I’ve dreamt several times about the environment and the future. In one dream, bird feeding had been completely outlawed in cities; an attempt at sanitation, we were told. There was a crisis and cities were collapsing. Trees were removed to discourage nest building. In the future, cities had few birds and few trees, in my dream.
I spoke to a child a few days ago. I said, “I’m writing a piece about birds. Do you have any thoughts about them?”
“No, not really,” she said.
“Well,” I said, “what’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you think of them?”
Without hesitation she said, “The West Nile virus.”
Delicate images of birds can now evoke thoughts of massive toxic aerial and ground spraying and death, largely due to government panic. Hundreds of unnamed viruses are probably in the environment, and the government can’t spray poisonous chemicals on humanity every time it names one. The West Nile virus has been around for more than half a century, and where it’s been found, birds left to themselves have developed a resistance and the strongest of each species have survived. In much the same way, generations of mosquitoes will build up a tolerance for insecticides and over time will become stronger and stronger. It’s tragic that the government, in its hysteria, is exploding poison over the rooms of its vulnerable, sleeping children. Over the water. And over wildlife and its future.
Last evening I placed fresh-cut purple dahlias on a shelf in my apartment. In the morning every stalk was wilting and every bloom was dead. Maybe it was a coincidence, but aerial spraying had been carried out in the city during the night. And I didn’t hear as many birds as usual.
Thousands of pages have been written about the fragility of the environment:
Soon after the spraying had ended, there were unmistakable signs that all was not well.
—Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
And thousands of pages have been written about the future:
We seek to promote a world environment in which societies with values similar to our own can flourish.
—Dick Cheney, in a 1991 speech
How the repeated massive aerial and ground spraying of poisons into the atmosphere will affect thousands of species of plants and animals is presently unknown. Not only mosquitoes are being killed but also honeybees, beetles, and butterflies. How the toxins will affect the lives of cardinals is also unknown. The long-term effect on humans is clearly unknown. Malathion, which was heavily sprayed last year, is in the same family as nerve gas. Two of its many side effects are anxiety and depression. Just what any New Yorker doesn’t need.
But despite all the unknowns, two facts are certain. The massive amounts of chemicals that have been sprayed and continue to be sprayed over the people of New York will eventually reach the human nervous system. And there is no such thing as a risk-free poison.