Monday, January 9, 2012

A Raven's Wire Nest

There used to be a bird nest in the basement of the Bean Museum. It wasn’t built around a light fixture or above an exposed truss, nor was it made of twigs and lined with feathers. It was positioned artistically behind display glass in the hall outside of the auditorium, and it was made of carefully interwoven lengths of barbed wire. Mounted guardedly atop the whole was an erstwhile relative (now stuffed) of the former engineer: a raven.

You have to love a bird that can make a house from a dilapidated fence. There’s a bit of spite in the act, and maybe a sense of raw survival too. In a spare land, one learns to be resourceful – whether that one be a bird or a human being. But how could such a thing be done? At some point the raven had to drag, bend and otherwise maneuver a long heavy wire into an available tree. Presumably it had to fly to the chosen branches with the metal in its beak.

Ornithologists have been telling us for years that corvids are smarter than we think. Maybe all it takes is for one of them to be large enough and strong enough (like a raven) so that hefting a piece of decomposing fence into a home becomes inevitable. What would an elephant-sized magpie be capable of doing?

But there is also a timeless propriety in the subordination of a modern technology to a wild creature. It makes one pause to consider the fate of our own constructs. To what use might a feral species make of a computer, for example.

The power chord is, no doubt, easier to nidify than barbed wire. And maybe the circuits could warm frail nestlings when the sun is low in the horizon. A more likely use would be as a parasol for kangaroo rats. Eventually though, the miraculous innovations of decades to come, just like those of decades past, will be piled into heaps and left for the penetrating roots of organisms that are better adapted to live in raven-inhabiting austerity.

Unless, of course, we decide to adapt to a landscape that can keep us. Or, to put it more accurately: unless we learn to live sustainably where we are. Let our technologies come and go. Some people will get rich from them and others won’t. But most of the technologies themselves will not endure. Unless we are wise enough to treat them much like a disposable fence, our dependence on them may become too great. Human beings, just like ravens, can’t ultimately make a life from a rusted wire.

What we need is a soil that will sustain us for a thousand years. You may wonder what is so special about a thousand years. A lot of things are actually. You see, in a thousand years the only people left on Planet Earth will be those that are living on sustainable soil. This might be a handful of hunter-gatherers who wander in search of whatever the post-apocalyptic earth has to offer. Or it might be a world filled with our descendants living on a land that feeds them, because they have learned how to feed it.

Our traditions include a belief in a future Millennium when we will live in peace and harmony. Some of us have interpreted this to mean that a magical transformation will suddenly eliminate all evil and suffering from the world. If we have destroyed the land because of greed or of ignorance or even war, surely a divine providence will make it all better, or so we seem to assume.

I disagree. My millennial expectations are more in line with those of Brigham Young who insisted that “When we have streets paved with gold, we will place it there ourselves”.

Much of our confusion revolves around a misunderstood word in the Creation account found in the first chapter of Genesis (verse 28). “And God blessed them [referring to Adam and Eve] and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” The same command was repeated to Noah after the Flood (see Genesis 9:1).

What are we to make of this word replenish? In many exegeses it is understood to mean reproduce. In fact all three injunctions are understood this way: be fruitful, multiply, and replenish. In this view mankind is commanded to have a lot of descendants and this is all the scripture means. I’m not convinced that this is correct. Having a family is certainly a big part of the verse, but I doubt that it is all that is meant.

In my Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition) replenish has ten definitions. Only one of the ten means to occupy with people (Definition 6). The others are transitive verbs referring to filling up or stocking with something. Definition 7 specifically refers to filling with food. Definition 10 means increase.

The overall sense of replenishing is to provide an abundance of something. In reference to a viable place like the earth, it carries the sense of fertility and health. As it refers to people it refers to that which sustains people: the soil, the water, the air. In reference to the earth the command requires that mankind make it abundant with life. It is a command to assume stewardship of the planet.

And, in fact, this is what the raven is doing in its own way on top of its barbed-wire nest. It is taking a lifeless length of wire and using it to give life. The raven, it seems, is filling the measure of its creation. What about us? Are we doing the same?

Sadly, I think, the answer is no. The posterity of Adam and Eve are expected to do more than just reproduce. If that is all we do, and then over-extract the life-giving resources of our world, we then become no more than the animal creation – intent only on increasing our Darwinian fitness. Actually we are worse than this. If we only use our super-natural intelligence for Darwinian ends, we will (and do) cause much harm. And, ironically, this is a mindset that will destroy the world.

Only humans, in harmony with the gifts of Creation, can make a fallen world a garden. The desert can blossom as the rose, but it can only do so over time if soil is built up and water is used wisely. These are gifts that we give back to the earth, not as beasts, but as divinely inspired and responsible stewards. Gardening is an act of the Children of God. On the other hand, ruthless (“limitless”) extraction is a Faustian game that never ends well for mortals.

So what is the human equivalent of the opportunistic raven? How do we replenish the earth amidst the piles of multi-generational refuse? I think that each one of us is left to answer this question ourselves. But while you’re thinking about it, I’m going to go out back, find my man-made pitchfork, and turn over my compost pile.


Thanks to the M.L. Bean Staff at BYU for the raven picture. I am also indebted to Wendell Berry’s insightful piece in Harper’s Magazine: Faustian Economics: Hell hath no Limits (May, 2008). Brigham Young’s quote is from Discourses of Brigham Young by John a Widtsoe (page 29).

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