“The smart thing is to prepare for the unexpected” said my most recent fortune-cookie advisory. Many people presume that the future will look more or less like the present, though that’s the one thing we can assume isn’t true. If some Cassandra had come to us in 1985 and declared that the death squads and dictators of Latin America would be replaced with left-leaning elected regimes and populist insurgencies, if she had prophesied the vanishing of the Soviet Union and the arrival of AIDS retrovirals, same-sex marriage and the Red Sox World Series victory, if she had warned us of pandemic fundamentalism and more dramatic climate change sooner, who would have heeded her? From the vantage point of 1985, 2005 is already wilder than science fiction and less credible, rife with countless small but deep changes as well as many sweeping ones. Of course who in 1965 would have imagined the real 1985, so like and yet unlike Orwell’s 1984, with spreading information technologies, shrinking public spheres, and changed social mores? Even from near at hand, the future throws curveballs, for few if any in the gloom of post-election 2004 anticipated the wild surprises of the first nine months of 2005.
Despair is full of certainty, the certainty that you know what’s going to happen; and many seem to love certainty so much that they’ll take it with despondency as a package deal. Think of those who, waiting for someone long overdue, habitually talk themselves into believing in the fatal crash or the adulterous abandonment — atrocities they prefer to the uncertainty of a person shrouded in the mystery of absence. In the hangover after last November’s election, many anti-Bush Americans almost seemed to prefer their own prognostications of doom and an eternally triumphant Republican party to preparing for the unexpected. Many were convinced that it was all over and George Bush would be riding high forever — a somewhat perplexingly unlikely ground for despair.
After all, even had his ratings continued to fly high, his reign will, without a coup, only last through 2008. There always has been a future beyond that, even though much can be ravaged irrevocably in four years. But as it turns out we didn’t have to wait those four years for the nightmarish moment of November 2004 to mutate into something unforeseen. The present may not be less dreadful for us, but it’s certainly more so for Bush, and many things have changed in unexpected ways.
Out of the Woods: The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
Like so many goofily gorgeous North American species, the ivory-billed woodpecker seems to have been designed by a cartoonist. It’s bigger and showier than even the hefty pileated woodpecker, with a white bill, brilliant black-and-white markings and, on the males, a Mohawk-like red crest — and it had been presumed extinct for decades. The last confirmed U.S. sighting was back when Roosevelt was president, Jim Crow was the de facto law of the south, Bing Crosby was big, and Elvis was 9. In 1944, an Audubon Society artist had sketched what was believed to be the last surviving stateside bird as the trees around its Louisiana nesting site were cut down. The bird had already disappeared from most of its once-wide range, stretching from Cuba to Illinois and Oklahoma. (The last substantiated Cuban sighting was in 1988 when Reagan was president and Armageddon had only recently seemed a likelihood.)
Over the ensuing decades, some hoped that ornithological orthodoxy was wrong — including birder and editor Tim Gallagher, who became obsessed with “the grail bird” (as he calls it in his recent book) and pursued faint traces and rumors of sightings across the American south. A birder, Mary Scott, who had devoted herself to looking for extinct birds — a believer in faint hopes and unlikely possibilities, in other words –spotted the woodpecker in 2003 and prompted Gallagher to begin searching northeast Arkansas. He saw the male bird for himself in March of 2004 and launched a secret project with the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory and Arkansas Nature Conservatory to confirm his sighting and protect the bird’s habitat. (Whether that male is, as the female spotted in 1944 was thought to be, the last of its kind, is still not known.) Gallagher’s hope led him on as the rumors of the project began to spread in April of this year. The sightings and soundings — for the call of the ivory-billed is distinct — were made public on April 28.
The old certainty that the bird didn’t exist was replaced by a fragile new knowledge that it did, news that arrived in a flood of scientists’ tears — the accounts of those who first saw the bird are drenched in shuddering emotion. Ornithologists everywhere were happy to have been so wrong for so long. (Imagine if political pundits were half so happy to admit error, how interesting political discourse might get; but no Naderites came back to admit that there were actually a few key differences between Bush and Gore; nor general alarmists to remind us that Y2K was a big nonstarter; and few conservatives have owned up to the fact that a war on Iraq turned out not to be easy and fun after all — though many newspapers have recently admitted that most of the post-Katrina murder and mayhem reported in New Orleans was imaginary.)
The reappearance of the woodpecker seems like a second chance — a chance to expand its habitat, to get it right this time. Maybe that’s what links the big surprises of 2005, this sense that there can be another unexpected round, the tenth inning in which the outcome could be different; that failure and devastation are not always final. Scott Simon, the Arkansas Nature Conservancy director who, with Cornell University scientists, led the search for the woodpecker, writes, “It is sometimes said that faith requires the suspension of belief. In this case, belief has been rewarded with reality. The fact is, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker survives. What a great outcome for decades of faith, hope, and prayers.”
The woodpecker was a spectacular thing unto itself, but also a message that we don’t really know what’s out there, even in the forests of the not-very-wild southeast, let alone the ocean depths from which previously uncatalogued creatures regularly emerge. Late last month, University of Alaska marine biologists reported seven new species found during an expedition under the arctic ice that uncovered a much richer habitat with far more fauna than anticipated. Of course, the other animal news from the arctic is the threat to the porcupine caribou herd if the Bush administration succeeds in opening the Eisenhower-created Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and the widespread drowning of polar bears, because the distance between summer ice floes and land is now often further than even they can swim.
The woodpecker is a small story; the big environmental story of our time is about extinctions and endangerments, about creatures and habitats moving toward the very brink this bird came back from; but this small story suggests that there are still grounds to hope — to doubt that we truly know exactly what is out there and what is possible. Hope is not history’s Barcalounger, as is often thought: it requires you get back out there and protect that habitat or stop that war. It is not the same as optimism, the belief that everything will probably turn out all right despite your inactivity, the same kind of inactivity that despair begets. Hope involves a sense of possibility, but with it comes responsibility.
Out of the Furnace of War: Cindy Sheehan
It’s hard to know whether to regard Cindy Sheehan, the second great American surprise of 2005, as akin to the third, Hurricane Katrina, or to that ivory-billed woodpecker. There had been reliable sightings of Cindy Sheehan all over the left (and even occasionally the mainstream) for many months before she went to Crawford, Texas, but when she pitched her tent in front of the President’s vacation home, something happened. There had been other grieving parents taking strong stands against Bush and the war before her. For example, Fernando Suarez de Solar, whose son Jesus died eight days into the war, had spoken and demonstrated in public early on. And there had been plenty of people against the war and plenty of news that it was a bitter, corrosive, corrupting disaster spreading in all directions. But some mysterious constellation of forces — a media sick of its short leash, a slow news month, a bunch of reporters stranded in Crawford, endless bad news from Iraq, a public grown less afraid to ask questions, a blond suburban mom with a broken heart and bold, profanity-laced rhetoric, a lot of antiwar organizations backing her up, including Crawford’s Peace House, and a President too craven to meet with a citizen — turned Sheehan into a catalyst for the nation. She and the growing encampment near Crawford became an occasion for large numbers of people to start talking passionately about the war again, to feel that this was a time when we could question policy and maybe force change. She was the antiwar movement’s second chance.
A second chance because that movement had died back, fallen out of the media’s eye, failed to catalyze effective resistance. In 2005, soldiers — as veterans, conscientious objectors, witnesses, and resistors — came to report just how terrible the war really was and to make it impossible to marginalize the antiwar movement as unpatriotic or cowardly. A second chance because when Sheehan spoke up it somehow became possible for many others to do so, and the time was right. The Bush Administration’s prognostications for the war, having lost their sheen for many would-be believers, had begun to smell ever more like lies and delusions.
Cindy Sheehan was a surprise to the world, but Camp Casey was a surprise to her, one that seems to have allowed her to transmute her grief into political change and to find a public ready to meet her with love and shared outrage. I spent a day at the camp late in August — the day hurricane Katrina struck the southeast — and regretted I hadn’t cancelled everything, gone earlier, and stayed longer. Ret. Colonel Ann Wright, the U.S. diplomat who resigned from the foreign service on March 19, 2003, in protest against the onrushing war, was running the camp with resoluteness and endless cheer. Like so many others I talked to during my day in Crawford, Wright seemed radiant with the joy of serving the deepest purposes and values of one’s life. Everywhere people were having the public conversation about politics and values a lot of us dream about the rest of the time, average-looking people of all ages from all over the country.
Sheehan herself moved through the camp giving interviews, hugging veterans, receiving gifts, seemingly inexhaustible as though grief had left her nothing but a purity of purpose. She said at the end of her day and mine, as we headed back into Crawford in Code Pink cofounder Jodie Evans’s car, “This is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me and probably that ever will. I don’t even think I would even want anything more amazing to happen to me.” As she wrote more recently, “Camp Casey, with its wonderful feelings of love, acceptance, peace, community, joy, and yes, optimism for our future, gave me back my desire to live.”
Out of the Tropical Waters: Hurricane Katrina
The young members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) at Camp Casey that day were restless and uneasy. A number of them had been members of the National Guard who had joined up to serve their communities, not fight foreign wars. They deplored the large Louisiana National Guard contingent stranded in Iraq with massive quantities of equipment of just the sort needed at home. They anticipated a disaster. So did the National Weather Service, whose warnings were dire, the Mayor of New Orleans, who implemented a deeply flawed evacuation plan, Louisiana’s governor, who issued a state of emergency declaration on Friday, August 26, and many others.
Perhaps one should say that many anticipated the disaster that was the weather, and some anticipated the social disaster to follow — notably Mike Davis, with his September 2004 Tomdispatch that began, “The evacuation of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Ivan looked sinisterly like Strom Thurmond’s version of the Rapture. Affluent white people fled the Big Easy in their SUVs, while the old and car-less — mainly Black — were left behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the watery wrath.”
A prescient article in National Geographic magazine had overestimated the death toll from such a hurricane, but described quite accurately the million displaced and the poisonous brew of sewage, oil, and industrial effluent to come. No one, however, anticipated just how adrift the Bush Administration would find itself in its own toxic brew of callousness, cluelessness, and incompetence — or that a public and media that had largely overlooked those very qualities before would suddenly find them intolerable. The death and devastation was a tragedy foretold, but the sudden shift of political wind was something else — a surprise.
Like 9/11, the hurricane “changed everything.” Katrina was not just a disaster on a grander scale than 9/11, but one that woke up the country from the strange sleep it fell into after that first atrocity. When the World Trade Towers came down, most of this country’s citizens fell under a spell, cowed, obedient, unquestioning of the patriotic haze in which we marched to war. Katrina blew that haze away. The aftermath offers a second chance to set the nation’s priorities, even to redefine what strength and safety would really look like for this country.
There was an amazing window, a moment in which tax policy, privatization, the whole social-Darwinist, every-man-for-himself ideology of Horatio Alger and Ronald Reagan, the very definition of national security, and more was open to question; in which a new national sense of purpose and identity could have been crafted and the prevailing agenda of the last twenty-five years seen as the disaster that has hit every corner of the United States. An opposition party could have made much of it, but we had instead the Democrats. Though I’d be happy to be wrong, it’s hard to imagine any great surprises coming from them. Hope for me has always lain outside electoral politics in that arena where grassroots movements create irresistible pressure on institutions or change the world without working through those institutionalized forces.
Three surprises, all with ties to wonder and to horror, the one transmuting into the other: extinction as a black cloud out of which a bird flies; a mother’s anguish becoming the one weapon that can pierce the presidential armor and maybe thereby save lives; the destruction of a city and region that drags down an administration with it and maybe hastens the end of a war. It makes you wonder where we’ll be by 2006.
Rebecca Solnit’s essay on disaster and civil society in the October issue of Harper’s Magazine went to press the day Katrina hit. Her most recent book is A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
Copyright 2005 Rebecca Solnit
This piece first appeared, with a short introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.