I had planned for weeks this trip to the ocean, to think about birds. And I did go. But the night before, police officers lynched a man in my neighborhood in Philadelphia. Then came the insult of low and constant helicopters, and cops terrorizing our streets, and curfew, and troops deployed in the city, again. So maybe I did not think about birds the way I had intended—though I did think about birds, impossible not to think about birds on the ocean where they take up all the space, where even air and water they push out of the way. Laughing gulls, herring gulls, great black-backed gulls, Ross’s gulls; terns, oystercatchers, sanderlings, sandpipers, plovers. Ospreys. Brown pelicans.
Why birds? Because to make sense of things this desperate fall I have been rereading the Greeks, and the Greeks say birds tell us what is to come.
In ancient Greece and later in Rome, augurs foretold the future by interpreting the flight patterns and calls of birds. Augury, in Greek ornithomancy, from ορνις (ornis, fowl) and μαντεία (manteia, divination): reading birds for the will of the gods. Pliny the Elder says Teiresias, the seer in the court of Thebes, invented augury. (Teiresias told Oedipus that the king was his own father’s murderer.) What birds said, went. The bird-savant Calchas prophesied that Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter in order to sail his ships to win his war at Troy, and so, by most accounts, the maiden was put to death. Taking the auspices—discerning divine will from the flight of birds—makes sense because birds fly closer to the empyrean, where gods dwell, which makes the bird’s-eye view closer to God’s.
How to read the birds this year, this fretful year pierced by planetary sorrow and the siren call of ambulances and police cars? In the American Southwest, autumn began with migratory birds falling out of the sky, dead. It could have been the West Coast wildfires that caused the birds to deviate from millennial routes and lose nurturing layover grounds, and polluted their lungs with toxins. It could have been an unprecedented swing in air temperature, a token of climate change. It could have been a combination of factors: the Anthropocene has been killing North America’s birds for some time. A year before the mass die-off in the Southwest, ornithologists reported that three billion wild birds (one bird out of four) have vanished from the continent’s air in the last fifty years.
And not only on this continent. On the last day of 2019, I pilgrimed to the wetlands of Djoudj, one of the world’s largest sanctuaries for migratory birds, many of them Palearctic, where a longtime game warden told me that fewer seasonal birds come each year to the Senegal River delta, and entire species no longer come at all. Cities and deserts swallow their habitats, men hunt their kin, pesticides poison their eggs. Climate change uncouples the timing of resources from the timing of migrations, syncopates their traveling cycles, puts the birds out of step with themselves. The birds are confused.
TEIRESIAS [to KREON]: I hear the birds they’re bebarbarizmenized they’re
making monster sounds
—Sophocles, Antigone, tr. Anne Carson as Antigonick (I am using the translator’s spelling here and below).
This September, after it rained dead birds, a Ph.D. student of ornithology and phylogenetics at the University of New Mexico collected and photographed 305 bird corpses representing six species: 258 violet-green swallows, 35 Wilson’s warblers, six bank swallows, two cliff swallows, one northern rough-winged swallow, a MacGillivray’s warbler, and two western wood pewees. Laid out on a grid and photographed from above, the birds make a pattern like a page of text, each bird a word. The breasts and abdomens of the warblers beacon a startling yellow alarm.
To know what is coming is to perceive control; and the mind is all about control, particularly in the cerebral, capitalist, goal-oriented Global North. We want to control, or, in neuroscientific terms, we want to exercise cognitive control, our mysterious ability to behave in accord with the goals we set. Put simply: if our cortex is informed, then (we think) we can establish a logic that can (ideally) help us predict the future so we can act in ways that (we hope) will allow us to control it—for, ultimately, humans want to control the future, or to believe that they can. We may say we like to be surprised, astonished, but we like to be surprised in a particular way that is expected or suits our projected needs. This is why children like to hear the same stories. Their predictability is something to hold onto. This is why I am rereading the classics, which I first read as a very young child: it is like worrying a rosary or a wave-grooved seashell you keep in your pocket, something familiar for the fingers to run over and over. This is why we read projections for how long the pandemic will last, or who will win the election, or whether the global uprising against racism will prevail: we want to know when those of us who survive can go back to normal. We want to project that normal.
Three kinds of people tell us the future: prophets, scientists, and writers. One could argue that writers occupy the liminal space between the other two. The writer’s impulse to draw connections, identify patterns, establish syllogisms—what cognitive psychologists call “the enormous complexity, and idiosyncrasy, of human minds, the detailed contents of which are largely unknown even to the individual concerned”—seems irrepressible, as if our neurons force us to make sense of all things, all the time. Like the bird-reading seers of ancient Greece, we cannot help ourselves.
In Islam, the concept of predestination is one of the six articles of faith, like the Oneness of God and the Day of Resurrection. Maktoob, one says—it is written. Maktoob, مكتوب, has the same root as the word “book,” kitab, کتاب; perhaps this is because books allow us to foresee (they say great writers have the gift of foresight). What, then, is a prophecy? It is what is already known. Those who can interpret the writing—prophets, scholars, poets—simply make it visible to us. Joseph Brodsky (raised, too, on plentiful Greek myths) says literature “is a dictionary, a compendium of meanings for this or that human lot, for this or that experience. It is a dictionary of the language in which life speaks to man. Its function is to save the next man, a new arrival, from falling into an old trap, or to help him realize, should he fall into the trap anyway, that he had been hit by a tautology.”
What do the birds foretell? From the shore in New Jersey I watched a murmuration of plovers skim the ocean. It stretched and compressed, tumbled, changed shape, now a horse pulling a chariot, now a goldfish flaunting a mermaid-princess tail; it narrowed into a long line that glided just above the waves like a snake, then, lifting, balled up again into a sphere. Then, one after another the birds folded their wings and plunged into the silver-banded sea. If “low-flying birds symbolize earth-bound attitude [and] high-flying birds, spiritual longing,” as Juan Eduardo Cirlot suggests in his Dictionary of Symbols, then the plovers embody how torn we are between the noble and the base. Or maybe they were simply fishing. Three pelicans sortied on their bombing raid. The pelicans are early harbingers of climate change; until the eighties they rarely showed up north of the Carolinas. To see them here at the end of October, after the first frost, tells a story of planetary-scale negligence; surely it must augur something, too, I thought. Then a coast guard helicopter droned into sight, and brought my mind back to the howling grief of Philadelphia. Walter Wallace Jr. was twenty-seven, just three and four years older than my children. I thought of his mother, who woke up with a son one morning, and the next morning, without.
A few days before I went to the ocean, I spent time with Cy Twombly at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Twombly painted Fifty Days at Iliam in 1977–8 after reading Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad; the ten large sequential canvases were bequeathed to the museum in 1989. All but the first one are exhibited in one big gallery. The first, Shield of Achilles, hangs on its own in a small antechamber that serves as a kind of a foyer. It always unnerves me the most. It is a vortex of crazy brushstrokes, a hurricane building, and its colors hold water and metal and blood, like a Greek chorus, a prophecy, a premonition.
KASSANDRA: I lose my screams they find me
The dread work of prophecy buckles me
down to its BAM BAM BAM
—Aiskhylos, Agamemnon, tr. Anne Carson
Some of the canvases in the main gallery spell a mad violence of names of gods and heroes of the war at Troy. But the names of the two prophets, Cassandra and Calchas, are effaced—hers written over and over in graphite, his spackled roughly with palmfuls of white paint. The prophets are gone. Birds appear and vanish, and no one is there to interpret their flight.
KLYTAIMESTRA [of KASSANDRA]: Does she talk only “barbarian”—those
weird bird sounds?
Does she have a brain?
—Aiskhylos, Agamemnon, tr. Anne Carson
When I drove back from the beach a cardinal flew alongside the car for a bit, opening her wings then closing them, opening and closing, always catching herself just in time to keep going, stringing invisible scarlet swags through the autumn bush. That flight pattern, I once read, is called flap-bounding. I do not know what it means. It is very beautiful to behold.
The Talmud says there was in Judea a rabbi who counted among his friends the immortal prophet Elijah. During his earthly tenure, in the ninth century before the common era, Elijah had raised the dead, received nourishment from desert ravens, brought down rain and fire from the sky, parted waters with his cloak, and finally ascended to everlasting life in heaven. But from time to time he returns to earth; maybe he is lonely for mortal company. They say he fights against social injustice. So one day, about a thousand years after Elijah’s ascension, he and the rabbi took a stroll through a busy marketplace, and the rabbi asked the prophet if anyone among the people gathered there belonged in the World to Come. Elijah pointed out two brothers. The rabbi caught up with them and asked what they did for a living. We are badkhenim, they said, poet-jesters. We cheer up the sad.
The sages interpret the fable thusly: To truly pray we must first achieve a state of exultation, which means that joy, not sorrow, brings man closer to God. Poets help us make our prayers heard.
What does it mean to cheer up the sad, now? I would like to ask my badkhen ancestors, who survived dispersals and deportations and pogroms, but all the poets in my line are gone. An older writer friend tells me that the role of a writer in America today is to help the readers be less afraid. But I am also afraid. I am afraid for the lives of my neighbors in West Philadelphia, afraid for the lives of my loved ones around the globe, afraid for the health and soul of the world. Was Euripides afraid, or Sophocles? Their books do not help me feel fearless. They help me to better articulate the sorrow, not so that I can see a path ahead, but so that I can have the strength to take it. They remind me, from twenty-five hundred years back—before the Black Plague, the Middle Passage, and the Holocaust—that for the most part, with great sorrow, and with great unexpected delight, we, those of us not destroyed en route, have caught ourselves just in time to keep going.
Homer said we ride into the future facing the past. Maybe the simplest prophecy is that we have made it this far. (“Trust the hours. Haven’t they / carried you everywhere, up to now?” writes Galway Kinnell.) In Economy of the Unlost, Anne Carson’s meditation on two other lyric poets, Paul Celan and Simonides of Keos, she puts it this way: “a poet is someone who traffics in survival.”
The morning before returning to Philadelphia, I stood on the beach. A gale blew, a nor’easter, and it was raining, and all the birds sat facing the green-black sea, the way birds have done forever in the face of a storm.
My Fulani friends in the Malian Sahel say that if you catch a pied crow alive, and pull down its eyelids, you will find a sentence from the Quran written in Arabic on the sclera of its eyes; reading the sentence grants you one wish. But none of my friends has ever caught one. Pied crows, anyone will tell you, are very hard to catch.
Note that it is the bird’s eye that matters, not the seer’s. Many celebrated prophet-poets are or eventually became blind: Ahijah the Shilonite, Teiresias, Phineas, Homer, Surdas. Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Hayden, Audre Lorde, W. S. Merwin. It is written; they do not have to physically see the future themselves to spell it out.
On the last day of October there was a rally at Malcolm X Park, halfway between Walter Wallace’s home and mine. Two or three hundred people from the neighborhood, all masked because of the raging coronavirus pandemic, gathered in grief and rage and disgust. A police helicopter hovered overhead, a deranged, menacing bird basking in the cold sun of autumn. Every night after the murder, police helicopters hovered over the neighborhood. Their sustained sonic assault overlaid everything, even the metallic call of night-flying geese. It was not lost on any of us that thirty-five years earlier a police helicopter hovered above this very neighborhood and then dropped a bomb on a house full of people, five blocks away from where Wallace was murdered, killing five children, six adults, and reducing to ashes sixty-one homes. This helicopter recalls that other helicopter. Neuroscience calls this kind of memory pattern recognition. It is like predicting, except in reverse. For example, pattern recognition was why in 2003, when the United States led an attack on Iraq, every household and business in Iraqi Kurdistan kept a caged canary: people were afraid that Saddam Hussein would retaliate with chemical weapons against the Kurds, as he had in 1988, when his bombers had dropped mustard gas and nerve gas on the town of Halabja, killing five thousand people in two days. In the spring of 2003, some Peshmerga fighters even brought birds to the trenches. A war reporter, I spent those early days of the dark war with a gas mask on my belt, surrounded by trilling yellow birdsong.
If the canaries foretold the deaths of the nearly 290,000 Iraqi people that would result from that invasion, it was a prophecy none of us could read.
On the sad walk back from Malcolm X Park I saw a man with a bicycle standing on a sidewalk, looking up; I followed his gaze to a host of sparrows. There must have been more than a hundred of them. The birds spooled out of a linden tree in a long scarf that billowed and contracted, and flew across the street and settled to chitter in the branches of a golden gingko on the other side—then exploded out of the gingko, shaking down a foul-smelling hail of pink berries, and pulled across the street again, ever condensing and expanding, shape-shifting like the plovers on the seashore, their flapping wings even noisier than their hectic chirping, almost noisier than the police helicopter—then gathered to rest in a low bush near a café, but only for a second, streaming upward again toward the taller trees up the road. I laughed, and the man with the bicycle, I could hear, also laughed behind his mask.
“What are they doing?” I asked the man; maybe I took him for an augur. Maybe I hoped he was an augur.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They seem to be just going back and forth.”
Anna Badkhen is the author of six books, most recently Fisherman’s Blues. A Guggenheim Fellow, she is at work on An Anatomy of Lostness.