North America great again—in an ecologically good way, I suppose. But beyond the uncomfortable verbiage about casting out
exotics and eliminating aliens, there is the question of
who—beyond the largely homogenous choir of restoration ecologists and wistful wishers for the good old days of yore — gets to say
what wild nature is. There has been a slow admission of indigenous American contribution to the landscape, and the ways in
which they managed the land that sustained their communities
and culture. For ecologists, it means recognizing the role that red,
brown, and black people—who preceded ecologists and their
almost exclusively white conservation “movement”—played in
shaping nature, and what those people knew about the North
American landscape before they did.
Wishing for a contrived, humanless wildness forwards a practice of belittling—or ignoring altogether—“colored” land connection. My own dark-hued roots are mired in the soil of the
American South. When I drive by, fly over, or walk through most
places “down here,” I can see and often feel the actions of my
ancestors who changed the land. By connecting the pain of that
past to what we see now, I pay homage and deepen my personal
connection with place. Yes, it’s an exorcism of past pain, but also a
progression toward helping others see the land’s real history, and
perhaps to become reconnected with the land. My desire to inform
and inspire, beyond mere ecology, grows daily. Along with the fate
of the Gone Birds and their lost worlds, it possesses me.
I wonder about the enslaved watchers who worked in the
shadows of endless passenger pigeon flocks that passed overhead,
or heard the ivory-bills that called from the tall timber, or glanced
the Carolina parakeets that flashed across work-weary eyes. I
think about salt marshes modified and maintained by enslaved
Senegalese — the spring crop waving thick with Carolina gold rice
and sea-island cotton that created some of the richest men in the
world. Beyond the monotonous thud slice of a hoe in plu= mud,
what would my ancestors have noticed? The day-to-day work of
survival required more than brawn and will. From where would
hope emerge? Humans have always looked skyward for inspiration, imagining themselves unbound by gravity or the weight of
oppression. Flight means freedom. It is not beyond the oppressed
to lean hard on natural beauty as an uplifting beam. Survival
draws on inspiration. Sweet sounds and beauty are no less worthy of notice because one is in chains — perhaps they are worthier
because of the chains.
For the enslaved, there was more they would have noticed about
the parakeets than just their beauty. The parakeets lived in tight-knit
social groups comprised of relatives. Along with crows and jays, the
parakeets would have been the avian intellectuals in a landscape
where they had to make do with not only what was, but with what
was to come. And then they were servants, too, clearing fields of
cocklebur and sandspur menace. But when the birds exercised a
desire to have more—to eat the fruit from plantation and farm
orchards—the parakeets became targets of persecution. Because
of their social nature, birds not killed or wounded in the first round
of extermination circled around their fallen family members that
screamed in fear and injury. In that empathy, more birds fell.
I imagine the flock, assaulted and driven out of a ripening
orchard of plums and pears. On the edge of day, as katydids
call dusk in, the birds retreat to the forests to roost in cavern-
ous hollows. A depleted flock re-enters a shrinking swamp
domain—remnants of wild southern places already disappear-
ing along with the parakeets. They are home, finding comfort
in the shadows of last light. But daily, it seems, in smaller and
smaller numbers and in fewer and fewer acres.
The birds aren’t alone in the refuge. There are humans in
the shadows, too. Torches lit from knots of fatwood throw long
shadows onto the hollow trunks where the parakeets roost. The
dark forms are Maroons, self-liberated slaves who once worked
the same plantations that the parakeets frequent. They were once
chattel, bound to the land at the cruel behest of white planters, but
who have escaped terror and freed themselves from the very fields
over which the birds have flown and fed. As the Carolina parakeets
find security in wooded wetlands, so too do the Maroons—slave
chasers and the “law” hesitate to pursue them into the swamps.
Free from the plight of overseers and forced labor, they have lived
for decades in thriving communities within mere miles of the
plantations they had fled.
The Maroons shared the Carolina parakeets’ requisite for free-
dom. They found sustenance in the wilderness, but also made
nocturnal forays back onto the plantations to secure food, tools,
and sometimes weapons. They traced the same paths as the para-
keets, but worked the night shift. It was a life on the edge with
constant threats of persecution, capture, and death. But it was a
free life and that matters most. The land was flush with grain and
fruit that only existed because of black hands. What Maroons took
was just reclamation for work done.
By the time the Carolina parakeet’s decline was noted by Audubon in the 1830s, the enslavement economy, fueled by whip-cracked backs, had pushed the country toward a sinful prosperity.
It wasn’t just the South that benefitted. North of the Mason-Dixon
line, wealth flowed upstream to financial houses and investors.
The numbers of black people in bondage exploded, and as enslavement swelled, the numbers of Conuropsis carolinensis dwindled.
And within little more than a generation of Audubon’s lamentation that “our Parakeets are very rapidly diminishing in number,”
a civil war was raging across much of the birds’ range.