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Merwin On Ecology Essay, Research Paper
From "Ecology, or the Art of Survival" (1958). This
excerpt is taken from a review of Ludlow Griscom and Alexander Sprunt, Jr., eds., The
Warblers of America and Guy Mountfort, Wild Paradise, in Nation, 187
(Nov. 15, 1958).
When I say that as I perused these two books the question of survival
kept up a dull continuo in my head, intruding itself on my pleasure at intervals like the
sound of a faucet left running somewhere, I do not mean to comment adversely on the books.
Nor am I perversely stretching their scope in the interest of a needless topicality. I am
talking about survival of human beings as well as of birds, and I am using the word
survival in its familiar contemporary sense-as distinguished from the perennial objective
which impels flocks of Magnolia Warblers to migrate over vast distances at night at the
risk of crashing headlong into obstacles and perishing by thousands, and which has taught
the marvelously camouflaged Stone Curlew, in southern Spain, to keep as still as the
ground it nests on and the eggs it broods. In its natural sense, of course, the question
of survival has been with us since we were amoebas, or whatever we were. We may have
developed ears, at first, to listen to it, and minds primarily to be haunted by it. For
Homo sapiens it has a peculiar meaning: one of the essential things that separate us from
the other animals is our awareness of our mortality; not a day passes, in the life of an
ordinary man, when he is not reminded of his eventual death.
In our time, however, the question has developed a special sense.
Nearly as close and insistent as the old "how long will I survive," we keep
hearing "how long will anything survive?" We have this all to ourselves too; the
other animals are not aware that tomorrow they may be blasted to nothing, or deprived of
the necessities of their existence.
But there are important differences between the two questions: the old
one, for example, is posed by the nature of existence, and there is, finally, nothing that
can be done about it; the more recent one is a reverberation set up by human action, and
the inference is that human responsibility might be effective in controlling it. I am not
talking just about the Bomb. I go on the assumption, which I cannot avoid, that there is
some link between a society’s threat to destroy itself with its own s inventions, and that
same society’s possibly ungovernable commitment to industrial expansion and population
increase, which in our own country remove a million acres from the wild every year, and
which threaten more and more of the wild life of the globe.
I am told that this is a rash assumption; alas, the subject at times
has led me to entertain notions which were even crankier. A bird of prey–or warbler for
that matter–requires such-and-such an area to range over in order to survive; I have
wondered whether a society in which there were not a given minimal area of wild land for
every human being, whether or not he cared about it, knew about it, or ever laid eyes on
it–any more than he ever sees the fields his potatoes come from–might not also be on the
way out. The bird ceases to exist through starvation, or because his breeding conditions
disappear, or through encroachment and slaughter. As for a society, when it possesses the
means of its own destruction, and grows daily more crowded, restless, tense, unhappy, and
disoriented, in situations without precedent, what is likely to happen to it? If it
survives might it not do so only under circumstances so artificial, restricted and
neurotic as to resemble captivity? I am reminded that man is, after all, a civilized
animal, and not a bird nor in most senses comparable with one. And I hurry to state that I
am not proposing a return to some Never-Never Land in the past–indeed I am not nearly as
long on proposals as I would wish. However, I am addicted to both birds and men, and that
faucet keeps running somewhere.
Neither ecology (which in Mountfort’s Wild Paradise is described
as "studying the relations of animals and plants to their environment and to each
other") nor man’s usually disastrous influence upon it, is the main subject of these
books. But for one thing we are confronted, as in so much contemporary writing about
noncivilized animals, with a more or less overt feeling that a sentence has been passed
and is gradually being executed; undoubtedly this will continue to be usual at least as
long as the words "wild" and "waste" are practically interchangeable
when referring to land. For another thing, the detailed evidence of how well most species
have adapted to their different environments, with their various perils and intruders, is
inevitably contrasted with the bafflement, diminution, and defeat of a growing number of
species in the presence of man. So the Chestnut-Sided Warbler, in whose nest the parasitic
cowbird often deposits an egg, "sometimes responds by covering the intruding egg with
an additional nest flooring," and vultures are able to gather out of an apparently
clear sky because with their extremely long-range eyesight they "watch each other and
the smaller scavengers as they patrol the skies; a downward movement is the signal awaited
and this is instantly passed on for miles around, as one after the other follows
suit." On the other hand kites, which in Shakespeare’s London were "well
protected and became so confident that they would take crusts from the hands of children
on London Bridge," have dwindled until in all of Great Britain "only about
twenty- five pairs of our kites survive, in a closely guarded hill area in Wales."
The "Demoiselle Crane and Black Stork used to nest on the Coto; given continued
protection they may yet do so again," though when a pair nested north of the Coto in
1952 the nest was robbed by egg-collectors. Still, not all species are vanishing; some of
them, particularly some of the smaller insectivorous ones, including certain warblers, are
actually on the increase. And not all ornithologists are specially anxious: indeed Ludlow
Griscom, in an introductory essay to The Warblers of America, waxes grumpy over the
fact that "sentimentality" and protection threaten to make bird-nesting and
egg-collecting lost arts.
From "On the Bestial Floor"(1965). This excerpt is taken
from a Review of C. P. Idyll, The Abyss, Colin Betram, In Search of Mermaids;
George B. Schaller, The Year of the Gorilla; and Ruth Harrison,
Animal Machines, in Nation, 200 (Mar. 22, 1965).
These are four books about man, the same who once heard his deity
exhort him to "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and
have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every
living thing that moveth upon the earth." Together these recent publications
illustrate a curious development in the later days of the species, which has come to
devote to the aforementioned command a zealous, and what sometimes appears to be a
slavish, observance long after the author of it has fallen silent and been given up for
dead. In the new silence, man’s superiority to the rest of creation and his right to hold
over it the powers of life and death, evolution and extinction, are questioned scarcely
more often or more seriously than they were when he boasted a soul as is excuse. Now in
the rare instances where his convenience alone is not taken as ample justification for his
manipulations and erasures of other species, it is his intelligence, or some aspect of it,
that is held up most regularly as the great exoneration. This, according to the myth, was
the property which gave him the edge on the other creatures; and in the process it became
endowed, in his eyes, with a spontaneous moral splendor which now constitutes between him
and the rest of nature not a relative but an absolute difference, like the one which
separates him from the silence. Indeed, by now, this difference and its exigencies are
normally deferred to like the great necessities themselves, as though they were not only
ordained but everlasting. It is true that this justification of man to man is voluntarily
accepted only by man. To the beasts there must often appear to be little essential
distinction between the force of human intelligence and other kinds of force. It is not a
relevant view, of course. And the animals will not have appreciated, either, that it is
this same faculty of intelligence that has recently given man the power of life and death
over his own species, thus relegating him to a position which until now he and his gods
had reserved for beasts devoid of reason. At the same time as he was preparing this coup
his restless intellect was already perfecting a system of promoting living creatures which
he had never made to the status of mechanical objects expressly contrived for his
advantage. And yet as man’s power over other living things has become, if not more
perfect, at least more pervasive, his dominion over himself, however conceived, seems here
and there to be escaping him despite analyses and institutions, and taking, it may be, the
route of the departed divinity.
Both Selections from Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose, 1949-1982.
Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom. Copyright ? 1987 by W.S. Merwin.
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