Are You Sure Species Exist?

Thalia Field
Bird Lovers, Backyard
(New Directions, 2010)

Bird Lovers, Backyard, Thalia Field’s most recent post-genre, polyphonic book is comprised of conceptually and formally interrelated texts concerning relations between animals and storytelling humanimals, lost in space. At the end of one piece we are asked, “Are you sure species exist?” The borders, genetic and otherwise, get blurrier by the day. Less than 10% of our genes are technically human. So what does it mean to be human?

Animal trainer and philosopher Vicki Hearne, a vivid presence in the book, has proposed that we are taught our most valuable lessons by animals. One story is narrated, or taught, by an endangered dusky sparrow in a captive breeding program. His first-person (or last-bird) perspective allows Field to consider conditions under which endangered animals come to live in laboratories with ironic authority; as the bird explains, “Fictional characters know things which are too challenging for the writer to understand.” The book both studies and uses anthropomorphism and analogy. The dangers of analogy are embodied in the person of biologist-cum-Nazi-ideologue Konrad Lorenz, who extrapolated from animal breeding experiments that so-called “hybridity” among humans was a form of degeneration. (Because he was considered “hybrid,” the aforementioned dusky sparrow was unprotected by the Endangered Species Act. Doing extinction math is like being in an ever-diminishing room in which everyone is talking at once. The voices get louder as the room gets smaller.) Field’s mapping of Lorenz’s contradictions exposes how sentimental love for some (his adored geese), and aversion to specific others—the legislations of which are one way of describing nationalism—both motivate and distort scientific findings.

More than half a century ago, Hannah Arendt was already arguing that scientists “move in a world where speech has lost its power.” Field’s book is, among other things, science translated into the discourses of poetry and theater. There is an ethical, interdisciplinary vision underlying the recursive image of a gang of students milling around Bird Lovers, Backyard, replete with notebooks and saddlebags, doing amateur science. They ask questions, connect dots—they’re a chorus. And Field’s books are staged as much as written. In one piece a food court becomes the set for a public “thinking contest” geared towards solving the “pigeon problem.” Contestants observe, hypothesize, and write. “There is the potential to fall into thought and out of time” in this activity, where contemplating birds leads to speculations on history and public architecture. The object here is not so much to solve the pigeon problem as to problematize its implications.

The question of whether there is really such a thing as species remains open. Certainly specialization, for all its uses, has long been the pitfall and a danger of science; Ortega y Gasset argued as much in the early years of German fascism. Field reminds us that now, more than ever, we need interdisciplinary approaches to our technological and ecological problems, as the worst catastrophes of our time, the very advent of the so-called anthropocene (Google it), can be attributed to the widespread, pathological absence of cross-disciplinary understanding and holistic action.

Contributor

Miranda Mellis

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