The Indignant Desert Birds

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!  Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of
Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” – W.B. Yeats,
‘The Second Coming’

photos by Charles Riedel, AP

–  In Prescott, Arizona this week the principle of a local high school ordered that the non-white figures on a prominent school mural be “lightened” to a Caucasian skin tone, following a series of racially tinged threats leveled against mural artists and students by White community members.  This after Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed into law a ban on the teaching of ethnic studies in state-funded schools.  Elsewhere in the world, Israeli commandos appear to have massacred a flotilla of activists intending to supply aid to the besieged Gaza Strip.  The survivors of the boarding action have been detained by the Israeli military, pending their deportation to Turkey.  As of the last international report, the latest aid vessel, the MV Rachel Corrie, has been intercepted by Israel.  Meanwhile the death toll from the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico continues to rise, despite efforts by the corporation to stifle reportage from the affected area.

This Gulf of Mexico thing has shaken me up in a way that no big scary disaster- and one seems to happen every week, somewhere- yet has.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the Gulf Coast, in the barrier islands of southern Texas, and once for an entire summer on Sanibel Island, off the coast of Florida.  I have no great love for the greasy grey waters of the Gulf, but they’re home to a lot of people, humans among them.  I remember an evening in Port Aransas drinking and swapping tall stories with an oil company biologist who patrolled the waters around decommissioned drilling platforms.  On one dive to inspect an old platform he and his team of interns started almost a kilometer out- something to do with the currents.  As he approached the skeleton of the rig, a dark shape loomed up ahead through the sun-shot cloudy waters.  Before this oil company biologist a barracuda twice the length of a man hung quietly in the water column, regarding them with a passive eye and a ferocious beak.  “It is never the shallower for the calmnesse,” said John Donne, ” The Sea is a deepe, there is as much water in the Sea, in a calme, as in a storme.”  I remember the clack of night herons in the mangroves at dawn, and the boiling sand as fresh-hatched sea turtles scrambled out of the beach towards the comforting waves.  I used to go bicycling through the swamps at night, on one side the alligators belching and shining their eyes against my headlamps, on the other the grassy marshlands and purring tree-frogs and the sussurus of the Gulf on the shore.  Those places, and those sea turtles, and the ghostly-finned tiger-fish in the surf, and the kingly mangroves, and the dolphins spouting past the sandbars, and the tiny hyperactive sandpipers and long stately willets, and the whole of the beach line, and that old barracuda, will die soon, if they haven’t already.  It’s a horrible way to go, choked in cloying grey-black slime, dragged to shore a mess of feathers or scales, coughing and bleeding and starving while the summer stars spin overhead and the Earth climbs painfully toward dawn.

It’s maybe a little tacky to quote from ‘The Second Coming,’ but the poem as it is, speaking in full and not just through the “widening gyre” bit that everyone remembers, is worth lingering over.  Avram Davidson asserts in his ‘Adventures in Unhistory’ that the “rough beast” was intended to be Alistair Crowley, but I give Mr. Yeats a bit more credit in epic construction to come up with a grander symbolic meaning for that image than a mere contemporary lampoon.  Something strange and terrible is happening in our world.

Traveling around the backcountry of the rez, one gets to talking whenever one sees another human being out on the roads.  Asking after the local wildlife, partly out of professional concern, partially out of curiosity, the report from Kayenta to Birdsprings has been the same: the animals are going away.  They’re not dying per se, but there aren’t as many as there used to be.  Sure, it’s been happening ever since the Anglos turned up, but in the last twenty years, and even more so in the last five, it’s been speeding up.  Pastures a fellow on horseback would fear to traverse on account of the prairie dog holes are now clear and open- not worth a second thought.  Even the burrows are gone.  Badgers have declined precipitously, along, I might add, with the broad expanses of yellowgrass they rely upon for hunting grounds.  In nearly three months of nightly rabbit watches, there are some roads along which we’ve yet to see a one.  Slowly and heavily, in kivas across Hopiland the fulfilled prophecies are being noted.

I’m frightened by all of this, and at times the barrage of worldly grief is overwhelming.  Of all the possible futures, none looks particularly rosy.  More than anything, though, I’m sad at these little local knife-fights and chronic international night terrors.  It’s such a beautiful world- the song of tanagers in the morning and the butterscotch smell of ponderosa pines- that it is awful for even one bright jewel of a sea turtle to be stripped from it.  All over, as amphibians and tree ferns pass behind the veil, as fear masked in rationality and modernism bleeds magic from the earth, as all our backyard Chernobyls grow heavy with terrible fruit, there is a great beauty fading from the world.  Fourteen centuries of enforced forgetfulness have dulled us to the play of leaf shadows on the forest floor, and deafened us to the voices of wind.  That we go about our working life lives so ably, with such poise even in the midst of constant catastrophe, without so much as a garment rent or a hot tear shed in the open street, is so piteous, so bitterly sad to me.

After the Long Walk to Hwéeldi, and the longer walk back to Canyon De Chelly and other home lands, many of the survivors refused to speak of their experience.  Similar accounts of survivors’ reticence appear following the German Holocaust of the 1930’s and -40’s and the genocide of ethnic Armenians at the hands of the Turks in the early 1900’s.  The weight of carrying the memory of a family, sometimes a whole village, seems to block the gates of speech for some survivors of intense, prolonged trauma.  To face the reality of those memories, even in the presence of family or other survivors, can be too much for a human being to bear.  So often it’s said, “our grandmother never spoke of it.”  What stories will we one day tell the grandchildren?

“Don’t propagandize kids that they’re oppressed and that they have no future and that they should be angry at their country.  Teach them that this is the land of opportunity, where if they work hard they can achieve their dreams.” – Tom Horne, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction


One Response to “The Indignant Desert Birds”

  1. Bill Shullenberger Says:

    Thanks Ben. This is strong and beautfully written testimony. Keep on keeping on, and don’t give up. Bill

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