Sketches of European Starlings by Noel hefele

Journal entry – Day 35

April 15th 2020

(I recorded this for Pete Harrison’s podcast Social Distancer. Check it out to hear me read this text with a cool beat in the background.)

We now live 4 miles south of where my Dad grew up in Yonkers. The Bronx is still new to us. We’ve been this apartment less than two months, over half that time in quarantine. We have stalled lists of tasks: Get new light switches, decide on a couch, a dining table, replace the screens with the weird holes in the bottom, and so on. Setting up our life “normally” is out of reach. 35 days in, routines and new normals emerge. Outside our windows we don’t know what is normal because, as new Bronx residents, we don’t know what to expect and things seem to keep shifting. The streets below empty out then fill with cars in waves, pedestrians come and go. Ultimately, we lose any sense of a baseline. Sometimes the only clue that things are different outside are the masks on everybody’s faces. The new normal seeps in like a cold draft as we observe the instability outside our windows.

My father told me a story on the phone this Easter. Growing up, four miles north of here, they had several large maple trees in front of the house. Starlings liked to perch in those trees by the thousands , damaging the trees and leaving significant droppings in the driveway below. The grandfather I never met enlisted my father in a fruitless quest to scare the birds away, at one point even wiring a doorbell in the trees to a button in the house. Dad said the birds would blacken the sky, their song creating a tremendous noise.

And one day, after many years, they just left.

The maple trees are no longer there but the house is. My dad and his family left long ago.

Years pass like the beats of a birds wing and I find myself here, a stones throw away from my father’s youth, the encapsulated optimism of the baby boom fully replaced with this liminal stasis awash in corona anxiety—this is our still-yet-to be named era. Through some generational, geographic ebb and flow, I am here. And so are the starlings.

These birds captured our attention immediately when we moved in. They sit high in the Tulip tree, tenacious enough to scare off a hawk. They sing on our fire escape, occasionally loud enough that we wonder if they made their way inside. We’ve learned they are excellent mimics, singing elements from other species or even man-made noises. It is delightful and cheery. The most we have seen at one time has been around 30-40, “normally” no more than a half-dozen.

What is normal? 60 years ago, flocks of thousands were a nuisance to my grandfather. Now 30 can spark awe in the same bloodline. Starlings have dropped in number since then, but there is not much concern. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has placed them on their list of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. Some suggest the starling is responsible for the decline of the state bird of New York, the eastern bluebird. 

 Maybe I still will see thousands of starlings in this landscape, but I am doubtful. It feels strange to mourn that. Starlings are an introduced species in North America. The original population supposedly stems from the president of the American Acclimatization Society – a mr. Eugene Schieffelin – releasing 60 birds in Central Park in 1890. He was motivated to introduce every bird mentioned in the Shakespeare’s plays, the starling being his most successful attempts.  This group’s mission was to bring European flora and fauna to the US for economic and cultural reasons, drastically impacting our ecological future. Schieffelin, himself a Bronx resident, is viewed by modern biologists as “an eccentric at best, a lunatic at worst.” Our current normal is always the result of decisions and mistakes contained within the norms of the past.

Some recent studies have suggested North America has lost 30% of the bird population since 1970.  It is hard to notice species loss and equally hard to draw conclusions from anecdotal evidence. We have to widen our view.

I am thinking of how quickly norms can shift and how quickly we don’t even know what we’ve lost.

Shifting norms are the result of our own processes of acclimation. We are good at it. It’s a weird term that obscures profound changes underneath a masquerade of stability. And it is in the news now. Things seem to shift easily and swiftly when something is lost and slowly with difficulty when something is gained. This adaptive response to trauma and the attendant numbness is what concerns me, although I can’t help but contrast it against the massive yet so-far failed effort to shift the norm to guaranteed healthcare in this country. Slow and difficult. I am confused by this overlap, how shifting norms can contain loss and progress, depending on your view.

To go forward, you must leave something behind.

I feel myself acclimating on the 35th day of my social distancing. The shock is wearing off, which feels ridiculous to say. There were over 700 deaths a day this past week in NYC. 1 out of every 800 New Yorkers have died from this virus.  Bronx residents are twice as likely to die from corona virus. the situation is even bleaker in prisons like rikers island. Our potters field is burying folks at 5x the normal rate. 

And I find myself getting bored by Andrew Cuomo press conferences, even as he fights with the president?

This is the numbing power of normal that makes us forget the power struggles and inequities, the sadness and strife, the losses and the victories.

Meanwhile, the language of business continues to acclimate—but we don’t need anymore numbness there.

We are living in the midst of massive change. Norms may shift more than we can currently imagine and erode more of what we value than we are prepared for. We cannot be lulled into numbness, especially now. Learn to hold on to what you can and grieve what you must. Remember what things were once like. I have flashes of what life was like before the internet, but can hardly describe it in any meaningful way to my 14 year old nephew. Maintain a panoramic perspective and resist the narrowing of acclimation. Here I hesitantly borrow from the language of business, but it seems like they are quicker at sharpening the language that will shape our future- “Proactive, not reactive.”  – but we are human beings – to me that means “being with.” What that with refers to seems to be an important question.

This morning I figured out the perplexing holes in the bottom of the window screens. There, on the ledge, was a starling looking back at me. I swear it was smiling.