Thursday, June 10, 2010


Every project of behavior modification is essentially optimistic, a vote for change. Contrary to common perception, this optimism doesn't require any faith in one's power to effect a specific outcome; it only requires that one cultivate a friendly relation with change itself. Indeed, a robust and inflexible will may sometimes be a liability, as willful creatures tend not to respect (let alone take their creative cues from) real limits, and their optimism sometimes becomes indistinguishable from outright delusion.

I realize that I'm sounding extremely un-American here. Sigh. Won't be the last time, I'm sure.

It's been two months since I borrowed Esther Woolfson's enchanting book Corvus: A Life with Birds from the library. I read most of it during a visit Pete and I made in April to the Olympic Peninsula, where we tucked ourselves away in a perfectly tiny and tranquil cabin when we weren't hiking. Some voices demand an expanse of quiet to be heard properly, and Woolfson's is one of these (though she's describing some very noisy birds), so I've been savoring the last few chapters at long intervals, over tea and the rumble of dog snoring. She perceives human vainglory clearly, wistfully:

"No one, surely, can watch a bird step easily from the edge of a roof into that pure moment, to expand into the air over the sorry world below, without envy, without the shadow of the thought that it's not fair, that we have (albeit without much effort on our part) evolved to the high state in which we believe ourselves to be but still cannot, and will never, fly. Most of us accept with grudging equanimity that birds can and we can't and we're grateful (or not) for the little we can achieve, flapping a strapped-on, bound-to-fail accessory as we're pulled by gravity towards the bottom of the sea, or gazing down on cloud and sea and city from ill-ventilated metal tubes stuffed with people and trolleys of food and screens busy with entertainment to take our minds from the boredom, paradoxically, of flight.

There are those who can't accept it, as there have always been, those who will try anything to raise themselves beyond the restricting bounds of the earth. So far, every human attempt, mythological or not, to emulate the flight of birds has been risible, a history of crazy daring, of failing and falling, of everything complicated, risky, doomed, the true antithesis of the delicacy, lightness, the unmediated facility of bird flight, from Icarus's melting wings to the jet pack, all so very far from that one ethereal, lifting moment we will never achieve."

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