The gloriously humble swallow and the lethal cost of more
What is your personal carrying capacity for grief, rage, despair? We are living in a period of mass extinction. The numbers stand at 200 species a day. That’s 73,000 a year. This culture is oblivious to their passing, feels entitled to their every last niche, and there is no roll call on the nightly news.
Lierre Keith, Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet
For 32 years, I lived in a huge, ramshackle monster of a farmhouse. Believe me, it was a place that defied all possible description — a 9000 square foot ecosystem complete with illicit wall rodents, gargantuan arachnids, bats in the attic that were later driven out by barn owls. But the land was sweet — bordered by a deep, slow-moving, peat-stained river where sturgeon had been spotted and overlooking a vast sweeping valley that had been turned into a wildlife refuge. The huge herd of blissfully grazing elk were well aware they were out of reach and turned out in numbers just to gloat over the yearnings of hunters.
Every year, the swallows made their way northward, flying the thousands upon thousands of miles from South America, traversing untold dangers, predators, weather — any and all dangers natural and unnatural — to arrive at our humble abode, exhausted, weary, but ready to get down to the business of having their babies.
By summer’s end, the telephone wires were festooned by fidgeting little iridescent bodies. The barn swallows with their dark coral bellies and the tree swallows with their tummies of bright white would wait for cars to pass and stir up the air and off they would go in great flocks, swooping in their aerial ballet as they simultaneously hunted for bugs and exercised their wings prefatory to the great surge southward again.
This year, their numbers are a bare fraction of what they should be — of what they were only a few years ago.
Also a few years ago, those of us who are generally more observant noticed a decline in the insect population, which was shortly thereafter confirmed by the scientific community. Yes, our car grills were clean after generations of little kids examining the day’s take after a long trip. And among those more observant people, the thought occurred — if there are fewer bugs, what are creatures who consume insects going to eat? And if there’s no food for them, won’t we start to lose those creatures and in great numbers?
This year, I saw maybe 10 to 15% as many swallows as usual. And my heart sank.
The reason for this is simple, shameful and can be summed up in one word: more.
When I was a kid, there were about 3 billion people on the planet and that was plenty. We didn’t take any sort of care of the earth, polluted like the world was our outhouse, ravaged resources right and left, deforested everything, dumped nasty shit into the water and were utterly unashamed of behaving like the hominid versions of honey badgers. But we thought that this planet could stand more than double the number of creatures whose behavior was so reliably vile so we added more!
Once these people were out, breathing and tall enough to open a car door and get behind a wheel, they immediately wanted more — especially if they were white, but it’s not a white-only thing. It’s mostly a white-only access to all that moreness. We wanted bigger houses, bigger cars and more of them. We wanted gewgaws and gadgets and doohickeys and rafts and swathes of whatever latest pointless obsession had caught our collective fancy. We calculated our national value in our GDP (gross domestic product) — and what we touted as “growth.” If we didn’t show evidence of a certain level of “growth,” then the nation was in crisis! It was foundering! The sky is falling! OMG! OMG! OMG!
And so we dug deep into the earth and ripped out her guts for no good purpose. We devoured the old growth timber for houses and toilet paper. We once hunted because we were hungry. Now we slaughtered our fellow beings as a form of entertainment. We put everything in packages made of plastic, then threw it out in great heaps and mounds and into our waterways and oceans. And always, we wanted more.
We wanted more food, so we poisoned the insects that went after their share and then we had more food. Poisoned food, but we ate it anyway. We wanted more and bigger houses, so we stole the land our fellow beings called home and slaughtered them when they became inconvenient. And with the eradication of predators came rats and mice. We apparently wanted more of those, too, and indeed we have them, being so incredibly ignorant that we didn’t realize those predators weren’t eating our livestock but that most of their diet consisted of those rats and mice. And so we poisoned the rodents, which killed everything that fed on them.
This isn’t an arithmetic, linear progression. This is geometric. We are killing off everything not human, assuming with our usual hubris, that we aren’t as vulnerable as any other species on earth who are currently in the throes of mass extinction.
The irony of all this more more more is that we wind up with less less less. Less human contact. Less connection with the earth. Less time to savor life. Less time to appreciate everything we worked to gain. Less beauty. Less serenity. Less of everything that makes life worth living and more of what matters not at all.
And finally, all of this more will lead us, if we don’t heed the screaming warnings, if we continue to ostrich and pretend that it isn’t happening — because that worked so well when we were kids and hiding in our beds was a cure for danger — we won’t have more.
We’ll have nothing.
Please, let the swallows be our warning. We just don’t need all the crap we’re going to die and leave anyway. And if we don’t stop, and stop now, our children and their children — if they survive at all — will pay the price for our ravening greed — along with all the other hapless inhabitants of this tiny, miraculous, improbable earth, the like of which we will never see again.