Yesterday I was pushing my son on his trike around Newport Lakes. The lakes are a reclaimed and regenerated quarry. Locals now pour into the site to conduct their socially distanced exercise. We're no different and can't keep away.
I was caught up as usual in the picturesque scene. We turned a bend, and the lake dazzled as we looked out over water. We rumbled forward, and as we did I spotted a bird watching screen bathed in sun.
I had passed the bird screen before. I may have spotted it out of the corner of my eye. But I had never stopped to appreciate it and had never really understood what it was, or why it was there.
I looked at the screen closely for the first time. It seemed to offer an alluring and ultimately futile scene. There stood the reeds, the water and the wild birds. I could see all of that standing on the edge of the lake. Why would I need a screen? Why was it there?
The screen puzzled me. I analysed it and it seemed to taunt me. Why taunt? Perhaps because it offered the notion of one of those past-times that I was unable at this moment in lockdown fully enjoy.
I whipped out my phone and snapped the scene as quickly as I could. Passing on, as I wheeled my son home over the rocky path, I began to think vaguely about the beauty of nature and the screens we use to consume it. These thoughts were to preoccupy me long enough that I did some basic research when I was back home.
Bird screens have a history at least as old as the nineteenth century. They date if I am not mistaken to the invention of parks and recreations, American transcendentalism and its latter day saints, the John Muirs, Roosevelts and Aldo Leopolds of the world.
These screens go by various names, among them bird blinds and hunting blinds. They were once used solely for the purpose of hunting. Hunters would lure birds in by imitating calls using bird whistles. Dressed in tartan or tweed like colonial or tribal gentlemen, they'd then shoot in their direction.
What followed was that flurry of activity I remember in the Warner Brother cartoons of my childhood. After Elmer Fudd shot at Daffy Duck, the next step was to release the dog, the mutty Wover Boy, who would scamper after birds. Outside the cartoons where everyday things went wrong, the Wover Boys killed anything moving in the water.
My gaze into this screen had evoked what was for me an unsettling, violent history. Once relished and even the subject of parody. Not only the hunting. There was the mere voyeurism of watching nature too. Watching nature run its course isn't the innocent act we typically think it is. Think of what it means.
To enjoy the graceful flight of the birds, even as injuries hobble the ones we don't see. To ignore the degenerative illnesses and early mortality that lay many to waste. To sit back as parasites, diseases and small predators create enormous suffering. To ignore those who attend the deliberately created wilderness, such as the domestic cats that sneak unwanted from behind the fences neighbouring homes into these Lakes and eviscerate their prey.
We humans are the animals who use screens. We use screens to recreate our pasts and pleasures. We sit back in ways that could never be possible "in nature" to allow suffering just to happen, a nice tale, and we delight in a scene of immense pain and distress we can tell ourselves is "out there".
Screens allows us to no longer identify with the scenes we enjoy. They screen out the identification with the suffering before us. They block us from thinking about the health of beings around us. They offer a temporary home for our pleasures. They vicariously tempt us to step beyond - but we always send in the dogs for that.
We humans love our screens. They allow us to put the distance between us as the viewer. Our experience dominates, and the experience of what we watch becomes of little concern. Who thinks of the viewed? We are too self-conscious for that. The screens are like masks we imagine protect us.
Little more than a fantasy, we are caught in the wishful thinking that the screens are our secret power. We dream while imagining that our health has nothing to do with the health of the other sentient beings around us. Those peepholes exist to remind us that the pain and death may be coming for us, too, but that seems far off. The distant disquiet only heightens our moments of pleasure.
These disturbing reflections struck me as I also thought about our pandemic. Life is being lived behind the screens of a Covid-19 response. I had just read, on another screen, about the plight of the United States. Covid-19 is running rampant through its meat and animal workers.
Hundreds of thousands if not millions of chickens are about to be slaughtered or "depopulated" as the industry and its media is calling it. This is because of the suffering of mostly migrant meat workers and the unacceptable public health risk. "How consumers view mass depopulation", one industry piece put it. They were most fearful of consumers who saw more than the euphemism.
International Chicken Day was a recent milestone that I had tried to mark, but few had felt the need to give much thought about it. Our hens, chickens, are our incredible domesticated birds, the closest living relatives of dinosaurs, have in the last decades become the most numerous animals on the planet.
Chickens are bred through various unseen mechanisms of staggering cruelty to satisfy our insatiable desire for animal protein. Crammed into massive factory farms with no social distancing at all, they pose various public health and industry health risks.
For all the bio-security anyone can muster, the viruses and health problems somehow get in, and pass out, just as they get to us. Our glances into these so-called concentrated animal feeding operations are rare. Consumers need their screening. We can send in our migrant labourers. Wait our turn for our fill.
As I stared at that peepholes in the bird blind, I imagined for a moment that I could see inside a factory farm. Eyes began to peep back.
After all, I thought, such a scene is no less valid, for aesthetic purposes, than the scene of this lake constructed for birders. Chickens may be the birds we humans most commonly consume, only never from behind a bird blind. We view and consume them behind windows, skinned and boned, in plastic wraps, in an advertisement on a screen, at a counter, or in a nicely presented dish that evokes the momentary pleasure of taking our fill of it all.
I meditated on all of this on a beautiful day, after passing the bird blind of Newport Lakes. The scene was absolutely beautiful, even as it left a haunting feeling. A feeling of being always at the site of the massacres that confront and impact us everywhere.
Life endures, behind screens. My son Finn had smiled at the dogs that were banned from the lakes when we were in the other part of the park. He looked up into the sky from his perch on the trike. As I wheeled it, he grinned back at me. I was grateful for the small mercies that day.
When I arrived home, I was reminded of the final two sentences in a little story I once read:
We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see too much.