One evening about ten years ago, in a suburb of Pittsburgh, my twenty-six-year-old son, Matt, and I walked a few blocks to get pizza. Soft yellow sunlight, on its way past the horizon, slanted through the trees. A light breeze tickled the skin on my sleeveless arms.
“I should have a sweater,” I said.
“This is nothing,” Matt said. “This is balmy for Pittsburgh.”
“I can’t take the Florida heat,” I said referring to my home of almost twenty years. “Remember when we first moved to West Palm? It rained every afternoon, in the summer, like clockwork. Global warming is disturbing.”
“I’m not sure I believe in global warming,” my son said.
I wrote about my shock at this statement in my journal, that my intelligent sensitive progeny could say such a thing. Yet, when I asked him about the conversation, he remembered it differently. He said I was the one who said it was hard to believe in global warming when you’re feeling a breeze. He reminded me that he thought as a scientist. He’d never say such a thing.
It’s possible I heard him wrong. Maybe he was commenting on what he thought he heard me say. Either way, our opposing memories are a murky soup. The problem is not me, it’s you. Many of us think, I’m aware of the issues, the risks. It’s those other people who are not taking climate change seriously.
One afternoon, in my apartment in Florida, a few months before that trip to Pittsburgh, a screeching wail came from the attic. I’d heard noises and complained the week before, but this was primal. I marched through my front door, down the flight of stairs, and across the lush lawn. Celadon, deep amber, and intense green tropical fronds framed the entrance of the main building. The sun flashed on the light wood floors as I stepped in, but the air conditioning blasted cold. My shoes clicked across the foyer to the reception desk where an attractive young woman with a shiny dark bun high on her head sat in front of a large glass window. She looked up, recognized me as the one who complained earlier, and glanced back down.
I skipped a greeting and spoke loudly enough for any possible clients in the salesroom to hear.
“Whatever animal is living in my attic is either giving birth or dying. Is he in?”
She scrunched her forehead, maybe considered sending a message for him to escape out the back. He was the manager of the property who assured me that it was impossible that an animal could be in the attic above my unit since all the roofs were redone last year.
Yet, he appeared, and I invited him to come in and listen to the scratching on the sheetrock above the kitchen. He declined but said that he would have the maintenance man put up a ladder to check it out.
The following day, I received a call telling me to move everything out of my closet to clear access to the attic in anticipation of the pest company’s arrival. I opened the apartment door carefully, in case the thing got through, imagining the possibility that my stuff would be tossed and knocked over by wild animals running amuck. I sighed. Everything remained in its proper places.
Yet, the place smelled different: a faint mustiness. I checked the garbage. Nothing rotting.
I grabbed clothes, five hangars at a time and threw them on the bed, annoyed at the additional task. Something new sounded above. Tiny sounds. I strained and tipped my head closer to the attic door. Yes. The purring mewling chirps of newborns. I was right.
Couldn’t this animal tell the difference between a natural space for her wild offspring and a fabricated structure that belonged to man? Then again, there was no single large expanse of unadulterated nature for at least a thirty-mile radius from my attic. She might have found a small park where she could forage, but why would she choose, say, a hollowed-out log when she could have the luxury of my attic with edible throwaways within a short stroll in the parking lot dumpster?
It was quiet here. With my kids grown, the youngest in college, I made little noise. As an avid reader, I rarely put the television on. Plus, I didn’t come home every night, preferring to stay with my boyfriend. My apartment was an isolated structure with a tiny entrance just beyond the branches of a tree, protected from rain and wind, insulated, and even within walking distance of the perfect eating establishment for a raccoon.
Not a bad place to make a nest…if there were no humans.
We build homes all over this planet, but as we continue to hear, it may not be habitable in the future. Alan Weisman in Discover Magazine writes in “Earth Without People” that if humans disappeared it would only take ten years for sidewalks and roads to crack. Water would seep in and expand the cracks and seedlings would take over.
Weisman writes that at that point in time, “Hawks and falcons flourish, as do feral cats and dogs.” He also writes that predatory birds would consume the rats once human garbage is gone.
I imagine birds would invade nearly all the exhaust vents, and raccoons and other animals would acquire more than attic space as glass windows break and buildings rupture and poison ivy and lichens climb and decay the walls.
I’m a writer. I create mental pictures. Yet, we’re not wired to believe this. Perhaps I might say, I am trying, but I’m not sure you are taking this seriously.
On the fourth day, the pest man informed me of his findings.
“It’s a mama raccoon and her babies. I couldn’t get anywhere near her yesterday,” he said, “but I was able to grab one of the babies. I set a trap for her, using the baby as bait.” He grinned, and my gut sank.
A baby as bait? I thought of my youngest newborn fuzzy skin, and the pink line on her forehead from the pressure of her head along my pelvic bone. The line eventually disappeared, but the effect was endearing. What a relief, not just for me, but for her, to be born.
A baby as bait? How could I be a part of this? My own empty nest left me uber-sympathetic to all mothers, even this stupid raccoon that, only yesterday, I couldn’t bear.
The man disappeared through the hole in the ceiling. Soon, I heard shuffling, and he appeared with a wriggling plaid cloth bundle. The rest of the babies. Their tiny high-pitched cries revealed desperate hunger, their voices dry and squeaky.
He held out a little one in the palm of his hand, eyes just tiny slits, not even slightly open, short fur with a tiny hint of the adult raccoon pattern.
“They’re a vector species,” he said. “Rabies. The state of Florida says we have to euthanize them.”
He put the babies in a small cage. They mewed and cried louder as if they know their fate was steadily worsening. I considered ways to save them, but he slammed the back of the truck and walked back up to my unit. Slightly nauseous, I followed.
He emerged with the other cage. It barely fit through the attic trapdoor in my ceiling. She was enormous, the size of a large fat dog. Her rear haunches were nearly the same diameter as my thigh. If she were standing on those hind legs, she would come up to my shoulders. Her black-rimmed eyes darted everywhere, panicked.
“What would have happened if I just waited until the babies were old enough to leave the nest in the natural time frame?”
“Ah,” he said, “the stench would have been so bad. Those babies would have urinated and defecated…and let me tell you, it would only have been a week or two before it would have ruined the sheetrock and created a huge mess leaking into your home. You did the right thing.”
I mumbled a thank you. He drove off to settle with the man in the office. I walked back into the apartment and sat on the futon that I bought so there would be more sleeping space when my three came home. Or rather when they came here. This was not our home. It was temporary housing I could barely afford while I figured out my life without them.
The only sound now was the hum of the air conditioner. I stared at several cardboard boxes that I had no need to unpack, filled with the flotsam of a life: books, an electric pencil sharpener, framed photos, and old CDs. Another box with a few old matted stuffed animals, two dolls with ratty hair, worn doll clothes, Margaret’s Hello Kitty! collection of plastic trinkets, notes, old stickers, and photos from school. She was too old for half of the stuff, but I kept it anyway, these pieces of our earlier home, echoes of them wrapped in cardboard and tape.
If that mama could have raised her babies undisturbed, she would have shown them the way out into the big world. They would have left their nest behind, but it would have been organic matter, leaves, bits of fur, easy items to leave.
It was the things. The boxes. I wanted a big enough place where my kids could come home to be with all their stuff and have their own space. Yet, I couldn’t afford more than one bedroom. As a writer living with lupus, I had no choice but to downsize.
I culled the items, calling Matt and Christy, the older two, and asking what they absolutely couldn’t part with. They told me what to save, what to toss. They would be fine, but what about my youngest, Margaret? She was still in college. How would she accept Pittsburgh as a place to return from school?
Her homes shrunk over the years. From the four-bedroom, three-bath pool home when the family was intact to a transition apartment and then a townhome after the divorce. Now I lived in another transitional two-bedroom apartment in West Palm Beach which I couldn’t afford. Like Matryoshka nesting dolls, our living space contracted into smaller and smaller entities. I called her to tell her about my move to the small space in Pittsburgh.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, “I can’t provide you a home right now.”
“It totally sucks, but I guess I understand,” she said.
Matt flew down to help me drive the two days from Florida to Pennsylvania with the last of the family’s stuff loaded into a rental truck. The first morning in the new place, I noticed three thin pieces of old, dry grass hanging from the yellowed plastic grill of the exhaust vent installed in the ceiling directly above the old gas stove.
I made a note to put it on the list for the maintenance man.
As I poured cereal and milk in a bowl, something flashed by the window and a thunk followed by scritch, scritch sounded above my head.
An active nest! Tiny bits of dust fluttered out and drifted to the top of the cabinet.
A small dark starling soared past the window. I craned to see, but I lost sight of it. I stood very still at the edge of the room munching my cereal.
Flash, bump! It was back. A few pieces of grass flickered and shifted.
I thought of the raccoons. This time, I would let things be. What harm could tiny fledglings cause? I could wait until fall to have the nest removed.
Later that morning, I unpacked a box and placed an old large ceramic dish underneath the plastic grill where the nest sat. I put a folded paper towel in it to catch any urine or feces that might drip out from the baby birds. I didn’t allow the heavy ceramic to make the slightest sound that might startle the bird. I wanted her to lay her eggs. Let nature have a chance this time.
For several days, I avoid the kitchen as much as possible. Yet, the bird sensed me and left whenever I arrived. Still, I took care not to scrape a pan on the stove, not to make loud noises, to wash the dishes without delay. I figured she’d return if I were unobtrusive. One morning, there was no flash when I walked into the kitchen. I toasted some bread, ate, cleaned up, and waited a few minutes by the window. The bird never returned.
I envied the starling’s ability to flitter away and start anew. The raccoon and her babies were dead, tricked, taken, and destroyed. This one left on its own. It would be safer in another place.
I once read that early humans looked for a good place to settle by listening for songbirds. The same factors that draw songbirds, access to water, a good assortment of trees, berries and nuts, worms in the ground, signaled good conditions for humans to hunt game and gather food. It is why we feel so connected, even happy, on a primal level, when we hear birds singing. It was the dearth of birdsong that alerted Rachel Carson of a problem, and she used the concept in her title Silent Spring.
The DDT ban of 1972, ten years after Carson’s book helped. Yet, all is not well for the songbirds. The danger is far higher for that starling today. Studies link neonicotinoids with declining bird populations. Many pesticides, some considered cousins to DDT, are known to kill birds. Climate disruption is added to the mix.
The timing of green-up is earlier now, writes Ben Guarino in the Washington Post. It is leading to “quiet springs.” Green-up is the specific time when the leaves of trees burst forth and loads of insects and caterpillars feast on the new growth. Their numbers drop as the leaves mature. Spring comes sooner, Guarino writes “an average of half a day per year from 2001 to 2012.” The birds are confused and arrive later when their food sources are not as plentiful. Fifty-five years after Silent Spring, the dangers extend beyond chemicals.
In 2012, I remarried and settled in a three-bedroom home, back in West Palm Beach. Four years later, in October, I waited in our white Accord, parked on the street in front of our 1950’s cottage two blocks from the Intracoastal. My husband, Ed, locked the front door and fitted the last rectangle of wood over the bottom half of the doorframe. Usually a tidy and lively home, it now looked beat up. The picture window and door were covered with ugly cheap plywood. The original aluminum hurricane shutters, rectangular clamshells, clasped the stucco, bolted into place.
In the car sat enough clothes for five days, snacks, a box of his family silver, my computer and thumb drives, and a portable file box of important documents. I had photos in my phone of each shelf of books in case I had to replace them. Years before, in another hurricane, I’d lost over forty books to water damage when a branch broke a window next to a bookshelf.
Hours later, on the opposite side of the state, we used food to distract ourselves. We searched for the best lunch and located a little bistro with good ratings. Afternoon updates showed a possible direct impact on West Palm. In a best-case scenario, this meant weeks without electricity, no air conditioning, and problems getting fresh water and food. In a worst-case scenario, we would return to chaos and destruction.
By the afternoon, the newest spaghetti models predicted this storm would land a bit north of us. The following day on the west coast, Friday, dawned with a greenish-gray light. The wind blew stronger, but it was still possible to go out for meals, the only way to puncture the boredom. We read, napped, read some more. When it was over, we drove home. Areas north of us had significant damage, but our home was spared. The wind only took some trees and plants.
Ed cleared the yard, tossed debris in a pile in the street. He propped the papayas that could be salvaged, looped rope around trunks, and sunk wooden stakes to hold them upright until they recovered.
An article in The Atlantic by Robinson Meyer includes several maps of the United States illustrating areas in the country that will suffer losses of real estate value and food production along with increases in deaths due to heat. It’s visually shocking to see how much of the South will suffer. Pittsburgh rests in a green portion of the map, an area predicted to gain value. Coastal land shrinks, the first, second, third reduction from the largest Matryoshka doll.
Nine years ago, my husband and I bought a condo in Pittsburgh, not far from the one I rented. An ace up the sleeve. A place where I can coddle my sensitive health, avoiding the intensity of a Florida summer. I’m one of the lucky ones, like Greta Thunberg says. As with so many challenges, the impact of climate disruption, air, water, and waste pollution is higher in communities of people of color. I’m disabled but still very privileged.
As Hurricane Irma spun towards the state in August 2017, the largest storm on record at the time, my husband and I dropped the shutters and made airline reservations. The preparations were easier this time. I had the photos of the books already on my phone. I packed the same items in my suitcase, all but the silver, which we hid. We flew to our place in Pittsburgh, walked uptown to get a bite to eat, and watched images of destruction on the Weather Channel.
Our neighbor FaceTimed us when it was over. Once again, the papayas lay on the ground. The leaves of nearly every palm and tree were stripped, but, again, we were fortunate, lucky, blessed. The house was intact.
Yet, that was my turning point. Change isn’t coming. It’s here. We went through the same thing in 2018 with Hurricane Michael and the next with Dorian, the packing, the leaving, the worry about whether our house would survive. The giddy relief and guilty sadness when it hit elsewhere.
Scientists predict rising sea levels and stronger storms will put much of Florida’s coastline underwater within the century, maybe much sooner. Not long ago, one of my daughter’s friends living in Miami posted on social media a photo of an octopus swimming in about two feet of water in her parking garage.
No place for a nest.
Our homes of origin, those we build and leave behind, the ones we no longer can afford, the ones sold out from underneath us, those we flee, and ignore, mistreat, those built in the wrong places, the ones washed away, destroyed by wildfires, those suffering from disproportionate pollution, all of these point to transience. Climate change will force many of us to live elsewhere, but I found comfort in the last Matryoshka dolls, the center, seemingly solid and unbroken.
When Thanksgiving rolled around that first year in Pittsburgh, when all I had was one bedroom in a tiny apartment, I called Margaret to invite her.
“I’m sorry I don’t have a home for you, babe,” I said.
“Wherever you are, Mom, that’s my home,” she said.
But a year now into this pandemic, I have lived alone in Pittsburgh for nearly seventy percent of the year. I was at risk, and my husband, a chiropractor, basically hugs people for a living. So, I isolated for my own safety. With not even that center Matryoshka of togetherness.
The temperature on this April day is seventy degrees, but the air quality is moderate. The dominant pollutant is particulate matter, PM 2.5. I can’t take a walk. Can’t open the windows.
Many scientists see clear links between Covid and climate change. In more than one study Covid deaths are higher in areas where PM 2.5 is higher. Some see concerns about the rise of zoonotic diseases due to climate-related problems with animal habitats.
While I’ve written about climate change and planned a literary/visual art event at a museum on the topic, I could not foresee my current situation. Science warned of a global pandemic for years, but most didn’t consider such a crisis. I remind myself of my privilege. I facetime family. I zoom with writers. I have food. I have means. Yet, my abject loneliness shakes me, threatens my health and sanity, and compels me to write for hours when I’m not watching Netflix or staring out the window.
Is this not our largest failure, our biggest block to actionable change?
This inability to imagine losing our nests.