These are specimens. Four individual males representing each of the species in the Callipepla genus. These are the creatures that invade much of my waking, and sleeping, thoughts. To all of you who have asked why–besides my explanations of time, experience, difference–I only say because.
the solace of nothing;
the solace of names
These specimens are in the collection of the UW Burke Museum. I visited with them last week. From top to bottom they are scaled, elegant, California and Gambel’s quail. Their latin names are Callipepla squamata, Callipepla douglasii, Calipepla californica and Callipepla gambelii. They are birds with “beautiful coats.” They are North American quail, codornices de America del Norte.
They are beautiful. They are quantifiable in death. They can be measured and examined. They can be stroked and their feathers are soft. These are males and there are females, and young as well–for all species except the elegant quail.
They do not have eyes or motion.
Nature…is not another word for God.
The tags with details about when and where the bird was shot, or discovered (some individuals are scavenged roadkill). Often, there is detail about what the birds were doing.
The part of me that loves this is the part of me that is a scientist, through and through. The me that wants to explore, investigate. The part of me that adores the results of, for example, research on the bird brain. The research that actually identifies structures in the bird brain responsible for behavior such as song learning.
The dark square-shouldered prisoner, the great flight-feathers
But there is the other me–and this is what makes everything I do complicated.
“Well: I have killed him?”
This other me is soft-hearted. It sees each organism’s life as of equal moral value. That makes it hard for me to kill mosquitos, for example; although I do, because I am afraid of West Nile virus. Feeding my pet cats is problematic–they are carnivores. Is one cat worth hundreds of chickens?
This kind of moral algebra is problematic for many reasons. It also interferes, obviously, with my ability to do science. Every aspect of the work I do or consider doing, must be weighed for harm. Banding the birds, taking blood, all of these things seem to me a moral sacrifice, to some extent, on my part.
Nature full strength is more than we can take
I do not live contentedly in this space of conflict between these pieces of myself. I live, in fact, discontentedly, but passionately. Without clarity, perhaps, but with a great deal of interest. I am not able to live without harming other beings–I am alive, I must eat, I must breathe and move (among other things) and in these alone, I cause harm. Beyond that, how much is knowledge worth–knowing something exists, another organism, knowing quail are complex, dynamic, these things are perhaps worth some of the harm. Knowing what these birds require, knowing how they live, reflecting on ourselves and all other life. Worth it?
The Human moral keyboard is limited…there’s nothing you can play on it that hasn’t been played before
“seen by humans.”
there’s no more
to say; we kill
more than we think
quotes are by Inger Christensen, Robinson Jeffers, Adam Phillips, Margaret Atwood, Rae Armantrout