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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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