My sister was the first in our family of birdwatchers to hear the news. Up at 5 o’clock to get ready for work, she awoke to the National Public Radio broadcast that broke the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker’s return. “It could be pregnancy hormones that makes me all weepy at this news,” she wrote in an e-mail to us on the morning we heard that a kayaker in Arkansas had lived every birder’s dream. No, it wasn’t hormones that made her cry, I told her later—unless I was pregnant too, as well as all the other birdwatchers overcome with emotion at the news that the ivory-billed woodpecker wasn’t extinct after all.
More than 60 years had elapsed since the last conclusively documented sighting of the bird in the United States, and most birders chalked up anecdotal reports of sightings since 1944 as amateurish confusion with the similar pileated woodpecker. Desire can blur one’s vision—and many, many people have yearned to see this bird with an almost religious longing. In fact, the ivory-bill has been called the “Lord God Bird” because observers were moved to exclaim, “Lord God, look at that bird!”
As a child in the 1970s, I dreamed of being the first person to discover that the ivory-billed woodpecker was not really extinct. Spending hours in the backseat of our faux-wood-paneled station wagon, trying to amuse myself while my parents and my older brother and sister watched birds, I would page through the field guide. It was in this way that I stumbled onto my enthrallment with the ivory-bill, its black and white feathers, its flaming red crest, its ivory spear of a beak. In those blank hours of waiting, I developed elaborate fantasies of trekking through swampy bottomlands in Louisiana with my binoculars: I’d be perched on some muddy ledge at the edge of a stream when suddenly, behind me, I’d hear that nasal “kent, kent” call. I’d suck in a breath. Next I’d see the sudden rush of black and white wings past me, and I’d know immediately that this was Campephilus principalis, what legions of other birdwatchers had been unable to find, and I’d weep with joy.
That was exactly the reaction of one scientist in February 2004, after kayaker Gene Sparling led him to the spot where he’d seen the bird several weeks earlier. After catching a glimpse of the ivory-bill himself, the professor simply sat down on a log and sobbed. No, hormones definitely weren’t responsible for the sudden weepiness of birdwatchers around the globe: It was simply the accumulation of years of hoping, while trying not to hope, that the ivory-bill had escaped extinction.
Extinct . Edged with knife-like percussives, the word splinters the air even as it exits the mouth. Two small syllables stronger even than death, which we usually speak of as singular: my grandfather’s death, our dog’s death, the death of a dream. In the arithmetic of grief, extinction, like genocide and massacre, is death raised to the nth power. Death as its own exponent.
It is virtually unfathomable, then, when scientists tell us that at least 100 species of plants and animals become extinct every day. They’re dying because of destruction of habitat, pollution of streams and rivers, climate change, you name it. In the ivory-bill’s case, it was the destruction of millions of acres of old-growth forest in the southern United States between the 1880s and 1940s that virtually wiped out their food supply of beetle larvae burrowing under the bark of dying trees. In fact, the swampy bottomland of the Mississippi River Delta is now considered one of the most endangered ecosystems of the world.
So every day while I’m feeding my children and checking my e-mail and folding my laundry, more than 100 plants and animals are not only dying, but “extincting”: dying forever. Or perhaps “extincting” should be the active form of the verb—as in we, humans, are “extincting” other species, all without asking anyone’s permission.
Any form of the word sounds so melodramatic. Yet is it even possible to be melodramatic about something of this magnitude? Is it possible to overstate a situation that is already, each day, overstating itself?
It is possible , however, to do some fancy theological footwork that transforms extinction from a great tragedy into a series of small losses. Through an “eschatology of abandonment,” as Brian McLaren calls it in A Generous Orthodoxy, some Christians have come to view the second coming of Christ as “wrapping up the whole of creation like an empty candy wrapper and throwing it into the cosmic dumpster so God can finally bring our souls to heaven, beyond time, beyond messy matter, beyond this creation entirely.” It’s not hard to see how such eschatology can lead to a careless disregard for the natural world: Why try to save something that God is going to trash eventually anyway?
I find it ironic that such conservative eschatology leads to exactly the same place that conservationism leads: to the belief that we are, in some manner, living in the end times. David Orr, an environmental studies professor at Oberlin College, points out as much in his April 2005 article “Armageddon Versus Extinction” in the journal Conservation Biology. For “Left Behind” religious conservatives, the end of the end means Armageddon; for conservationists, it means global environmental disaster. A final war or a final flood from melted polar ice caps: same difference, in some ways. Both mean extinction—not only of them, the ivory-bills and passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets, but of us, humans.
From there, of course, the paths of the two camps diverge greatly. “Left Behind” evangelicals welcome the end as a fulfillment of prophecy, and hope it comes during their lifetime; conservationists work like crazy to avoid it. Orr criticizes conservative Christians for their complicity with “the political forces sweeping us toward more terrible violence and the avoidable catastrophes of climate change and ecological ruin.” Evangelicals’ belief in the end times, he writes, engenders careless behavior toward the environment that, paradoxically, might bring on the breakdown-of-the-ecological-system version of the end times.
I think Orr paints with too-broad strokes the diverse group of people who consider themselves evangelical Christians. He seems unaware of the many evangelicals who consider themselves religiously conservative but who are also ecologically informed and active. Brian McLaren writes that the national programs director of the Sierra Club tells of a great increase in the number of Christians involved in conservation work; I can’t imagine that they’re all mainline liberals. In the past year, several evangelical leaders and organizations—such as the National Association of Evangelicals—have made prominent commitments to the fight against global warming. Still, Orr’s point stands: Because of their eschatology, many religious conservatives are apathetic at best about resource consumption and conservation, and those who might convince them otherwise—ecology-minded citizens—usually can’t even speak their language.
This is where Christian conservationists—and the ivory-bill—come in. Christians concerned about the environment are uniquely positioned between the dispensationalist Christian and secular conservationist, and many of us can code-switch between religion and science with ease. Along with our conservative brothers and sisters, we anticipate the coming reign of God and believe in a final consummation of God’s desires for the world; yet we also believe that God’s reign has already begun, and that God’s desires include the care of creation. Along with scientists, we believe that global warming and habitat destruction and excessive consumption of resources are bona fide threats to our planet; but we also believe that ecological crises are the result of more than just bad policy or uninformed governments. We believe that they are, at root, the result of sin (sin that works its way into systems and structures, but sin nevertheless). This bilingualism may enable us to talk with our ecologically negligent brothers and sisters about the falsity and danger of environmental policies that rape and pillage the planet God gave us to steward and tend.
And the ivory-bill? At the risk of reducing a magnificent creature to a cardboard prop, I suggest that the quest to save the ivory-bill represents a desire with which many evangelical Christians may connect. Repeated use of religious metaphor to describe the return of this woodpecker—as the “Holy Grail” or as “Lazarus rising from the grave,” among others—speaks of the proximity of the desires for the natural and for the sacred within us. By telling the haunting and hopeful story of the ivory-bill, perhaps we can show our environmentally unaware brothers and sisters—and remind ourselves, since environmental awareness doesn’t always translate into responsible choices—that the desire to see and save a bird is implanted by God. Perhaps we can demonstrate ways to use “creation” in Christian vocabulary other than simply on the other side of a slash from “evolution.”
Perhaps we can incarnate the holy desires of God through our love for the old-growth forest, the burrowing beetle larvae, the woodpecker that makes grown men cry.
Sometimes I wonder whether we who loved the ivory-bill so much simply hoped it back into being, and when the spell wears off, it’ll be gone again. If only desire always birthed reality. Often, however, desire delivers only unfulfilled hope for the future or nostalgia for the past—in this case, for a past before clear-cutting and mining and damming and sprawl.
Yet perhaps that idea—that we somehow desired the ivory-bill back into existence—isn’t such a strange one after all. Collective desire was, in part, what led both public and private landowners in the Arkansas Big Woods to work on re-establishing mature hardwood forests, an effort that now looks like it might pay off with the survival of the ivory-bill and other threatened species. Desire was, in part, what led Richard Pough, an Audubon worker sent to look for ivory-bills in Louisiana, to start The Nature Conservancy, which has helped to save more than 100 million acres of habitat for endangered birds and animals around the world. In fact, such desire and the action it births sound a lot like prayer. Ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.
It can seem preposterous to even hope that, some day, care for the environment and concern for threatened species will replace careless eschatology and ecological apathy as hallmarks of American Christianity. Even with the recent surge of interest among many evangelicals in social and environmental issues, there remains a massive bloc of religious conservatives beholden to ideologies of wasteful entitlement, disregard for global environmental treaties, and decimating militarism. It seems preposterous to hope that, even with compassionate and persistent activism from Christian environmentalists, such individuals might be convinced of our responsibility to steward God’s good earth.
Then again, stranger things have happened. I mean, Lord God, look at that bird!
Valerie Weaver-Zercher is a freelance writer and editor and mother of three young sons in Mechanicsburg, Pa.