April. – The first few arrive like memories, swifting themselves back into the mind. There – one’s flitted behind the high tide bush. Another – is it? – just darted beneath the cordgrass. Visitations, epiphanies, shards of holy light: they return, and return, and return.
I began venturing to Jacob’s Point in the spring of 2020, when what we were still calling “the coronavirus” was multiplying itself throughout the country’s respiratory tracts. I needed a break from the news; the doctors kept saying it was safe to go outside. Although I have never been an avid birder – the sort who competes and travels and makes “life lists”– I had recently picked up bird photography. It seemed like the right antidote to the germophobic paranoia into which I had recently descended. Go to a marsh. Get my boots dirty. Spend some time contemplating creatures for whom the word “pandemic” did not obtain. For them, it was just spring.
It would be strange to call Jacob’s Point a “refuge.” It is more of a remnant. An atavism, evidencing the ancient ecological networks of Rhode Island’s coastline. It sits at the brackish nexus of the Warren River and the Narragansett Bay, not far from Bristol, an old whaling town. A small swath of marsh, spared from the castellations of expensive houses that otherwise crowd the bay’s shores. Saltmarsh cordgrass, supple and wheatlike, blankets the marsh in rippled tufts. Purple Martins swish in and out of plastic gourds that people have hung out for them. Osprey, likewise, perch on human-erected platforms, gnawing heaps of bloody fish. At some point, the Department of Environmental Management dug crisscrossing trenches throughout the marsh to supplement the cordgrass in its war against an invasive reed called phragmites. I see a lot of birds in these trenches: herons, ibises, sandpipers. The marsh makes no pretensions to being Untouched Wilderness, but it remains wild in its own way.
One morning I was crouched low at the edge of the beach, trying to get a photograph of a shorebird called a Willet, when I turned and saw that I was being approached by a short woman with a white aureole of hair. She was clad in a kind of marsh-suit: waders, high boots, a fanny pack that held two bottles of water. She had both a camera and a pair of binoculars strapped to her torso.
“You look like a serious birder!” she said, eyeing my camera’s telephoto lens. “You up for a little adventure?”
She explained to me that she was looking for Saltmarsh Sparrows. I had seen the sign at the edge of the marsh: SALTMARSH SPARROW RESEARCH INITIATIVE: FOR MORE INFO, SEE SALSRI.ORG. And I had read of the sparrows, how they are critically endangered due to sea level rise. I had even identified a few myself. Speckled torsos, and little orange mustaches.
“I’m trying to get a photo of a female over here,” she said. “If we can get a shot of the bands around her legs, then I won’t have to trap her. You might be able to get it with that lens of yours.”
We chased the sparrow for a quarter of an hour. It was a surprisingly irritating task. My new friend taught me that Saltmarsh Sparrows rarely “post up,” preferring to hide low in the cordgrass. The trick is to catch sight of one before flushing it, or, having flushed it, to watch it intently until it lands in a new location. Then, you have to creep to that spot, and repeat.
Our business with the sparrow completed, the woman turned to me and introduced herself. “I’m Deirdre Robinson. You want to see something cool?” She led me to a patch of grass at the edge of the field and felt around in the tufts for a moment. “Look at this.”
Yawning up at me was the outstretched mouth of a baby bird.
Two days later, I returned, intent on finding the nest again. I retraced my steps, looking for the small tufts of pink and orange ribbon that would indicate its presence. Coming upon the spot, I knelt down into the earth, using both hands to gently separate the grass, as Deirdre had shown me. And there it was. There was the hatchling, sitting on top of two unhatched eggs. But something was different. The chick wasn’t moving.
I flinched, then looked again. It was perfectly still. Dead, a voice in my head sounded. Or maybe sleeping? a different, feebler voice said. I shuffled away, disturbed. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a dog, unleashed, running wildly down the beach.
I stayed away from the marsh for a few weeks after that. My pandemic sanctuary had become linked with a specter of violence which I could not easily shake. I birded elsewhere, avoiding Jacob’s Point as one avoids an embarrassing memory.
When I finally did work up the courage to return, Deirdre — who, I have since learned, has a habit of hollering across the marsh through cupped hands — called, “come on in Michael!”
“You’re one of us now,” she said as we drew near. “You’re welcome into the marsh. Have you seen any nests yet?”
“Only the one you showed me, over there,” I said, concealing my anxiety.
“Oh, right. Yeah, that one got flooded.” She said it casually. Familiarly. “Hey, there’s someone I want you to meet. That guy over there is Jim O’Neill. You should head over and talk to him. I’m trying to catch and band a female over here, so I’ll see you in a bit.”
I walked in Jim’s direction. The marsh mud, humectant, sucked at my boots. The sun, already higher in the sky than I would have expected, beamed off the cordgrass like it was snow. A green heron crouched in a trench, fixating on a mollusk beneath the water. Willets circled the air, their squeaky-toy cries reverberating out past the waves.
Jim and I got to talking. Unlike Deirdre, he was reserved, contemplative. He had a habit of letting long silences pass in between his statements, as if the marsh itself needed time to evaluate them. And for fifteen minutes, he became my Virgil, explicating not only the lives of the Saltmarsh Sparrows but also the aims of the study.
“Everything depends on the tides,” he said. “We recently had a very high tide, so now we are checking to see which nests have survived. Would you like to see the tide measurer?”
He showed me this device, which amounted to nothing more than a length of rebar stuck in the ground with a line of chalk drawn up the side. When the tide swells, he explained, it engulfs the area, washing the chalk off. The chalk had been erased a good eight inches up the stick. This whole area had recently been swamped.
I gasped a little. “Do any of the nests survive?”
“Oh yes,” Jim replied, sanguine. “Some of them are high enough that they don’t get flooded. Most of them go.” He gave me a quizzical look. “Have you heard this story before?”
I had not. Gazing out over the marsh, I listened as Jim explained the nature of our strivings. Once within every twenty-eight day period, due to the forces of the moon, sun, and weather, the tide waters swell to an exceptionally high point. (They call this, I later learned, “spring tide” allegedly due to the waters “springing forth” at this time.) In the intervening twenty-eight days, the sparrows can build a nest, lay their eggs, hatch them, and feed the hatchlings. The hatchlings, in turn, rapidly grow – not strong enough for open flight, but just enough that they can struggle their way to the tops of the reeds, holding on for dear life, as the only world they have ever known is engulfed by lapping surf. When the spring tide recedes, the mature sparrows repeat this process, mating, nest building, rearing their young, and the rest. They live here, Jim explained, because the marsh is rich in food and because the tides deter predators. But many hatchlings perish in the tides. This would be true even if sea levels were not rising. Perhaps an incoming storm pushes the tide higher than usual before the twenty-eight day mark. Or perhaps the moon and the sun slip into an irregular alignment, summoning the spring tide ahead of schedule.
The study, I began to understand, is trying to account for how the sparrows react to these tides, which have become more severe as a result of sea level rise. These sparrows, I thought, are truly a singular species. They are at the mercy of the celestial bodies, and they have learned to make a virtue out of necessity. If they could have religion, they might be astrologists.
“It’s a fool’s bargain, if you ask me,” Jim said gravely. After a pause, he continued, “Well, I suppose it has been working for them for thousands of years. Until now.” That’s how it goes. Thousands — hundreds of thousands — of years of evolution, your life tied not only to the vicissitudes of this earth but also to the mysterious forces that hold this universe together. Then, you get snuffed out by a bad century.
Our language does not yet possess a word that would adequately characterize the status of the Saltmarsh Sparrow. “Endangered” is too soft, so we intensify it: “critically endangered.” But even that fails to capture its apocalyptic temporality. The latest estimates indicate that the bird may be gone within fifty years. No one knows for sure. They are caught between the Scylla of rising sea levels and the Charybdis of coastal development. These could be mitigated. Stopped, theoretically. But not in time. Not enough.
The extinction of a single species always raises the philosophical question of what, precisely, the world is losing by its demise. The concept of “species,” after all, is a placeholder, a still frame extracted from the everchanging cinema that we call natural selection. In fact, for most of modern ornithological history, the Saltmarsh Sparrow and Nelson’s Sparrow were conflated into a single species, the Sharp-Tailed Sparrow. It was not until the 1990’s that the species were distinguished, based upon the testimony of mitochondrial DNA. The current view is that Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrows share a common ancestor, some undifferentiated marshland bird whose progeny have since become specialists in their respective trades. (It is believed that the two split during the last ice age, their populations having been separated by the incursions of a glacier.) Nelson’s Sparrows were confined to interior fresh-water wetlands, as well as some boreal coastal stretches. Saltmarsh Sparrows, on the other hand, were forced to the tidal salt marshes which punctuate the Atlantic coast.
Thus relocated, the birds have become hyper-specialized. Everything in their lives – including their dietary, nesting, and breeding behaviors – is now adapted to this unique ecotone. They eat bugs that live in marshes, foraging for them in marsh mud, and they make their nests out of marsh grasses. Even their sleep is determined by the marsh: they wake to forage at low tide no matter the hour, pecking at the mud under the light of the moon.
Despite being confined to this narrow habitat, the Saltmarsh Sparrow thrived prior to the decimation of coastal marshes during the Industrial Revolution. The nineteenth-century ornithologist John James Audubon, writing of what were then called “Sharp-tailed Finches” in South Carolina, wrote “I have observed thousands… in late December, and so numerous are they, that I have seen more than forty… killed at one shot.” Since Audubon’s time, Saltmarsh Sparrow numbers have precipitously declined, but the birds are still drawn by the gravity of instinct to the remaining fragments of their ancestral habitat. Many of those born in Jacob’s Point return here, summer after summer, year after year. This behavioral trait is called, rather poetically, “natal fidelity.” (“You ever visit your parents for Christmas or Thanksgiving?” Deirdre asks wryly. “That’s your natal fidelity.”)
It is precisely this rootedness, this emplacement, that spells their doom. As waters rise, and marshland contracts, there will simply be nowhere else for them to go. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, global sea levels would still be projected to rise at least twelve inches over the course of the twenty-first century. That would be a worthy goal, and it would save countless human and non-human lives. But for the sparrows, twelve inches might as well be twelve feet. Jacob’s Point, and most of the other coastal marshes, will be inundated.
Not everyone agrees that the species is condemned. Wild ideas are being thrown around. You could build an elaborate matrix of barriers and ditches, to control tidal flows. Get the birds officially listed as an endangered species, in order to access the legal methods to stop coastal development. Embark on an ambitious, politically infeasible, multimillion-dollar saltmarsh restoration project. Wouldn’t hurt to try. But every time I hear an expert proffer such solutions, I hear a quivering note of hesitation in their voice.
No one knows when it’s time to declare that the bird will – not might, not probably will – go extinct. At what point does an exceedingly high probability become a fact? “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact,” Thoreau wrote, “you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” Thoreau’s sentiment is often read as an unqualified celebration of Truth, but that scimitar would suggest otherwise. Facts, he seems to be saying, can be the source of a spiritual undoing, despite our craving for them.
There is no verb tense in English which connotes: happening now, but not for long. This makes it hard to articulate the world’s current condition.
I returned throughout the summer, to help Deirdre and Jim look for sparrows. These trips became pilgrimages; birding was no longer a form of escapism, but a solemn rite. At first, the marsh was a minefield. An ill-fated misstep onto a nest would have been disastrously consequential. There are clues, Deirdre assured me, as to where sparrows will and will not nest. They like the tall, yellow, crunchy grasses, within which they can build sturdy structures; they dislike short, green, supple shoots. This distinction is easier stated than understood. I was terrified to make a mistake. I could not walk both responsibly and attentively. I dramatically picked up my feet, as if post-holing, looking directly at the spot where I would gingerly place my next step. But then I would realize that, in so doing, I had forgotten to keep my eyes open for sparrows.
But the brain rewires itself in the marsh. I learned to live with the uncertainty. I tried to regard it as a kind of walking meditation. Once, on a retreat, I was taught to walk the labyrinth – an ornate, mazelike path used for spiritual contemplation. There are ornate labyrinths inlaid into the floors of European cathedrals; it is possible that Christian votaries once liturgically walked upon their paths, or crawled them on their knees. The contemporary practice, as I was instructed, is simply to use the occasion to become aware of one’s body and the demanding weight of its gravity. A perambulatory exercise in introspecting, circling, dwelling.
I have decided Jacob’s Point is a kind of labyrinth. I am impressed with Jim and Deirdre, their seemingly superhuman ability to spot sparrows. The many species of sparrows are notorious for being difficult to distinguish from one another. When I took a “Basics of Birding” class, the teacher emphatically told me not to bother with distinguishing sparrows, not until I had become more a skilled birder. But whenever I go walking with Deirdre, I notice that, whenever a sparrow flushes, she not only knows whether it is male or female, but often knows the particular bird. “There goes that female from the nest near the tide line!” she shouts, pointing after a flush of rufous. Each year, the team records more birds. Sadly, they do not chalk this up to a sudden uptick in the sparrows’ numbers, but to their own ability to see them.
For me, this perceptual attunement is slow to come. I’m happy if I get a few shots of the birds Deirdre and Jim have already counted. But surely enough, I gradually feel my eyes sweeping the grass for the birds’ singular flight habits. My ears begin straining for their whisper song. I myself become marshlike, paludal. I compulsively check a tide chart app on my phone throughout the day; a pulse of anxiety hits when I see a spring tide in the forecast. A rhythm asserts itself in my mind – tide in, tide out, tide in, tide out. I feel it everywhere. In ribbed mussels, who lock their shells shut when the tide recedes, sealing in moisture. In the saltgrass that is daily bathed in brine. In the rhythm of the day, too: the flute-song of the warblers at dawn, the tremolos of the screech owls at night. In my own circadian rhythms, my body’s ebbs and flows. Wake, summer, life; sleep, winter, death. I wonder: is this the way that time works for a Saltmarsh Sparrow? Does their chronometry proclaim this, that all things move between two poles? Low tide, spring, diurne, speciation; high tide, autumn, nocturne, extinction.
It is often said that humans have failed to act on climate change because we are incapable of seeing, tasting, hearing, or touching it. The human brain, it is claimed, has evolved to react to immediate threats, and has difficulty apperceiving large, abstract ones. But there is nothing wrong with our sensory faculties. The marsh teaches me that perception takes time, patience, acclimation. We’ve all had time enough to perceive climate change. In spume, crawling up sand; in skies blighted by ash; in overgrown ditches where freshets once flowed; in nests, swept away.
The study has facilitated the birth of a small community. A ragtag crew of retirees, bird enthusiasts, and local experts, all colluding in the name of citizen science. There are other Saltmarsh Sparrow studies along the Atlantic coast, staffed by professionals. This one is all volunteers. Deirdre is a retired physical therapist; Jim used to work in information technology. Even some home-schooled kids have gotten involved. It’s their biology class. I envy them; when I was their age, I thought “science” meant a chalkboard, recirculated air, and tedium.
Dierdre believes that childhood experiences in nature are crucial for the development of an ecological consciousness. I reach back into my own childhood memories, searching for birds, and I recall the doves that I would hunt with my grandfather on his ranch in Plymouth, California. The first birdcall I learned was the dove’s low who WHO who, whoo whoo. I admired the polished stock of the shotgun, the way it kicked like a horse against my shoulder. Holding the weapon made me feel like an adult, or what I imagined it was to feel like an adult.
At twelve, I was, inexplicably, a good shot. I can still see the look of the doves when the scattershot hit them; the midair moment when their quick bodies would decay into non-living things. The slime of their guts when we would “clean” them, the varying textures of the feathers that we plucked – contour, bristle, down. The warmth of their breast meat.
These days, I notice my fingers holding my camera the same way they held that shotgun. I half-expect the thing to recoil when I release the shutter. The parallels between bird photography and bird hunting hardly need to be enumerated. The gun shape-shifts into a camera, but one still uses the same verb to communicate the way they each freeze life: shoot. This makes me wary of myself, of my desire to be in the marsh. Perhaps I am doing some unknown damage here – trampling grass, or frightening birds away. I understood completely when I read that Audubon would kill birds, sometimes by the hundreds, only to subsequently taxidermy and paint them. Whether this means that there is a violence in photography or an aesthetics in hunting, I have not yet decided.
There is no way around this, of course. We’re always disturbing some creature. But we can aspire to do it more carefully, more deliberately, with an expansive set of considerations in mind. Still, my ambivalence may be related to the fact that I can never remember the correct name: is it Morning Dove, em-oh-are, or Mourning Dove, em-oh-you-are?
Birds occupy an uncertain position in the economy of extinction. The Audubon Society states that over three hundred North American species of birds may face extinction due to climate change. And yet, birds’ present existence equally testifies to their tenacity. Birds have mutated through multiple, planetary-wide extinction events, and will likely continue to do so. Their dinosauric physiology connects them to an older, mythic world. The domestic chicken is a relative to the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Viewed in this light, the extinguishment of the Saltmarsh Sparrow will be an unfortunate footnote to an otherwise distinguished history. This bird will be gone, but Bird will persevere.
What is it in longevity, in timelessness, that so comforts us? Colonizers have plundered the sepulchers of mummies, only to house their undecayed bodies in museums. Theologians, for their part, have gone to great lengths to articulate God’s eternality. There are countless treatises devoted to exegesis of the first words of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Augustine of Hippo argued in the 4th century that we should not take this to mean that God existed in time prior to creation, but rather that at the moment of creation, God also created time itself. We are often afflicted with this madness for permanence. In Catholic school, I was taught that we bury our dead because, at the end of days, their physical bodies will be resurrected and live corporeally in eternity. I’ve never understood how this theology evades the reality of decay. Will the Second Coming be a fête of skeletons?
Pondering these things, I have been led to a different question. What would become of our environmental ethics if we viewed extinction not through the lens of permanence, but of impermanence? If we accepted, wholeheartedly, the postulate that all species, and even life itself, will gradually molt and wither back into the Earth from which they came?
With such thoughts lurking in my mind, I eventually got around to asking Deirdre a question that had nagged at me since I first learned of the research project. We sat in her backyard, in the steam-bath humidity of a July afternoon. Her Golden Retriever puppy, Nutmeg, furtively snuck burnt coals from the fire pit and chewed them at our feet. “I wonder,” I said delicately, “in your mind: what is the point?” She got my drift. If we know that the Saltmarsh Sparrow is going extinct, then why bother to study it?
Her first answer was principled, intellectual. “When this question comes up, I always say to people: what would you ask a Tyrannosaurs Rex if you could? What would you want to know about Wooly Mammoths if you could?” We ought to study a doomed species, in other words, because this is the last chance science may have to collect information about it. The team is always discovering little tidbits of information that aren’t contained in the scientific literature: about where the birds nest, how they feed their young, and so forth. More abstractly, she continued, by studying a species during its catapulting decline, we may learn something more general about the dynamics of extinction.
I considered this answer. I was moved at the thought that the sparrows might impart us some an instrumental knowledge that would help to save other endangered species, a generosity of which they themselves were unaware. But I did not think that it was a desire for instrumental knowledge that drove Deirdre – or me, for that matter – time and again, to wake at an ungodly hour, and trudge out into the marsh and look at birds. So I asked her about whether she feels any emotional connection to the sparrows. “Do you also do it,” I wondered, “out of a feeling of care for them?”
She drew in a long breath, then responded that she had often pondered this very question. It had nagged at her so much, in fact, that she had researched the psychology of the human-animal connection in order to make sense of it. Humans, she has come to believe, have an instinctive draw towards communion with animals. Advertisers often capitalize on animals for this very purpose: think of the Geico Gecko, the Cheetos Cheetah, or any number of cute puppies used to hawk merchandise. But there is a catch. Most of these cartoon animals are either anthropomorphized in some way, or else are mammals whose evolutionary histories are intricately tied with our own. Her theory, then, is that humans have a more-or-less innate empathetic connection with certain animals, especially those that resemble ourselves. The wilder, weirder, and more remote creatures get, the less we are able to care about them.
Deirdre thinks that this is unavoidable and, to some extent, irrelevant. We don’t need to be infatuated by something in order to care about it. She has no desire to, say, cuddle the Saltmarsh Sparrows, the way she might cuddle Nutmeg while watching the evening news. “When I think about Saltmarsh Sparrows,” she says, “the word that comes to mind is not affection, but respect.” This distinction — between affection and respect — lies at the core of Deirdre’s conservation philosophy, and it animates her desire to save the sparrows even when she knows they cannot be saved.
This framework has several advantages. For one, it hedges against the fact that conservationists only ever seem capable of drumming up affection for endangered species which look good on TV. (Think, eagles, think pandas, think polar bears.) The Saltmarsh Sparrow, by contrast, suffers from the fact that sparrows, in the everyday symbology of our culture, are often considered trite. (“If it was the Saltmarsh Falcon,” Jim quips, “we’d have no trouble saving it.”)
I keep thinking of that that old gospel hymn: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches over me.” Translation: if God deigns to care about even the modest little sparrow, He must care about us, too. Perhaps we need a retooling of that gospel ethics. A constructive reclaiming of the notion that even the low, the meek, and the humble deserve our care. That they deserve, at least, our attention. Our acknowledgement. Our respect.
The research project, I have thus come to suspect, is a pretense, a front for a greater purpose: conducting the ritual of saying goodbye. The way a congregation might gather around a dying member, anoint them, and see them over to the other side. A deathwatch.
Who will treat us with such decency, when our time comes?
Let’s assume there is no hope for the Saltmarsh Sparrow. For some, this may lead to apathy, inaction. But is it really true that we need hope to drive action against climate change? Even though I know in my head that the bird is liable to go extinct, when I am in the marsh, I often cannot help but feel a ripple of yearning hope that it will, it will, live on, somehow. This has led me to believe that we have it all wrong. We don’t need to begin with hope. Hope comes to us, as the arithmetic remainder of the action itself.
Deirdre tells me the story of the first Saltmarsh Sparrow she ever banded, a female. She named the bird Hope, after the Emily Dickinson poem. You know the one: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – / that perches in the soul- ”. I pulled up the poem on my phone, and we read through it together. Although it has become cliché at this point – gracing Hallmark cards and needlepoint cushions – I do not believe I had ever read it closely. The idea seems to be that hope is impersonal, that it is a quality of consciousness that flushes within us; it cannot be muscled into being. And it comes tentatively: “And sore must be the storm —/ that could abash the little Bird / that kept so many warm –.” The poem seems not to be about drumming up a naive, cheery hope, but rather about the fragility and poverty of a hope that is constantly encircled by the miasma of despair. I had never noticed, too, the peculiarly haunting quality of the poem’s final stanza: “I’ve heard it in the chillest land – / And on the strangest Sea -/ Yet – never – in Extremity, / It asked a crumb – of me.”
I ask Deirdre what she makes of these closing lines. She thinks about it for a minute, then responds, “Sometimes I look at the female Saltmarsh Sparrow, this remarkable bird who works so hard to survive, and I think: she never asked a crumb of me.”
Then, it was August. In the mornings, my skin detected the faintest chill on the breeze. I visited the marsh, one last time, to witness the end of the sparrow breeding season. The cordgrass was settling into its serotinal brittleness, and the melodeon of summer insects had begun its gradual crescendo-decrescendo. Deirdre was there, too. She told me that there was something I had to see: there was, of all things, another nest. It is quite rare for the birds to breed so late; many of them had already flown south.
The eggs, she told me, had hatched just yesterday, but she had seen evidence of a predator in the vicinity. She feared the chicks had not lasted the night. There was a fearful symmetry to this: the nest was located not far from that first one that I had seen, months ago, on the day Deirdre and I met.
Again, she carefully led me to the site, and again we crouched down, separated the tufts of grass, and beheld what language will only ever be able to describe as a miracle. Two hatchlings, naked, piled on one another in the nest like a couple of discarded chicken bones. Limp, powerless, and alive. Deirdre slipped a wool sock over her hand and picked them up for inspection. I wish I could tell you that I thought they were cute, but the truth is that I find newborn birds hideous. Their eyes bulge, their skin sags, and they are covered in what looks like patchy pubic hair. They lack that self-assurance that I so admire in birds, the confidence of flight. At this stage of their lives, they know one thing: at the faintest stimulation, they open their mouths wide, expecting to be stuffed full of food. They are pure dependence. Still, as I looked on these two, I tried to mix a measure of reverence into my revulsion. I remembered what Deirdre had said: not affection, but respect.
Deirdre had a few other sites to check up on – a few females were still, apparently, feeding fledglings that were five or six weeks old, most unusual – and so we said our goodbyes. I turned to leave the marsh, aimlessly loafing through a thick patch of mud. Suddenly, I heard something crunch beneath my boot. My heart sank. I looked down, and found that I had not smashed an egg, thank God. Instead, I discovered that I was passing through a cast of crabs, and I had trampled one underfoot. Mouse-sized, industrious, all but indifferent to the fact that I had just now murdered one of their kind. I stooped low. As my eyes adjusted, like pupils dilating in darkened room, I saw more. Hundreds. Maybe thousands. I was standing in the midst of an entire colony, unburrowing itself at low tide, clicking, scuttling, and feasting upon the stinking vegetation. I wondered if this was the purple marsh crab, a native species which, I had read, benefits from sea level rise, and has been denuding marshes throughout the state.
At that moment, the inexorability of life – it’s awful, incalculable scale – struck me as a tragedy. I’ve heard the following wisecrack a few times from high-minded environmentalists: It’s not the Earth that needs saving; the Earth will be just fine! It’s true of course. There will always be something in waiting, dug in the mud beneath us, dormant until the tide goes out.
But this fails to console. It means this whole web is tenuous. That there is no Law of Nature decreeing that Saltmarsh Sparrows, or we, necessarily belong here. When the last sparrow dies, the worms will decompose its meat, all the same.
In the face of this indifference, an indifference that saturates the entirety of things – to say nothing of the cruel indifference capitalism encodes within us – I ask it again, why bother caring about the Saltmarsh Sparrow? I tell people that I have been out observing an endangered species of sparrow – right here, in little old Rhode Island, an endangered species! – and they give me a perfunctory, mildly interested “huh.” I can’t blame them. When I am sweating in the marsh, swatting mosquitoes from the back of my neck, and a Saltmarsh Sparrow flushes before me, I occasionally have an effervescent feeling of absolute moral responsibility for these creatures. But when I return home, to email and Netflix and shopping lists, the feeling dissipates. Even now, as I try to summon a memory of the bird, it feels abstract, lifeless, already gone.
This pains me.
I never asked Deirdre about the fate of those last two hatchlings, and so I never learned if they succumbed to the predators prowling in the night. I never asked, because I want to imagine that they survived not only the predators but also the tides and the bumbling feet. I imagine them now, wintering in the marshes of Georgia of Florida, busying themselves with nutrition. They are preparing to return to Jacob’s Point, all defiance. Their avian minds are focused on this one thing, to prepare their bodies for a journey of a thousand miles, only to breed and raise their own children, a desperate act of continuance. Their natal fidelity is calling them home.
Michael A. Putnam is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Brown University. In his research and writing, he explores how contemplative practices can support environmental ethics during the climate crisis. He holds degrees from Whitman College and Harvard Divinity School, and he recently was awarded a grant in Collaborative Humanities from the Mellon Foundation. You can find updates about his writing at michael-a-putnam.com.