Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Speaking of shooting birds

In the spring of 2002, I spent a couple of weeks solo walking in Malta, an island in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia. I based myself in the marvelous fortified city of Valletta, and each day took a bus to walk a stretch of the coast, eventually circling the island. The island was a paradise of spring wildflowers and burgeoning gardens, stirring coastal paths, picturesque villages, antiquities of every age, and friendly people.

And the ever-present pop, pop of shotguns.

Malta is smack on the middle of a north-south flyway for European songbirds, and a sizable proportion of the male Maltese population seems intent on blasting every bird out of the sky. Every cliff face, every field, every open stretch of land is chockablock with the paraphernalia of massacre. Netting grounds for trapping songbirds. Hides (blinds) for hunters. Traylike stands for holding live decoys in cages. And along every path and lane expended shotgun shells, the ubiquitous, and only, litter.

The walking was splendid -- and profoundly depressing.

When I returned to the States I wrote a column for the Boston Globe decrying the killing. A day later I got an email from my host at the tiny Valletta hotel where I stayed; he linked me to the website of the Malta Times, the island's main newspaper, that had picked up and reprinted the story.

A year or so ago, the novelist Jonathan Franzen, an avid birdwatcher, had a long essay in the New Yorker on the same topic -- the slaughter of songbirds on the Mediterranean flyways. He called Malta "the most savagely bird-hostile place in Europe." He traced, in rather more detail than I had been able to do eight years earlier, the escalating clash between an ancient tradition and conservation efforts by the European Union.

In the Globe I opined that the Maltese slaughter might be partly genetic: Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, boys gotta shoot birds out of the sky. But surely cultural too, a phallic enterprise, a way of asserting macho masculinity by making a big bang with a loaded gun. Certainly, in Malta the killing is strictly a male affair.

Franzen ends his piece in Assisi, at the shrine where Saint Francis is said to have given his Sermon to the Birds. Franzen is right that our relationship with other creatures has a religious component. Nobody since Jesus has lived a life more radically in keeping with the gospel than Saint Francis did, wrote Franzen: "Francis, unburdened by the weight of being the Messiah, went Jesus one better and extended his gospel to all of creation."

(Franzen's essay is reprinted in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2011.)