How can we protect what we love?

Book Review – by Deena Metzger

Credit: David Moynahan

I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird: A Daughter’s Memoir
By Susan Cerulean
Photographs by David Moynahan
University of Georgia Press,  August 2020

Any book by Susan Cerulean, writer, naturalist and activist, is a gift to all of us. Deeply trained by her heart,  in exact observation of what she loves, Cerulean devotes herself to understanding the nature of what is before her in these times – the fragile nature of everything we love.  She reminds us what intimate relationship is, whether the object is a bird or birds in Florida whose lives and futures are overwhelmed by humans overrunning the shore bird’s fragile territory, or her aging father, whose life is equally threatened by Alzheimer’s and his similar loss of his own territory and agency.

One would not imagine that these very distinct creatures would each inform us about the other, but to the contrary, Cerulean’s keen understanding of how our contemporary lives endanger all beings, allows us to follow the striking and undeniable parallels between the two. One way that Susan understands Alzheimer’s is as a disease of relentless and continuous loss. The analogue is the dementia of our world which instigates the relentless and continuous loss of one species after another until our lives will be as barren and unsustainable as someone in the last stages of dementia.

A single urgent question threads its way through the book: How can we take care of what we love?  And this question devolves into another even more desperate:  Can we take care of what we love?  How might such caring manifest?

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One response that can be gleaned from Cerulean’s inquiries when navigating the confusions, contradictions and traumas that confront both father and creatures, is the need to protect and provide home. And the great difficulty of doing so.  What gives us certainty and security in our lives?  What is our foundation?  Upon what do we depend for comfort and a guarantee of a future?  Home.

We follow Cerulean’s heartbreak as she realizes her father cannot stay in his home, cannot care for himself and none of his children, Cerulean included, can take him into their homes. We do not live alongside each other or even in the same cities or states. We do not live in villages.  We no longer have the ability to take care of an aged parent with dementia.  A patient with Alzheimer’s requires constant care, sometimes, as Cerulean discovers, more than one person at a time.  And if the care is to be kind, then definitely more than one person to lift, dress and undress, bathe, take to the toilet, feed and reassure. Then after such an exhausting and repeating regime, remains the challenge of conversation, entertainment, affection, carrying the memories so life, even if waning, continues to have meaning and satisfaction.

Cerulean has a family to tend. And work that calls her and the natural world to protect, and she is a writer.  She cannot care for her father in the ways her values, her heart, her expectations demand. These day  almost everyone faces such dilemmas whether with an elder, a parent, siblings, children or friends and has to reckon with the institutional inadequacies despite our increasing dependence upon them.  These personal challenges are equaled by the gross inadequacies of our laws, environmental and conservation organizations and government agencies to provide for the natural world whose demise we will not survive.

Cerulean cannot protect the birds whose habitat, whose homes are being overrun by humans and the effects of climate dissolution. The birds’ nesting area is the tiniest sliver of beach in a rising ocean. This is where they lay and tend their eggs. Storms take increasing territory back into their watery maws. The storms that are the consequences of our activities, our life styles heating the planet. As I write this, tropical storm Laura, strengthening over a very warm ocean, is threatening to make landfall with 120 mile an hour winds. Half a million people are being evacuated in advance, but how many birds?

In addition to the increasing numbers of natural disasters which affect the creatures inordinately, and their loss of habitat and sustenance, of home,  the birds also suffer the on-going appearances of humans.  We do not recognize and respect their territories  We do not see their breeding grounds.  We  do not see these others who live among us or whose lands we trash. A man pulls his boat up on the sand without any awareness.  The helpless squawking birds are not able to alert him to the harm he is doing.

“The man stands and unfolds his body from the boat.  Nothing safe stands this tall on the sand ….  A few of us tolerate the fear longer than others.  Others jump in the air, swoop and turn “aa-a-raw, aa-a-raw” we cry. And we will, all of us, leave our refuge, which is no longer one, because the man in the boat is  pushing against our sand which is the only place we can nest. …Our flightless chicks scurry for cover, and we cannot protect them, nor our eggs, which are now baking in the sun.”

Even Susan, when trying to fulfill a scientific demand to accurately accomplish a census, comes too close to the breeding birds, aware though she is, trespasses.                      

“I felt the anxiety of this pair who tended this nest, up on the hill.
… Our roles were so very different, I was the one who watched, who
wanted to know and they were the objects I studied and counted and
adored.  Perhaps a relationship could be created if I agreed to curb
my desire to be close, to back away, and to honor their subjectivity.  It
would be better if I honored their moral agency and the fact that they
were engaged in the serious business of continuing their kind on the
planet. I intuited the moment when I had nearly exhausted them with my
insistence on being in their space.  I felt their signal, “Go away,” they said.” 

And here is the dilemma.  In Cerulean’s own words, she, even she, is asked to “Go away.” But if she does, she will not do what she has agreed, what her soul has agreed to do — Bear Witness.

In a dream, Cerulean was assigned a single bird:

“Don’t take your eye off the chick-child and parent!
Care for them!  Protect them.”

 A single bird when what she wanted was a sturdy congregation. But the single, or the most fragile, the declining, the threatened, the disappearing, the ailing, is what we’re being given.

 “Transforming our culture, our assumptions, our world view,
cosmology of separation, our economies, — that is the single bird
we must heal.”

In her final chapter which she, thankfully, dares to call Saving the World, Cerulean writes, in words which refer equally to her father, our Mother Earth, and all the blessed creatures, “We must keep watch over these beautiful lives and pray for direction to inform our actions on their behalf and our own.”

“We must keep watch,” she says, “We!”
We must keep watch, pray for direction, and act.

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