Nature naturing

From quarantine windows, bright skies and the darkening ground

You darkening ground, how patiently you endure our walls.
Would you grant the cities one more hour,
two more for the churches and the lonely abbeys,
another five hours for the redeemers' toil
and seven for witnessing the workers in the fields—

Before becoming wood and water and wildness again
in the hour of incredible fear
when you take back your unfinished image
from all things.

Give me a little while longer: I want to love things like nobody
else until they are worthy of you and vast.
I only want seven days, seven
on which no one else has written,
seven leaves for me alone.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, “Du dunkelnder Grund, from The Book of Hours; this is my translation, though the one by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows (via Anne Galloway) is more breathtaking.

I glimpse it shadowing past a break in the roof gables: bold bracket and a flash of capital white, slanting fast across the afternoon blue. Catching a longer view at the same hour the next day, I know it for a bald eagle, black as yesterday, addressing its telltale white at head and tail. Following the same trajectory it took the day before, lowering along, it banks into a spiral and drains out of the sky, disappearing somewhere over the vast burial grounds enclosing our neighborhood. In recent years, we’ve been blessed with red-tails and Cooper’s hawks, dipping buzzards, and a family of great horned owls. But I’d not seen bald eagles over our part of Boston neighborhood before.

During my 1970s childhood, the sight of any raptor was a prodigy. Accumulating up the food chain, DDT had decimated the predatory birds; though banned in the US by 1972, the pesticide cast a long spell, stretching out our silent spring in a drought of dapple-dawns lasting decades. By the late 1980s, though, bald eagles were roosting again along the bluffs of the upper Mississippi; soon, peregrines plundered the shadows of the cities, and red-tails were inspecting the interstates.

Spinoza distinguishes two ways of coming to grips with the world: Natura naturata and Natura naturans, which we translate as “Nature natured” and “Nature naturing.” The first describes a rational ordering: a setting of the table, a dressing of the set; an environment. This externalizing and alienation brings destruction, reduction to rangeland and cropland, extinction. The second—the naturans, “nature naturing”—is edgeless, ungovernable, unfolding, unbidden.

From the windows of our quarantine, we again see evidence of nature returning. Without giving much wonder to the fact that, despite the burden of our walls, it had managed never to go away. All along, a world was teeming with invisible eagles. Their return to visibility depended on research and advocacy and hard-won change; it also depended on eagles, on nature naturing. The virus now only reminds us of what we rediscover over and over: that this naturans is at once bigger than biology and smaller than the smallest living thing.

One day, if not now, there will be dolphins in the canals of Venice (if there will be dolphins at all); one day, the sky will reclaim its blue. Our own redemption might be found, pace Rilke, not in wresting an hour from the fall, but in abandoning our specific solitude. We must learn not to treasure our wonder in the external, but to know nature as the flux of will, of want, of grief—as naturing, among us and within us.

I recently started following the Twitter stream of artist Elisabeth Nicula, who over the last few years has become neighborly with a few “free wild birds”—in particular, a western scrub jay, whom she came to know as “Frank,” and some of his offspring—who roost near her building in San Francisco. In a recent essay, she tells how she came to know Frank by proffering peanuts, keeping her windows open, and generally making herself available. Their ensuing amicability is enviable—though, as Nicula notes, it’s a fraught and ambivalent form of multispecies sociability. “A complication of friendship with a free wild bird,” Nicula muses, “is that there is a lot of talking past each other, and no way to get in touch from a distance.”

In her buoyant, mournful account, Nicula evokes the edgeless edgeworld of urban birdlife. “The air travels east from the ocean,” she writes, “and when it’s moist it carries the scent of sage scrub, if not the salt.” What quiet delight in that whiff of scrub, invoking the low and unassuming habitat from which these tiny corvids take their name. Scrub doesn’t need to wait for the wind—scrubby Frank brings it to the city. Rich in naturans, the city is as densely layered, as edged-and-edgeless, as any biodiversity hotspot.

Frank is a fragile creature, who for all his guile follows a precarious form of life, much of it invisible even to Nicula. Nonetheless, she reports amassing a corpus of 30,000 images of his visits—flight-haunted snapshots, bird blurring over shoulder or turned away from the lens to peck at scalp (she shares these photographs via Twitter: abrupt, arresting, contraband images, nabbed from the flux). Nicula admits that her documentation is “an attempt to hold the body of the most delicate friend of my life, through whom I speak my hope for our uncertain collective future.” To archive a bird is museum work, the quixotic, imperializing realm of naturata. To gather back the beloved, however; to hope—this is entanglement, the work of naturans.

Befriending a free wild bird is a daunting pastime (and, as Nicula observes, not without its critics). But nature finds many ways into our networks; naturans is close to hand, and closer to ear. Each May 2 since 2014, the British collective Soundcamp have streamed a 24-hour audio program called Reveil, described as “a collective production by streamers at listening points around the planet… tracking the sunrise west from microphone to microphone, following the wave of intensified sound that loops the earth every 24 hours at first light.” Having these far-flung sonorities accessible to one’s own local ears seems one of the saving delights of our networked worlds; this year’s broadcast, in the midst of pandemic lockdown, was especially resonant and affecting.

This year’s Reveil has passed—but you can listen for the current dawn chorus any time, via Locus, which maps the locations of open-mic streamers around the world. To find the dawn chorus right now, go to the Locustream soundmap, and look for sources along the current eastern terminator. As I write this, I’m listening to a livestream of woodland birdsong in the Shiga Highlands near Nagano, Japan, where it’s 4:35 am.