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I Dreamt a Bird

by David Krohne

Two images hang on the wall above my desk. An important environmental story lies behind each. But I have discovered that they speak to one another, and it is a conversation we should listen to.

I’d like to say that I chose them for this synergy, but in fact I chose them simply because I find each compelling and historically significant. Only after staring at them for nearly a decade did I finally appreciate their relationship and what they have to say.

The first image is the 1968 Apollo 8 photograph of Earth from the moon. In the foreground is the barren lunar surface; in the distance, the rising Earth. The task that day for the astronauts was to photograph potential landing sites for Apollo 11, scheduled seven months later. Their mindset was technical, their focus on the craters and seas of the moon.

But as they completed their fourth orbit, on Christmas Eve, William Anders glanced up and said, “My God, look at that!” as Earth rose above the lunar horizon. He snapped a quick photo in black and white as Jim Lovell scrambled to find a color film cassette for another shot. The resulting image may be the single most significant environmental photograph ever made. Suddenly, and for the first time in history, we saw our home in perspective—Earth as a blue marble hanging in the black vastness of space, our only home, finite, isolated, and vulnerable.

I don’t know Anders’ thought process in the moment, but his composition was brilliant. A simple image of Earth in the blackness of space would have been beautiful and dramatic. But the foreground he included was crucial. Without the gray, desolate surface of the moon to contrast with the oceans and weather patterns of Earth, the image would not have such power.

The focus of the environmental movement up to that point was fragmented and parochial. Smog covered Los Angeles. Lake Erie was dead. Dams threatened the Grand Canyon. The Cuyahoga River was flammable. Oil spills smothered the beaches of Santa Barbara. Each of these was a local, independent problem. So too were the solutions—site- and threat-specific actions.

The Apollo 8 image literally changed our perspective. Viewed in the vastness of space, Earth is not a set of discrete, isolated environments; it is one environment. The only relevant isolation is that of the entire planet.

The second image is a print of the painting by John James Audubon of the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker. The ivory-bill is a magnificent bird—a bird with presence, sometimes referred to as the Lord God Bird. The birds in Audubon’s paintings are stylized, often with elongated, even snakelike shapes and odd postures. But they are also photographically accurate in their colors and feather patterns. The contradiction—stylized in one sense, exact in another—is the result of his methods. He painted from dead birds he had stuffed and positioned with wires. Thus the odd forms but precise color patterns.

As in many of his paintings, he placed the birds against a minimal background. The ivory-bills are isolated from their environment, perched on tree branches against a blank white backdrop. As a result, our focus is entirely on the birds. It is their essence, their singular beauty, not their place in the environment, that Audubon captured. His composition tells us that each species, indeed each individual, is worthy of our attention in its own right. The image is the antithesis of the Apollo 8 photo, the essence of which is perspective and context.

The value of a species, in fact of a single individual, was thrust into our consciousness in 2004 when a group of ornithologists working in the flooded bottomland forests of Arkansas believed they had seen an ivory-billed woodpecker. They got a glimpse and a brief video of a single bird. The ivory-bill is similar to the common pileated woodpecker. Both species have a white band on the wing. On the pileated, the band ends before the dark, back edge of the wing. But on the ivory-bill, the white extends all the way to the trailing edge of the wing. That is what they believed they saw. I’ve watched their video a hundred times and my reaction is always the same: white on the trailing edge.

The news spread far and fast and the discovery captivated the public. Money poured into preservation efforts for natural areas in Arkansas and swamps throughout the South. People who had never heard of an ivory-bill began watching birds. The passion the sighting elicited was disproportionate, perhaps even irrational. But I think it arose because we had found a symbol of hope. In a tired and cynical world, a magical bird, the Lord God Bird, showed us there is yet a chance for redemption, a return to the garden.

No more sightings were made and most experts believe the “white on the trailing edge” was an artifact of the lighting. But that ghost bird still encourages my innate optimism. And the ivory-bill remains worthy of protection—not as a means to protect bottomland forest, other species, or water quality, but for its own sake. A single individual is as venerable as Earth floating alone in space.

The audubon print reminds me of my own encounter with an ivory-bill. I was camped in the Okefenokee, on a wooden platform deep in the swamp. I’d paddled five hours to reach it just before dark. As I landed and tied off the canoe, the first horned owls spoke from distant pines and an amorous alligator roared, closer than I would have liked. The first beer went down too quickly; the second I savored as my steak seared on the little grill. After dinner I settled into my sleeping bag, propped on one elbow, to write my field notes. Each time I tried to draw them to a close, the soundscape added a new voice—a barred owl, a tree frog, a nighthawk, a poorwill. When I finally closed my notebook, my eyes heavy with sleep, I lay back only to be reawakened by the bright swath of the Milky Way, and the unblinking beacons of Mars and Jupiter.

The night passed slowly. I slept fitfully as I listened and imagined the dramas, little and big, playing out in the darkness. At first light I found myself pushing through knee-deep water choked with arrowroot and iris into a stand of ancient bald cypress, trees that had escaped the saws and the great fire of 1954. Duckweed floated on the tea-colored water. A pair of wood ducks flushed, nearly at my feet. And as they sped away, screeching their indignity, I saw it. Just ahead, above the rising path of the ducks, an enormous woodpecker took flight behind them. Its bill flashed white before disappearing behind a branch, but as the bird escaped into the swamp, the trailing edge of the wings shone bright white. I stood there afraid to breathe, repeating, “White on the trailing edge,” over and over as tears filled my eyes. The ivory-bill, the Lord God Bird, lives. I saw it. I had no photo or video, not a shred of proof, just the testimony of my own eyes. Still, I knew without a doubt I was witness to a resurrection.

I woke with a start, the sun warm on my face. I had dreamt a bird. And I’d discovered the power of a bird I’d never seen. The essence of the ivory-bill is that it might exist. It embodies faith in the resilience of nature and the hope that sparks—that our fragile blue marble might survive, not just as livable habitat for humans, but for ivory-bills as well.

In the years since that possible sighting in Arkansas, there have been no confirmed reports of ivory-bills. Perhaps they hold on in some remote swamp in Arkansas or Cuba.

The focus of our environmental attention has shifted, away from species and habitats, away from wild places that might hold the Lord God Bird, to planetary concerns, especially climate change. In fact, environmentalism has essentially been redefined as the fight to curb greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change.

These are worthy goals—without them nothing much else, certainly not ivory-bills, matters. But where is it written that environmental action is a zero-sum game? The only thing preventing us from slowing climate change and ensuring there is room in our little world for the ivory-bill—and polar bears and prairie fringed orchids and everything else in decline—is us. If our only priorities are human survival and economic prosperity, climate change is the environmental problem and the Apollo 8 photo is its symbol. But that road is sterile and an admission of an appalling failure. Where in that world do we find beauty and awe? I’ve never had a dream about lower CO2 concentrations. I don’t tear up at the sight of a wind turbine. I’m a child of the Holocene, the world of my youth and our youth as a species, the world of Audubon and ivory-bills. I’m being dragged kicking and screaming into the Anthropocene. When I look at the Apollo 8 photo of Earth, I want to zoom in, all the way to a swamp in Arkansas, to the limb of an ancient bald cypress, and a magnificent bird with white on the trailing edge of its wings.

Two images, two perspectives; both necessary, neither sufficient. I need the Apollo 8 photo to remind me that Earth is both finite and fragile. It is our only home, our only climate, our only water, and our only air. But it is also home to the only ivory-billed woodpeckers that ever existed in the entire universe. And I need the Audubon to remind me that “white on the trailing edge” is the field mark of hope and faith and dreams.

David Krohne is professor emeritus of biology at Wabash and a frequent contributor of photography and writing to WM.