Losing the Birds, Finding the Words: Eve Ensler’s Extraordinary Letter of Apology to Mother Earth
By Maria Popova
“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” the visionary marine biologist and lyrical author Rachel Carson wrote as she was making ecology a household word and getting ready to awaken the modern environmental conscience with her epoch-making book Silent Spring.
Silent Spring was titled after the book’s most chilling chapter, detailing the gruesome mass deaths of songbirds in pesticide-assaulted habitats, inspired by a verse from a classic ballad of heartbreak by Carson’s favorite poet, John Keats — “The sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing!” — for she saw no greater heartbreak than the deadly silencing of Mother Nature. In her bittersweet farewell to the world — Carson never lived to see her work inspire the creation of Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency — she beckoned posterity, beckoned us, to face our “grave and sobering responsibility [which] is also a shining opportunity”; to “go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”
We have failed to rise to her challenge. We have failed our origins and our very humanity. In the decades since Carson’s death, 3 billion birds have vanished. Just vanished. And as species seem to be falling off the face of the Earth, their names are falling out of the dictionary, out of our consciousness, out of children’s imaginations. If “finding the words is another step in learning to see,” then losing the words is ceasing to see — a willful blindness to our own responsibility, which thrusts us blindfolded on the steep and winding path to redemption.
Playwright, activist, and V-Day founder Eve Ensler — who is perhaps as close as an artist can get to being a cultural superhero: redeemer of the unspeakable, voice of the unspoken, instrument not only of social change but of that “revelation in the heart” (to borrow Leonard Cohen’s lovely phrase) where all change begins — lifts the blindfold in an extraordinary letter of apology to Mother Earth. Ensler composed the letter as an addendum of sorts to her altogether magnificent book The Apology (public library), read it at Bioneers, then kindly granted me the honor of premiering it to the Brain Pickings ecosystem.
Ensler contextualizes her courageous self-inspection in the disquieting mirror of personal responsibility, where any atonement must begin:
After I finished writing The Apology, a book in which I wrote a letter from my father to myself apologizing and exploring, explaining in detail all the ways he had abused and harmed me, I realized there was an apology I needed to make — an apology that would force me to confront my deepest sorrow, guilt and shame, an apology that I had been avoiding since I moved out of the city to the woods where I now live with the oaks, locust and weeping willows, Lydia the snapping turtle, running spring water, foxes, deer, coyotes, bears and cardinals and my precious dog, Pablo. It is my offering to you. It is my apology to the Earth, herself.
The letter, consonant with Whitman’s insistence that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” evocative of Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem “Please Call Me by My True Names,” is a masterwork of empathy, that highest measure of consciousness. Its gift is the selfsame gift for which the Trappist monk and teacher Thomas Merton thanked Rachel Carson in his gorgeous letter of appreciation after reading Silent Spring — the gift of civilizational self-awareness.
UPDATE: Ensler read her letter as one of the performances at the 2020 Universe in Verse, themed “Possible Futures” and celebrating fifty years of Earth Day, which was founded in 1970 as a direct consequence of Rachel Carson’s work:
It began with the article about the birds, the 2.9 billion missing North America birds, the 2.9 billion birds that disappeared and no one noticed. The sparrows, black birds, and swallows who didn’t make it, who weren’t ever born, who stopped flying or singing or making their most ingenious nests, who didn’t perch or peck their gentle beaks into moist black earth. It began with the birds. Hadn’t we even commented in June, James and I that they were hardly here? A kind of eerie quiet had descended. But later they came back. The swarms of barn swallows and the huge ravens landing on the gravel one by one. I know it was after hearing about the birds, that afternoon I crashed my bike. Suddenly falling, falling, unable to prevent the catastrophe ahead, unable to find the brakes or make them work, unable to stop the falling. I fell and spun and realized I had already been falling, that we have been falling, all of us, and crows and conifers and ice caps and expectations — falling and falling and I wanted to keep falling. I didn’t want to be here to witness everything falling, missing, bleaching, burning, drying, disappearing, choking, never blooming. I didn’t want to live without the birds or bees and sparkling flies that light the summer nights. I didn’t want to live with hunger that turned us feral or desperation that gave us claws. I wanted to fall and fall into the deepest, darkest ground and be finally still and buried there.
But Mother, you had other plans. The bike landed in grass and dirt and bang, I was ten-years-old, fallen in the road, my knees scraped and bloody. And I realized that even then nature was something foreign and cruel, something that could and would hurt me because everything I had ever known or loved that was grand and powerful and beautiful became foreign and cruel and eventually hurt me. Even then I had already been exiled, or so I felt, forever cast out of the forest. I belonged with the broken, the contaminated, the dead.
Maybe it was the sharp pain in my knee and elbow, or the dirt embedded in my new jacket, maybe it was the shock or the realization that death was preferable to the thick tar of grief coagulated in my chest, or maybe it was just the lonely rattling of the spokes of the bicycle wheel still spinning without me. Whatever it was. It broke. It broke. I heard the howling.
Mother, I am the reason the birds are missing. I am the cause of salmon who cannot spawn and the butterflies unable to take their journey home. I am the coral reef bleached death white and the sea boiling with methane. I am the millions running from lands that have dried, forests that are burning or islands drowned in water.
I didn’t see you, Mother. You were nothing to me. My trauma-made arrogance and ambition drove me to that cracking pulsing city. Chasing a dream, chasing the prize, the achievement that would finally prove I wasn’t bad or stupid or nothing or wrong. Oh my Mother, what contempt I had for you. What did you have to offer that would give me status in the market place of ideas and achieving? What could your bare trees offer but the staggering aloneness of winter or greenness I could not receive or bear. I reduced you to weather, an inconvenience, something that got in my way, dirty slush that ruined my overpriced city boots with salt. I refused your invitation, scorned your generosity, held suspicion for your love. I ignored all the ways we used and abused you. I pretended to believe the stories of the fathers who said you had to be tamed and controlled — that you were out to get us.
I press my bruised body down on your grassy belly, breathing me in and out. I have missed you, Mother. I have been away so long. I am sorry. I am so sorry.
I am made of dirt and grit and stars and river, skin, bone, leaf, whiskers and claws. I am a part of you, of this, nothing more or less. I am mycelium, petal pistil and stamen. I am branch and hive and trunk and stone. I am what has been here and what is coming. I am energy and I am dust. I am wave and I am wonder. I am an impulse and an order. I am perfumed peonies and the single parasol tree in the African savannah. I am lavender, dandelion, daisy, dahlia, cosmos, chrysanthemum, pansy, bleeding heart and rose. I am all that has been named and unnamed, all that has been gathered and all that has been left alone. I am all your missing creatures, all the sweet birds never born. I am daughter. I am caretaker. I am fierce defender. I am griever. I am bandit. I am baby. I am supplicant. I am here now, Mother. I am yours. I am yours. I am yours.
Complement with “After Silence” — Neil Gaiman’s stunning poem celebrating Rachel Carson’s legacy and culture-shifting courage — and Ensler on how a tree saved her life, then visit Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab to see what you, my fellow naked ape, can do to help save the birds, whose salvation is inseparable from our own. For, in the poetic words of the naturalist John Muir — one of Carson’s great heroes — “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Published October 28, 2019