blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Merwin on Ecology

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.

Return to W.S. Merwin