When I walk across the arc around 6:00, there are dozens of crows feeding on the pristine lawns. One friend compared this daily descent to a scene from The Birds. So far, though, these birds don’t seem as bent on world domination as Hitchcock’s were. I watch one sip from an irrigation pipe, and another carry a piece of gravel in his beak. I wanted to see what he was going to do with it, but then I got self-conscious about my very public birdwatching and continued on my way.
Animals are a frequent subject in break time conversation. That, and food. (Recent topics: the healthiness of peanut butter, the popularity of Nutella in the US, and how the effects of eating pomegranate vary by your blood type.) But let’s stick with animals.
The other day, one of my colleagues was telling us about a talk ‘Abdu’l-Baha gave in California to the Materialists Club. According to the dictionary, the philosophy of materialism holds that “nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.” Or, that “consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency.” Basically, to my understanding, it denies spirituality. So, ‘Abdu’l-Baha joked with these materialists that while they had spent decades thinking and studying and researching to arrive at the conclusion that there’s only a material world, cows know this from birth. To paraphrase, “The cow is superior!” He recommended that a cow be brought to give the club a lecture. The audience roared with laughter.
Then the break time conversation turned to birds and the freedom they represent. While human mobility is limited by national borders and natural boundaries, birds can transcend that all.
Or can they? I had to be a contrarian on this point and relate a story I heard from an Israeli zoologist, Avinoam Lourie, when he gave a talk in Madison. There has been an effort to reintroduce vultures into the wild in Israel. The challenges to this project abound. For instance, farmers will lace the carcasses of livestock with poison to kill the predators that attack their flocks. Vultures, as they eat carrion, find these carcasses, consume this poison, and die. The zoologists track these birds with little computers strapped to their bodies. Now, as has been pointed out, birds don’t respect national borders, and these vultures have a habit of exiting Israel and entering neighboring countries. I don’t have to tell you about the less than friendly relationship between Israel and its neighbors.
So, some vultures, winging their way into diplomatic history, flew into Lebanon, where their suspicious-looking tracking devices were spotted. The Lebanese assumed these birds were spies for Israel, taking aerial footage, and shot them down.
It’s a reminder of how pervasive our system of borders has become. The walls, the security forces, the bureaucratic obstacle course to crossing–well, don’t get me started. But someday–yes, someday, vultures won’t need passports to take a trip north, and bovines will earn tenure in philosophy departments.