Poems by Francis Raven

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by Francis Raven

From Canary June/July 2009

My mother once made a Christmas card with a picture of a dodo.
She was the wife of the director of a cultural institution.
He was my father, not the flightless one, but the director.
The dodo was an example, I remember. She wrote a paragraph about it.
I guess she was proud of it. She shows it to me sometimes
Although that was a long time ago and they are divorced.
She is no longer the wife of the director of a cultural institution.

Fossil Array: Recent.
That was when people starting talking about biodiversity.
We were talking about it first, about what people could do.
The amazing thing is that there are drawings,
Like we have drawings, of that fool bird, accurate drawings
Of an entire species (regardless of the philosophical problems
Regarding the boundaries of natural kinds) that no longer exists
Just like I have memories, memories like I have now,
Of my parents’ marriage. Aren’t I important? Isn’t that bird important?

I don’t know when one stupid bird
Or one stupid marriage becomes important
Except to say some things live in our neighborhood
And we care about them. Although related to pigeons
Those rats of the sky, with tough meat, their flightlessness
Made a perfect headdress: a perfect recipe for extinction (17th century):
Hunting + fearlessness + flightlessness + invasive animals (dogs, pigs, cats, rats) =
Anything can be killed, anything in your neighborhood.

Guadalupe Caracara

by Francis Raven

From Canary April/May 2009

Without a museum you will never know if it’s the last.  The ritual equated wing with weapon (falling).  Unless you can survey everything you will never know the end.  A bird is not a triangle, closed.  A rare species always attracts a man against all odds, in waders, with, of course, a camera.  A black swan is always a metaphor, no more powerful than a white crow, except for the facts, how the world turns out.  A villager is reported as saying, “At least somebody still believes that.  I’ve heard other, simpler, people do.”  Herding is letting something grow back.  You can represent it systematically.  You can hang each feathered thing on a tree.  They have eaten the kids, goats, that is.  Didn’t mean to scare you.  You are not in danger; the bird was endangered before they were all killed.  That damned thing uprooted the ancestry of movement on this island.  No, the circle is not his egg.  He was the imbalance, not us.  We poisoned his wells.  “Only 19 specimens of this distinct form have been preserved.  There are three in this museum.”

The Precious Common Versus the Precious Rare

by Francis Raven

From Canary August/September 2009

The Audubon Society recently published two important reports concerning the state of the nation’s birds. The first, released in June 2007, “Common Birds in Decline” is a list of 20 common birds that have lost at least half their populations in the past four decades. As the report reads, “Since 1967 the average population of the common birds in steepest decline has fallen by 68 percent; some individual species nose-dived as much as 80 percent.” The wistful message of that report is that, many “of the birdsongs that filled the childhoods of countless baby boomers waft less often on today’s breezes.” The second report, WatchList 2007 (compiled in conjunction with American Bird Conservancy), is “a comprehensive analysis of population size and trends, distribution, and threats for 700 bird species in the U.S.” That document “identifies 59 continental and 39 Hawaiian ‘red list’ species of greatest concern, and 119 more in the ‘yellow’ category of seriously declining or rare species.” The primary message of the second report is that more than “one quarter of than one-quarter of United States birds need urgent conservation action.” However, its take-home lesson is overtly political: species that are designated endangered on the nation’s Endangered Species Act list do better than those who are not so listed. Thus, we can do something to help our nation’s most imperiled birds, namely list them as endangered. The difference between these two reports is that unlike “those on Audubon's recent survey of Common Birds in Decline, the species on WatchList are often rare and limited in range.” Together they form a comprehensive and sad picture of the state of our nation’s birds. But what do their differences mean for us and for our relationship to the natural world?

Here’s the deeper question: what does it mean to lose the common? And how is that different from losing the rare? The common natural world is a public good in a way that the rare is not, although it is the rare that captures our imagination. The implicit assumption of this second clause is that rarity guarantees (at least a minimum quantity of) value. However, it is often the common that binds us together. The canon of great books is designed to be the common link between us; what we think everybody should have read. The canon of neighborhood wildlife is equally what binds us together in a conversation about the natural world. Without those common birds, common understandings, our conversation’s gaps threaten to become so great as to tear us both from the natural world and from one another. However, the rare is what grabs our attention, draws us in, makes our eyes bulge, forces us to realize that the world really is strange, foreign, and inhuman, and thus, pushes us to explore and preserve that world. In addition, the rare is somehow unspeakable, while the common is what allows us to speak. For the rare there is no substitute, but there is also no substitute for the very commonness of the common. The terms depend on each other for their existence. As a result of this dialectical relationship we are forced to ask: what is the common life without the spark of imagination that a rare bird triggers? What is a bird, after all, in the imagination?

There is flight, after all; ancestry.

Thus, we should seek to celebrate both the common and the rare; the ties that bind and the sparks that set us apart. That tension is what protects our humanity, our individual humanity.

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