Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ghost Bird: Between Myth and Science


The 2009 documentary Ghost Bird focuses on the 2005 declaration by the Department of the Interior, backed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker still exists. The film contends the proof this claim was made on was nowhere near conclusive enough to make that claim. As of today, there is still no concrete evidence of the extinct bird's continued existence. It was a wonderful bird - if you know the Pileated Woodpecker, the Ivory-Billed was a good degree larger. It is easy to understand why even a prestigious organization such as the Cornell Lab would say there is evidence - they want the bird to exist, as anyone in their right mind would.

Not everyone is in what I would call their right mind however. In the face of oncoming animal extinctions, I often hear the statistic that over 98% of the Earth's species have gone extinct already and it is simply the result of the natural world at work. Somehow, these are usually the same people who don't "believe" in evolution. Of course, the problem is that much of the environmental mess being made is because of our influence and has not been "natural". This too is often denied.

What I wonder though, is - even if, somehow - assuming if, even - what is happening is not man-made, or even if it is the natural world proceeding as normal - why would anyone just accept that? Why would we not work to try and keep alive the amazing variety of animal species we are aware of? Even if it were not our fault, it certainly seems reasonable to steer our actions towards rescue. But that would mean giving up the human advantages - reducing our scale to allow others to exist more fully. The human race does not give an inch. For anything.

In light of these thoughts, while I watched Ghost Bird I found myself wondering if the governmental announcement of the Ghost Bird's proven existence wasn't simply made to steer funds toward the economically hard-hit Arkansas region the claims were made from. I found myself imagining conspiracy, in which the former President Bush's Interior Department was able to take advantage of the Cornell Lab's good reputation in order to funnel funds over to a good Southern neighbor.

The industrial world has developed with the over-arching idea that human beings are more important than all other species on the Earth. Even more important than Earth itself. Why? What makes the human, with all of our obvious idiocies more important than everyone else? Our ability to kill and destroy on a massive level?

Ghost Bird really tries to move beyond the argument about the Ivory-Billed to make a case for spending funds more wisely to prevent any further extinctions. Of course we all wish the bird was found. And here is where myth and science come too close. Science can be a myth of course - when new ideas are floated out, those theories are indeed mythical. They suggest new knowledge, without being able to demonstrate that knowledge. This is the typical tension of myth - a story that holds the tension of both possibilities. The "real" and the "imaginal" are often found to be the possibilities.

But when there is proof, that science is myth no longer. It is either fact, or disproven theory. The problem with the tale of the Ghost Bird is that there is no on-going fact. It remains rather imaginal, a truly mythic bird at this point. And this movie fulfills my criteria as mythology - it tells the story of extinction and life, holding both up as the ends of a scale - and offers us the suggestion that the story we live in today carries both. Even if the Ivory-Billed exists, there are countless other species that soon may not.

If ever we are to recognize the possibility of mass extinctions on our world, now is the time. We must enter our myth and perhaps find the hero. Otherwise, the Ghost Bird will find many new neighbors, wherever it currently resides.

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