OUR BIRD PROBLEM: Robert Hass + Jonathan Franzen

On March 6th, Former Poet Laureate and MacArthur Genius Robert Hass met for a conversation about “Nature and Birding” with best selling novelist Jonathan Franzen. The event was at the Center for Performing Arts in Mountain View and was the first of the series of the 2014 Wallace Stegner Lectures.

The series feature writers, artists and thinkers who explore important issues related to land, nature and conservation. Proceeds fund Peninsula’s Open Space Trust (POST) work to protect open space, farms and parkland in and around Silicon Valley.

Both speakers have travelled widely, taken inspiration from nature for their writing, and have been active in raising awareness about environmental issues. Franzen talked about being a child of the 70’s. Clean Air, Clean water, and Endangered Species Act were all passed during Nixon’s reign. In his twenties he wanted to go out and experience wilderness. But wilderness was hard to find. All around him strip malls were being built. Everywhere there was concrete and steel. He started feeling enraged instead of engaged and soon gave up on the environmental cause.

Later in life, through his sister and brother in law, he developed a love for birds, which appealed to his emotional side. Caring about them made the rising environmental issues more intimate.

While wetlands were being destroyed, Franzen was surprised to find real elements of wilderness right in the urban centers of New York. Armed with a cheap pair of binoculars, he was able to identify hundreds of different bird species right in Central Park. These birds were living complete life cycles and he was surprised that they were invisible to many of the millions of daily park visitors.

With a newfound enthusiasm for birding, Franzen started requesting journalism assignments to places where he could see new birds. His birding journey is famously illustrated in his essay “My Bird Problem” published in the August 2005 New Yorker issue.

Both speakers mentioned that having a personal experience with nature is instrumental in caring about the environment. Franzen gave four ways that can make anyone an active birder:

  1. A cursory knowledge of bird species
  2. A book or an app on birds
  3. A keen interest
  4. Binoculars

The speakers concluded that environmental awareness is essential for people to take effective measures to protect nature. Prosperity also helps. “Consciousness of the natural world comes with prosperity,” said Franzen, comparing environmental consciousness in the U.S. with that found in third world countries, where there is not much awareness of the hazards of industrialization and thus the green belts have been disappearing.

Citizen action can make a difference, too. In Albania, once the 2nd worst place for birds in the world, a conservationist-led initiative has led to a two-year hunting ban. Now that’s a thing to celebrate!

The next Stegner Lecture is on April 28th with Nicolette Hahn Niman: “Righteous Porkchop: Finding Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms.

FyzaFyza Parviz is a bohemian bibliophile who writes software by day and by night reads grotesque deranged modernist prose with intellectual and spiritual depth. She loves living in the Bay Area and covering its literary scene.