NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF IRELAND, GALWAY, IRELAND TWELVE YEARS AGO
““We ate the birds,” he says. “We ate them. We wanted their songs to flow up through our throats and burst out of our mouths, and so we ate them. We wanted their feathers to bud from our flesh. We wanted their wings, we wanted to fly as they did, soar freely among the treetops and the clouds, and so we ate them. We speared them, we clubbed them, we tangled their feet in glue, we netted them, we spitted them, we threw them onto hot coals, and all for love, because we loved them. We wanted to be one with them.”
There is silence in the enormous hall. He is small, down there behind his lectern. And big enough to fill the space. Loud enough, powerful enough. We are hanging on his every word, even if the words don’t belong to him, even if he is only saying to us what Margaret Atwood said first.
“They have been here for two hundred million years,” he says, “and until recently there were ten thousand species. They evolved to go in search of food, traveling farther than any other animal to survive, and thus they colonized the earth. From the oilbird, which lived in pitch-black caves, to the bar-headed goose, which bred only on the desolate Tibetan plateau. From the rufous hummingbird, which survived in the freezing altitude of fourteen thousand feet to the Rüppell’s griffon vulture, which could fly as high as a commercial airplane. These extraordinary creatures were undoubtedly the most successful on earth, because they courageously learned to exist anywhere.”
My heart is beating too fast and I will myself to be calm, to breathe more slowly, to really take this in. To savor it and remember every detail because too soon I will be gone from the circle of his perfect words.
The professor moves out from behind his lectern and spreads his hands beseechingly. “The only true threat to birds that has ever existed is us.
“In the 1600s the Bermuda petrel, of the Procellariidae family, the national bird of Bermuda, was hunted for meat so catastrophically that they were thought to be extinct. Until, in 1951, by sheer accident they were found again, only eighteen pairs of them. They were hiding, nesting in the cliffs of small islands. I imagine that day a great deal.” He pauses as though to imagine it now, and I marvel at the command he has over the hall. I am with him on those cliffs, discovering those lonely little birds, the only survivors of their kind. He goes on, and his voice is hard now, demanding. “They did not survive our second attack. This one was crueler, far more pervasive. With the burning of fossil fuels we changed the world, we’ve killed it. As the climate grew hotter and the sea levels rose, the Bermuda petrels were washed from their burrows and drowned. That is one species of a very great many. And it’s not only birds that suffer—as I’ve said, birds tend to be the most resilient. Polar bears are gone, thanks to that rise in temperature. Sea turtles have gone, the beaches where they once lay their eggs eroded by those same rising seas. The ringtail possum, which could not survive temperatures above thirty degrees Celsius, was decimated by a single heat wave. Lions perished in never-ending droughts, rhinos were lost to poaching. And on it goes. Those are simply a few you know of, the stars of the animal kingdom, but if I started listing the creatures destroyed by habitat destruction we would be here all day. Thousands of species are dying right now, and being ignored. We are wiping them out. Creatures that have learned to survive anything, everything, except us.”
He walks back to his lectern and turns on his projector. He is tall and lean, maybe even thin, with short, dark hair and an impeccably tailored navy suit. A lime-green bow tie makes him seem a man of another time, as do glasses that can really only be called spectacles. Despite his strange appearance he is the darling of the university staff. Adored by his students. Almost young enough to be one of them. There is a table with a covering over it, its image projected large onto the wall. He slides the calico off with a magician-esque flourish to reveal a bird.
It takes me a moment to realize that it is real, dead and stuffed and pinned to some sort of apparatus so that it appears in flight. A gull, white and gray and too much. Like that, I am no longer with him; I have fallen behind. I stand and move awkwardly past the other students in my row, causing a mild rustle of annoyance but not caring, needing out.
His voice follows me. “This semester we will be looking not only at the anatomy of birds, but their breeding, feeding, and migration patterns, and how these have been affected over time—both negatively and positively—by human interference—” The door falls shut with a slight bang that they will have heard inside. I run, sandals slapping the lino. Out into the sunshine, down the steps to where I’ve locked my bike. I work the code with unsteady fingers and then I ride as fast as I can, my hair streaming behind me, through cobblestone streets and all the way to the sea.
The bike crashes to the ground and I hop to get my shoes off, flinging them to the grass and sprinting until I hit the water and dive beneath the surface.
Here is the sky. The salty weightless sky. Here I can fly.