rare bird visits u.s., gets killed by car

It sounds like it could be a headline from The Onion, except that it’s true.

This past week, an ultra-rare Corn Crake, a field-dwelling bird elusive even its usual Eurasian range, showed up on Long Island in New York State, where there have been only two records of this species in the past 129 years, the last one in 1963. Two days later the bird was found dead, having been hit by a car, with fractures in both hind limbs and pelvis.

In America, where we live by the car and die by the car, no one is safe on the roads, no matter how unusual or rare you are.

Last week, partly in response to the recent terrorist act in New York City where a man drove a truck onto a popular bike path, killing 8 people and injuring 12 others, BikeSnobNYC author Eben Weiss penned an editorial for The Washington Post. His primary point is that an act like this will not scare NYC cyclists off the road because they already risk their lives in the face of vehicular violence every single day. He then goes on to name-check several NYC cyclists who have died on the road in recent years. While Weiss is speaking in particular on behalf of NYC cyclists, his point applies across the country. In 2015 alone, 818 U.S. cyclists were killed by vehicular violence. And it’s worse for pedestrians: in that same year 5,376 pedestrians died in motor vehicle crashes.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a cyclist, a pedestrian, or a rare bird. When people get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, whether intentionally or not, they weaponize themselves. In the wake of this most recent terrorist attack, discussions have arisen in New York about whether to ban motor vehicles altogether in high pedestrian and cyclist traffic areas such as Central Park. And while it’s unfortunate that it takes extreme acts like the one that happened in NYC for civic leaders to sit up and consider taking steps toward better protecting pedestrians and cyclists from automotive danger, at least they are now paying better attention. Let’s hope that it moves beyond just talk.

#NoDAPL Day of Action

Last night I stood with my fellow Baltimoreans in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Outside the Army Corps of Engineers downtown field office we chanted and waved our signs at passing drivers, pedestrians, and light rail riders. Turnout was modest compared to that in other cities, but for such a neglected issue in the media, I consider the 150-200+ strong crowd to have been a good showing in this city, whose own internal problems typically rise to the activist forefront (and with good reason, given their dire nature).

However, the DAPL is not just another pipeline. While it is being constructed hundreds of miles away from here, it is emblematic of issues that all Americans should be concerned about:

  • our greed for cheap, convenient oil
  • our over-dependence on automobiles
  • our egregious neglect of the environment
  • our continuing disrespect and oppression of indigenous people

All of these issues are interconnected. At the start of this country’s history our founders made a decision that the concerns and well-being of the invaders were more important than those of the people who were here before us. Instead of meeting them on equal terms, we corralled them onto land we considered worthless and forgot about them. This decision has now held fast for well over 200 years. Of course this behavior was not uniquely Americanour example of native oppression just happens to be one of the more recent in human history. Indigenous people around the world are among the most disenfranchised, dispossessed people ever throughout history. But, as this particular pipeline is being built in the United States, and part of it adjacent to an Indian reservation, it is a distinctly American problem.

As we did with our treatment of native people, so we did with our reliance on the internal combustion engine. Following its development, we made a far-reaching decision that we have never reconsidered in any meaningful way. We decided to develop an entire country’s infrastructure around the automobile and we’ve been doggedly sticking to this plan ever since. This has chained us to a never-ending thirst for cheap oil. It has led us into wars, fractured our communities, poisoned our air and water, and decimated our landscape. We are now trapped in a dark corner, and our desperation drives us to take whatever means necessary to extract the last remaining oil from beneath our feet.

So this is not just another pipeline. It is a brutal reminder of our failure as a nation and as a people to care for each other and to care for our environment in a sustainable way. It accentuates our stubborn shortsightedness and our continuing habit of taking huge steps backward for every tiny step we take forward. Following this trend, we have now elected a climate change denier to the Presidency of our nation. As with the majority of Mr. Trump’s future plans in office, his intended actions toward the environment are largely unknown. But the outlook is grim. We know he has promised to retract U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement on climate change. This is not a good sign. Moving toward cleaner energy will no longer be a priority on a national level. But we all retain our own power as individuals. Now, more than ever, is the time to voice our opinions, whatever they may be. And we must continue doing what we already have been doing, as individuals, to treat the planet and all of its inhabitants as extensions of our own selves. For we are all connected and if one of us fails we all fail.

More news on the Dakota Access Pipeline from Democracy Now!

ravine trail

The new trail opens up the wildest area in this urban forest oasis. Clusters of mushroom sprout from the center of the path. Few have walked here yet. It is high summer and the wood thrush yet sings. Cicadas offer up a constant backing drone. Point of fact: dogs don’t process the switchback concept. It conflicts with their innate knowledge of the shortest distance rule. As the trail climbs from the deepest shaded low point, the morning heat barges uninvited into the cool air space. Sounds of the nearby freeway intrude. As I struggle to adapt, a certain chorus tears through my head in response. This walk is soon over.

late rain world

The world was late today. I don’t know. I was late. But I wasn’t expecting the world to also be late. I had hoped for a leisurely ride in on mi bicicleta. Instead there were cars everywhere. An automotive horror show. Maybe it was the rain. Rain slows the world to a crawl. Like slow motion, creeping and crawling. Not me, though. I was pedaling quite rapidly, in fact. Bike commuting reminds me I am alive. Otherwise I might think I was a walking corpse. Or a dancing one. I’m skipping a meeting this morning. I don’t care. It empowers me. Robert Walser would skip it. Walser wouldn’t still be here seven years later, though. Walser wouldn’t have made it seven months. Seven weeks, maybe. More likely seven days. He’d be in his attic room writing his soul out on shreds of borrowed paper with a stolen pen. Oh, where is the rain crow. He migrated long ago. Now who will tell us when it is about to rain. I felt the cold rain on my face and knew I was alive. No more alive than last month or last week or yesterday, but alive nonetheless. 2013 dreams have been vivid so far. It’s like there is an arthouse revival series going on in my dream life. I’m liking it. There’s nothing else to report, I’m afraid. Raining, check. Biking, check. Reading Walser, check. No more rain crow, check. Not a corpse, check. Alive, check.

revoke my car privileges and drop me in a field somewhere, please

Rarely do I feel compelled to deconstruct my entire day in the space of a blog post, but today was um…special, shall we say? It started out normal enough. Armed with an unexpected day off, I crossed county lines with field glasses in hand to search for field birds. I had good intel on locations for breeding birds, and made haste for them. With windows rolled down, I heard the telltale robotic jingle-jangle of a Bobolink and navigated over to the shoulder. Out of the car in a flash, I first thought I’d been fooled by a nearby mockingbird attempting to hog the spotlight as usual, but then the bobolink himself flew overhead, tinkling and jingling to his heart’s content. He flew across the road and landed in a field, affording me adequate looks to get the day started off on the best foot. Nemesis bird comes home to roost! I moved on. I drove the country roads for about an hour and a half and found the birds to be generally cooperative. I saw and heard all my target birds for this trip. Meadowlarks were plentiful and I got a couple of stellar looks at them. Horned Larks were not as plentiful but I did spot a couple from a distance, and heard them elsewhere. I found a singing male Dickcissel perched on the exact section of power line where I found one last year…could it have been the same bird? In addition to these birds, I was also treated to great looks at several American Kestrels.

As I began to wind down my time, I returned once again to the site of the initial bobolink sighting to see if I could cop another look. As I navigated the car onto the opposite shoulder this time, the right front end suddenly sunk into a hidden ditch. When I got out of the car, I saw that the back left wheel was about 3 feet off the ground! As I assessed the seriousness of the situation, a man in a box truck drove up and offered assistance. We tried moving the car with him sitting in the hatch for balance (he was sorta stocky), but that didn’t work so he offered to seek out a farmer down the road with a chain, or failing that to call the sheriff’s office. While waiting around, I watched a bobolink groom himself while perched on a power line. Unfortunately my concern about the car impeded my joy at witnessing this scene. About 20 minutes later I was about to give up on Box Truck Man and call a tow truck when simultaneously the sheriff showed up and two country dudes in a big pick-up passed by and offered to pull me out. Within minutes they’d hooked a chain to the frame and pulled the car out. Country folks rule! I thanked them all profusely and decided to head back to the city after so much excitement.

I needed to pick Em El up and shuttle her downtown for a meeting but I had some extra time so I stopped to check on the birds at another favorite location. There I found expected Prairie Warbler and Hooded Warbler, although couldn’t get a visual on the latter. Many singing Field Sparrows, a perched Turkey Vulture (usually they’re circling endlessly overhead at this spot), a singing White-eyed Vireo, and other usual suspects rounded out the mix.

Once downtown I killed more time (die, time, die!) by finishing Darkness Visible and continuing with Paris Spleen, drinking espresso, and getting yelled at by a probably schizophrenic man. Somehow I think Baudelaire would’ve appreciated the scene. Unbeknownst to me, while all of this fun was taking place Em El’s car was being towed because I failed to read the red highlighted part of the parking meter that said No Parking Between 4-6 PM Mon-Fri. Yes, this is common knowledge to those who frequently drive and park in the city. However, I’m like a deer in the headlights when I get downtown behind the wheel of a car (really bad simile in this context, I know). I don’t know the rules, man! I’m a cyclist, for god’s sake. I haven’t owned a car since 1997 or something (if you’re curious, it was a Plymouth Valiant that sat in my driveway for a few years after I used it to move to Virginia [it looked like this, except crappier because it only cost $400]). Anyway, I guess the cycling gods were raining down holy fire and brimstone on me today for driving too much lately. Maybe I deserved it, but damn, those cycling gods are harsh. Of course, no thanks to The City of Baltimore, either, always taking and never giving!

As we waited in line to pay the obscene $272 required to get the car back, I attempted to lighten the mood by telling Em El that at least we can chalk this up as another quintessential Baltimore experience (along with other special things, such as becoming the victim of a crime and receiving wildly innacurate water bills). After all, you haven’t really lived in Baltimore until you’ve waited 45 minutes in the tiny concrete bunker under the interstate overpass with all the other suckers preyed upon that day by the blood-sucking savages commonly known as tow-truck drivers.

As if all this wasn’t enough, immediately after Farley ate his dinner tonight he barfed it all up in various places around the house along with all the water he’d drank in the previous 30 minutes. By that time, I was about ready to hurl myself off the deck in search of sweet unconsciouness.

To sum up, my joy tonight is all tangled with misery and weariness.

commuter rant

As a long-time bike commuter, I have always prided myself on my ability to keep all senses on high alert while traveling between home, work, and anywhere else I choose to ride.  My 360° awareness and accompanying quick response time are what keep me relatively safe on the streets.  But now I am weary.  I am weary of asinine drivers.  I am weary of ignorant pedestrians.  I am weary of the need for this constant vigilance.  Take this morning, for example.  I approach a red traffic light.  A car waits at the light across the intersection.  The driver does not have her turn signal on.  I am headed straight.  The light turns green almost immediately, and so I push off into the intersection.  At the same time, still without signaling, the driver turns left into my path.  I dodge to the right in order to avoid being hit, yelling out in frustration.  As she completes her turn, the driver reacts in outrage, yelling at me, “What the fuck?!”

So, let’s review.  We are facing each other at an intersection.  Neither of us is indicating an intended turn, which means that we would both have the right-of-way to proceed straight without pausing.  Now, if she intended to turn she should: (a) indicate her intention with her turn signal, and (b) wait for me to pass through the intersection before executing her turn, as I have the right-of-way.  The fact that I am on a bike is irrelevant to the traffic law.  A bicycle is a moving vehicle equivalent to a car in this state and thus should be yielded to in the same way that other cars are yielded to when they have the right-of-way.

If I had to guess, I would say that if I had been driving a car, this driver would have yielded to me, because if she hadn’t, she would quite likely have been hit, especially considering that she didn’t have her signal on.  But because I was on a bike, I was, what, a non-entity, not a physical threat to her car, and therefore not worth yielding to?  She had to have seen me.  My body language indicated that I was going straight through the intersection.  But instead she chose to ignore me, and then reacted with hostility toward me when I was merely exercising my right-of-way.  What’s more is that her hostility seemed so genuine.  How can I expect to survive on the streets when drivers believe their horrible driving practices to be right and true?

The bottom line is that I’m tired of deconstructing incidents like this.  They didn’t used to bother me as much.  But I don’t feel like it’s getting better out there.  You would think more cyclists on the road would mean more awareness among drivers.  But that awareness is either not coming, or it’s approaching with the speed of cold molasses.  A common argument stated by the trolls who post comments on bike safety articles online is that cyclists shouldn’t get treated like regular traffic until they start obeying all the rules (stopping at every stop sign, etc.).  To that I say, why would I wait at a stop sign (or red light) if I can proceed safely through it ahead of other traffic?  Is it better for me to wait there with the automotive traffic, and then risk being hit by a driver eager to cut me off?  I have to think about what’s safest for me because I’m not surrounded by two tons of steel.  And from my observations over the years, I’ve determined that the safest thing for me is to stay ahead of traffic whenever possible.  It’s quite obvious to me that most, if not all, drivers do not want me in their way.

Basically, I feel invisible on my bike.  And it’s not just the drivers ignoring me.  Pedestrians don’t hear I’m coming, and they never look before crossing the street, anyway.  Maybe they would look if they heard something…I don’t really know.  I see them walk out in front of cars without looking, too…I guess maybe they just have a death wish.  And even if they do look at me, they still walk out in front of me half the time.  I don’t know what it is.  Do they misjudge how fast a bike can travel?  Do they not realize that getting hit by a bike hurts?  Maybe they wouldn’t die or be paralyzed, but I guarantee they’d suffer some injuries.

Bike commuting used to be fun.  My trips to work and back were usually the highlights of my day, times when I felt truly alive.  Now, I am more likely to dread those trips.  The city streets are alive with danger.  If it’s not a car hitting you, it will be a roving band of teenagers attacking you and stealing your bike, or just practicing some act of random violence upon you.  For the first time, I’m starting to really wonder if it’s worth it.  How can I just enjoy riding my bike if I think everyone is out to get me?  If it were just my imagination maybe I could learn to fight it.  But the proof continues to manifest itself all around me, and I can’t just turn away.

institutionalized

Due to cat needing vet visits, I spent two days working from home, driving Em El down south for work and picking her up in the evening.  I haven’t commuted by car in years, so it was quite a shock to my system.  Blood pressure rises, teeth gritted, eyes glaze over as you follow the same route over and over.  I’m used to seeing the stupid things drivers pull as I ride my bike, but it’s totally different when you’re driving.  It actually bothers me more, probably because I’m already extremely agitated just from the mere fact of being behind the wheel.  Anyway, it got me thinking about people who commute the same route for years on end.  Every day, a vacant thousand-yard stare fixed on the traffic lights ahead.  The rote of it all would kill me in a matter of months.

So after the storms pass, and the dishes are drying in the rack, I step out into the cool air.  That old cottonwood out back sings its timeless song with nothing more than leaves in the wind and I am so thirsty to hear it.  I want to go to sleep listening to nothing but that.  It takes me back to, of all places, Lucy Park and the hidden trails I found that one day, winding alongside the chocolate brown river.  After a deep and full night of cottonwood sleep I want to wake up to the high fluted serenades of the thrushes.  I want to turn my head to the window and breathe in the meadow breeze as it fills the room.  I am so hungry for what feeds me.  So desperate in this urban confusion.  I keep fitting one leghold trap after another onto these withered limbs.

I can’t stop hearing Bill Callahan sing, “My ideals have got me on the run…towards my connection with everyone.  My ideals have got me on the run…it’s my connection to everyone.”

I don’t even know anymore what my ideals are, if I even ever had a clear idea.  I’m so shifty and drifty, I’m barely able to pin myself down most days.  And I’m certainly not running anymore.  Treading murky water, perhaps.  As for my connections, they are few and far between.  Far in miles and farther yet in states of mind.

I don’t want to become institutionalized.  I really don’t.  I know that much. Maybe that’s an ideal?  It’s something I’ll keep fighting against as long as I have the strength, even if it’s with my last few ounces.

something was missing

At the end of the day on Friday, I felt irritable.  Typically, a Friday spent engrossed in the woods restores sharpness to eyes dulled by a week in front of a computer in the office.  However, this Friday was slightly different in that more time was spent in the car, driving around from place to place, than was spent actually walking in the woods.  I know myself pretty well at this point in my life, and every time I get behind the wheel of a car my soul takes a beating.  To mix the joy of watching birds in the field with battling moronic drivers on the road, therefore, is a bastardization of everything I hold sacred.  This was actually the first time I tried this method of visiting various places across a sprawling geographic area in order to maximize the number and diversity of birds seen.  Many people on this birding discussion list I follow use this method at least every weekend, and sometimes most of the entire week.  They are not necessarily all twitchers (birders who travel great distances to view rare birds in order to build their lists), but I think many of them are and certainly they exhibit the tendency.  I think it’s fair to say that people who travel all over the state to fill out their “county lists” may as well be called twitchers, even if the birds they are chasing are not rare, per se.

I always suspected I couldn’t be one of these people, but after Friday I now know for sure.  I can’t stand driving; everything about it is abhorrent to me.  Impatient drivers who crawl up your car’s ass particularly drive me insane.  Just being on a road in a box made of steel kills me.  I much prefer to bike to my birding locales.  What this means in practical terms is that my list(s) will grow at a much slower rate than if I were a gas-guzzling twitcher.  I’ll also end up birding most of the time in the same place (my local patch, as it’s known in birding parlance).  And that’s fine with me.  Sometimes I get impatient with seeing the same birds over and over, particularly in the winter, but when that happens I need to just stop and remind myself of why I like birding and, more importantly, why I love birds.  It’s not a competition for me; I just want to observe.  It’s fun to keep track of what I see, but it’s not the ultimate goal.  The ultimate goal is to reach that plane of existence, however tenuous and short-lived it must be, where I can untether my soul and let it roam free, as I immerse myself in the natural world around me.

Occasionally I will continue to travel farther, by car, to go birding, but I think I will restrict myself to going to just one place and staying there, instead of driving around to multiple places in one day.  And I found on Friday that birding from a car just feels wrong to me, sort of unnatural.  Walking down a country road looking for birds is one thing, but driving down it is different.  The birds are more easily frightened, for one thing, and so I see less of them (not to mention more significantly disturb their activities), but it’s also the principle behind it.  I don’t use a car to commute to work, so why should I use one for my recreational activities?  I felt like a big hypocrite on Friday driving all over creation, when I could’ve just stayed in one place.  Sure, I would’ve seen less birds, but at least my soul would’ve remained intact, and I would’ve ended the day with a more peaceful inner state.  I also don’t like myself behind the wheel of a car, because I get too easily worked up by other people’s asinine behavior on the roads.  I’d rather completely remove myself from that equation whenever possible, but especially when I am engaged in an activity that is as free and pure to me as observing nature has become.

random

Nicest day we’ve had in weeks and I’m stuck inside waiting for a tardy contractor. As I wait, someone intermittently uses a loud drill next door. Sometimes homeownership sucks. Muggings and robberies are up, in both the neighborhood and the city at large. This depresses me on an epic scale. Drilling next door probably indicates installation of new deadbolts. Bars on windows, steel doors, quadruple locks, where does it end? How safe can you be? Muggers lie in wait looking for opportunities. We really have no control over it. The problem is systemic: the haves and the have nots forever divided. No reconciliation possible. Only solution is to take to the woods. The cities are doomed.

In 1960, John Steinbeck traveled the United States with his dog and wrote a book about his trip. At one point he notes, “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.”  Since then, we have happily continued to destroy all the natural places, with the exception of a select few that are so overrun they project a carnivalesque atmosphere.  We have built a society so spread apart that most people see the automobile as the only way to traverse the uncomfortable distances between point A and point B. To not own a car is anathema. You are branded a freak and possibly un-American; at the very least, you are suspect. Similarly, to eschew the consumerist lifestyle that is so red-bloodedly American is also viewed with suspicion. Why wouldn’t you want to buy all the latest greatest stuff? You saw it on TV, after all, and it looked totally awesome. And everyone who had that stuff looked really happy. So why wouldn’t you want to be happy? Get out there and shop, sucker.

Often I think I was born in the wrong century, perhaps in the wrong country, possibly of the wrong race, and maybe even on the wrong planet altogether.

I just got back from a work retreat that I had been dreading for quite some time. During said retreat, I spent some late night hours carousing with a few coworkers who I hadn’t really gotten to know beforehand. I found them to be decent and fun to hang out with, at least in my inebriated state. I’m sure they were surprised by my sudden bout of gregariousness. I’m not a mean drunk, but I can be a saucy one. During the work sessions, I was surprised to sense a tiny flame of enthusiasm ignite somewhere deep below the layers of cynicism within me. But I know better. We can talk grand and eloquent away from the office, but reality is grim. Knowing how long it’s taken to get this far (still a sad state of affairs) makes it impossible to expect that even a quarter of our lofty ideas will ever come to fruition within the next three and a half years. And that is not cynicism talking; that’s just pragmatism.

The place where we stayed was a Bavarian-styled inn that was the type of place where the Griswold family would’ve roomed during one of their epically disastrous vacations. My bathroom had a disused-looking bidet in it and a space heater mounted in the wall that smelled like burning dust when turned on. Still, the king-sized four-poster bed was comfortable and the vaguely shabby past-its-heyday look to the entire place was preferable to the sterility of modern hotels. Not a good place to be a vegan, but I got by (barely). I wish I had photos to share, but the camera was left behind.

pedestrian non grata

At the bottom of the hill there is a traffic light. If I push the button on the pole, the light will turn red, the white “Walk” signal will light up, and I can safely cross the street in the crosswalk. This is all in theory, of course. In actual practice, I push the button on the pole, the traffic light turns red, the “Walk” signal lights up, I step into the crosswalk, and at least one, if not two, cars promptly run the red light and narrowly avoid hitting me. This is not an occasional occurrence. This happens every single time I cross this street. Every time without fail. Frequently I watch people with determined looks on their faces punch the gas as the light turns yellow then red before they have even reached the white line. I then pause in the middle of the crosswalk as the force of their passing vehicle’s speed practically knocks me over. Other times the drivers wear blissful unconcerned expressions as they sail through the red light, very nearly running over my foot or striking my knee with their front bumper. Often one hand clamps a cell phone to a fleshy cheek like some vulgar plastic appendage, as vacant eyes either fail to notice the 6 foot 2 man in the middle of the street or simply choose to ignore him. This morning once again as I reached the middle of the crosswalk, a middle-aged woman in an SUV paused uncertainly at the red light for a split second before racing forward, eyes locked ahead with a crooked half-smile hung on her porcine visage. I stood so close I could see her pores. This light basically exists to serve the pedestrians, as there is no direct cross street that the light also controls. Drivers know this and so they know that they can run this light without the possibility of striking another car, which would thus put themselves and their vehicle in danger. But when the element of personal danger to one’s own self is removed, every driver morphs into a scofflaw on the roads. And who cares about the person walking in the street? They are merely obstacles in the way. As a pedestrian in a major U.S. city, I see the worst of this behavior exhibited in humanity every day and it makes me both sick to my stomach and sick in my heart.

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