That Which I See
Updated: Jul 15
As I leave the parking lot, one hundred metallic eyes greet me. I walk over for a better look at the forty-foot wide sculpture by Jenny Kendler, “Birds Watching.” At first glance, the group of colorful eyes mounted on metal “stems” look like a cheerful bouquet of flowers. Beautiful it is, but cheerful it’s not. These are replications of the irises of one hundred endangered bird species.
I’ve just arrived at Storm King Sculpture Garden in New York’s Hudson River Valley, a 500-acre outdoor museum. Kendler’s sculpture is part of a special exhibition, “Indicators: Artists on Climate Change.” This excursion is my visual reward after ten days of treatment for macular degeneration at an acupuncture eye clinic in New Jersey. Lying on the table, I probably looked like a sculpture garden myself, with patterns of metal needles circling my eyes and sticking out of my feet and hands.
I’m struck by the ocular coincidence as I gaze into these metallic eyes and they look back into mine. Up close, I see my reflection. And the parallels. My eyes are also endangered, the retinal ecosystem no longer functioning as it should.
I’ve come all the way from California for this specialized treatment. I will do anything for my eyes, whatever it takes. I can’t bear the thought of not being able to clearly see the world around me - details of landscapes, faces of loved ones, the sudden appearance of an animal, works of art. Now, as I look into the vulnerability of these hundred irises, I anticipate a different unimaginable loss.
What does it take to heal an eye, or a planet? I came to this clinic because mainstream western medicine says there is nothing I can do to halt the progressive deterioration. I think of the widespread resignation to climate disruption: it’s too late, there’s nothing we can do to halt the demise.
With macular degeneration, retinal cells are damaged by compromised blood vessels and diminished oxygen availability. Drusen, the cause of visual distortion, litter the retinal landscape. They are an accumulation of cellular waste products that the system can no longer effectively remove. My eyes are a microcosm of our deteriorating protective ozone layer, our buildup of toxic waste, the garbage swirling in the ocean. Chinese medicine, rather than attacking symptomatic hot spots, addresses the body as an integrated ecosystem. Everything is interrelated, nothing happens in isolation.
Towering cumulus clouds provide a dramatic backdrop as I stroll the rolling hills, taking in sculptures by Maya Lin, Alexander Calder and Henry Moore. Massive, moving, amazing. I am dwarfed under Zhang Huan’s squatting Buddha. I follow Andy Goldsworthy’s undulating rock wall until it disappears into a lake and emerges on the other side. Finally, after several hours of walking, I enter the museum center to view the rest of the Climate Change exhibit. I've somehow bypassed my normal museum fatigue limits.
I wander upstairs into a small empty room where a grainy video is running with a haunting soundtrack in the background. I peer at the placard: "Wolf Nation, 2018," by Alan Michelson, Mohawk. He has compiled live footage of red wolves living in a wildlife refuge. I sit on the concrete bench to watch.
Two wolves perch on a low flat stone - an outlook – monitoring the surrounding terrain. Soon three more enter the camera frame, casually milling about the area until two saunter back into the woods. The other slips into the darkened den in the bank behind the rock. One of the outlook sentries gets up, yawns, stretches a back leg, and wanders off past the den. A small group of adolescents approach. The second sentry exits when another adult, sitting on its haunches, takes over. By the time the ten-minute video loops back to the beginning, maybe twelve clan members have made their leisurely appearance. I am moved to quiet tears. I find my reaction as curious as the intimate details in the daily lives of these critically endangered wolves.
Nothing much happened at all. Maybe that’s it. Most nature footage is spectacular, catching the fox mid leap, the amorous grouse’s tail impossibly spread, the cheetah’s extended body horizontal to the ground. Shots that dazzle - I’m astounded by the prowess, strange behaviors, beauty. These wolves, instead, feel like they could be my next-door neighbors: hanging out on their front porch, a bit of conversation, but mostly comfortable silence as they watch over their kids and inspect the yard. Familiar and familial.
But it’s more than the touching ordinariness. It’s the terrible paradox: they look so confident, so integrated into the landscape; and yet I could count aloud the remaining red wolves living in the wild in less than a minute. It doesn’t take long to count to forty.
I breathe in beauty and breathe out extinction. I rise from the hard stone bench, stretch my human legs, and reluctantly leave the pack. I want more – more time with this family, more red wolves in this world.
Exiting the building, the reflective avian eyes enter my field of vision once again. Birds Watching. I feel their gaze on my back as I walk to my car. What if the animals, the trees, the earth are watching us as we walk away? We humans are momentarily jolted, even devastated, as we take in the destruction, the disintegration happening around us, yet it is so hard to hold on to the unfathomable concept of massive extinction. However, the irises of a hundred endangered birds are an image I will carry forever. Forty remaining red wolves are seared into my psyche.
All animals, like us, want to live their lives – to find food, mate, raise their young. Their encumbered lives ask of me: What am I willing to do? If I will do whatever it takes to protect my vision, what will I do to protect that which I see? And love. There is no walking away.
The events in this piece happened over a year ago. As I offer it now, I also feel George Floyd’s eyes watching me. The parallels are strong: currently I am quite shaken by “that which I see” in videos capturing brutal abuse of power and am deeply affected by the wrenching stories shared by people of color across the nation. It’s been there all along of course – the institutionalized racism, the privilege whites enjoy yet aren’t even cognizant of. But the searing image and visceral anguish of a defenseless man pleading for breath has pierced denial and complacency.
I have recently discovered the writing of the award-winning poet and essayist Camille T. Dungy. In her essay, "Dirt," a woman asks her how she could call herself an environmental writer when she writes so much about African American history. She was stunned. Later she writes, “I refuse to take part in the segregation of the imagination that assigns greater value to some experiences than it assigns to others.” Her words reverberate as I consider how I will return the gaze of these endangered birds and wolves. Now George Floyd lives within me as well, asking the same question: What will I do?
*Camille T. Dungy's essays can be found in Emergence Magazine at this link: https://emergencemagazine.org/?s=camille+t+dungy While you are there, check out their issues and their online Community Events, which include interviews, discussions, book groups and writing groups. Every offering is ad and cost free. https://emergencemagazine.org/explore/
**This essay is an expansion of a previous blog posting, "Familial."
About Red Wolves: Able to thrive in a wide range of habitats, red wolves once ranged from Texas to Pennsylvania. However, currently they only exist in the wild in North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula. They mate for life and live in closely-knit clans that center around the one breeding pair. The older offspring help raise the new pups until they eventually establish their own territory. Red wolves were once extinct in the wild, only existing in captive breeding centers. The reintroduction in the refuge area had been a singular success. However, due to illegal poaching and a recent decrease in federal and state protections, including the issuance of hunting permits to adjoining land owners, they are now Critically Endangered. In the last four years, the population in the wild has decreased from 130 to around 25 - 40 (reports vary). If increased protective measures are not implemented, it has been predicted that within eight years they could become extinct in the wild.
About "Birds Watching:"
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