Homeless Hawks


posted to www.marxmail.org on December 10, 2004


Fifty years ago, the use of DDT brought birds such as the eagle, the falcon and the hawk to the brink of extinction. Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" was mostly responsible for a ban on the substance and the re-emergence of such birds across the country, including the Greater New York area.


There are falcons in the spires of St. John of the Divine, an immense Gothic cathedral not 10 blocks from where I work and where leftists have been mourned over the years, including Sandinista Nicaragua's Nora Astorga. They also have nests in the nooks and crannies of the George Washington Bridge.


But the most magnificent bird is the red-tailed hawk that I saw for the first time in Central Park on New Years Day, 1997. A group of people had gathered under a tree not five blocks from the east side entrance to the park on 90th St. and 5th Ave. In the surrounding trees, crows were raising hell. They were alarmed at the sight of the hawk near the top of the tree, which clutched a live rat in its talons. After 10 minutes or so, it flew off with its bounty. It was a huge and impressive bird. One can understand why American Indians would revere it.


Apparently this was the bird that had built a nest at the top of 927 Fifth Avenue, near 74th Street. Mary Tyler Moore, the TV comedy star of the 1970s, lives there and Woody Allen lives across the street. Last week, the nest was torn down because building occupants complained about the rat carcasses that would occasionally show up on the sidewalk below the building. Moore told the NY Times that ''I am so outraged that they would do this without so much as a by your leave.'' Woody Allen has not been heard from, though he was omnipresent in a landmarks preservation drive to prevent a high-rise from going up on 92nd Street, where he has a townhouse. He didn't want his view blocked apparently. One would hope that he would deploy the same kind of activism on behalf of one of the city's wildlife treasures.


It is hard for me to express the feelings of disgust I have for the denizens of 927 Fifth Avenue responsible for this cruel, insensitive and ultimately barbaric act. A website devoted to restoring the nest can be found at: http://www.palemale.com/. It has some wonderful pictures of the bird, his mate and their offspring.


The Times reported that while red-tailed hawks are protected under the federal Migratory Species Treaty, the law does not prohibit removal of an "inactive" nest -- one containing no chicks, eggs or nestlings. This according to Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesmen for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who okayed the removal of the nest. I can't say that this surprises me that much. The Bush administration, like the Reagan administration before it, has a knack for hiring people who are hostile to the aims of the government agencies they supervise.


This brutal act obviously resonates with other things going on in the world involving human beings. One cannot but think of the thousands of New Yorkers who are homeless now, victims of the same cruel economic forces ultimately under the control of the kinds of people who destroyed the nest. We are also inevitably reminded of Palestinians who lose their homes as an act of collective punishment wrought by the Zionist state.


In the final analysis, the mean-spiritedness behind this act is cut from the same cloth that is threatening biodiversity all across the planet. The people who would tear down a nest in order to have a spotless sidewalk are from the same class that is condemning the flora and fauna of rainforests to rapid extinction. Working people have to figure out a way to connect our concerns with that of nature as a whole. The enemy of nature is also the enemy of working people.


In the early stages of capitalist development in the USA, the cities were much more connected with nature. Although some of this was obviously a health hazard, there were ways in which nature and humanity were intertwined in a positive way.


In Ted Steinberg's "Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History," we learn:


Horses generated power for transportation (and manufacturing too), but they also produced staggering amounts of manure, somewhere between 15 and 30 pounds per animal every day. In Milwaukee, this translated daily into 133 tons of horse droppings. In 1900, one health officer in Rochester, New York (apparently with nothing better to do), calculated that the city's 15,000 horses contributed enough dung each year to completely cover an acre to a height of 175 feet. Worse still, the stinking piles bred countless numbers of flies, which harbored disease, including typhoid fever. Then there was the dust to contend with. Horse turds dried up in the heat, only to be pulverized by the creatures themselves as their hoofs made contact with the pavement. Ground horse excrement was the nineteenth-century equivalent of auto pollution-and was just as irritating to people's respiratory systems.


The problems created by horse dung would have been even worse were it not for an ingenious ecological move on the part of farmers living on the outskirts of cities. They purchased the horse manure and used it to fertilize their hay and vegetable crops. The hay then went to feed the urban horse population and the vegetables to enhance the dinner tables of the city's better-off residents. As a truck farmer from New Jersey explained: "In our large commercial and manufacturing cities where wealth has concentrated, and where abound families who live regardless of expenditures, fabulous prices are freely paid for vegetables and fruits to please the palate or adorn the table." By the mid-nineteenth century, a reciprocal system, with manure passing one way and vegetables and hay the other, had grown up in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston.


New Yorkers perfected the system. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 propelled the city's rise to commercial dominance and spurred farmers near the waterway to give up grain production in favor of potatoes, cucumbers, cabbages, onions, and sweet corn, all of which commanded good prices in the city's market. In 1879, Brooklyn and Queens, New York, now the very essence of urbanity, even led the nation in market gardening. Brooklyn was described by one source as an "immense garden" serving the "vast and increasing demand of the city of New York for vegetables and fruits of a perishable nature."


The soil in Brooklyn and Queens is shallow, limiting the ability of roots to spread, and is not particularly adapted to storing moisture. Normally a farmer would need to keep plenty of hay on hand to feed the livestock that produced the soil-fortifying manure. But with Manhattan dairies and stables located nearby, it made economic sense for farmers to sell their hay and purchase horse manure in return. Manure from all over the New York City area formed the ecological lifeblood of Brooklyn and Queens farming. Brooklynites, one newspaper noted, "are, no doubt, glad to get rid of their filth (and the Board of Health will compel them to do so) [but] our farmers are glad to obtain means with which to enrich their lands, and to pay a fair price for such materials." Horse manure was so critical to farming that one King's County landowner even made a provision in his will that his son receive "all manure on the farm at the time of my decease."


Something like this will have to be reintroduced under communism. In seeking to overcome the "metabolic rift" between town and countryside identified by Karl Marx (under the influence of soil chemist Justus von Liebig), we should also make a place for the great raptors such as the red-tailed hawk, who are as important to civilization as any painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.