When the little owl vanishes

A writer reflects on parenthood and what to talk about when confronting extinction.

 

Back when our daughter was 3 or 4 years old, we read the same picture book night after night: El Valiente Búho (The Brave Owl), the story of a baby bird who was worried about leaving the nest. Everyone — her parents, her siblings, the other animals in the forest — promised her that she wouldn’t fall to the ground. When the time was right, they said, and if she didn’t let fear overtake her, she would flap her wings and simply fly away.

No matter how many times we read it together, El Valiente Búho resonated with me. It was a perfect metaphor for our child’s growing independence, a reminder of the worry that we, her parents, would experience as she grew. I imagine that worry is one that never leaves parents, regardless of their offspring’s age. What if our daughter can’t make it on her own? What if none of us can?

The author and her daughter hiking in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona, last year.

Once, our daughter got to meet one of the tiny cactus ferruginous pygmy-owls that are native to the Sonoran Desert where we live. The bird weighed about 2 1/2 ounces and stood less than 7 inches tall. It was as cute as a stuffed animal toy. It stared back at her with giant unblinking eyes, remarkably similar to her own, while she gently caressed its fluffy chest.

Pygmy-owls typically nest in the open desert, high atop the tallest saguaros. But they are increasingly hard to find, threatened by the rising temperatures caused by climate change and the ongoing development and urbanization of southern Arizona. Since 1993, no more than 41 pygmy-owls have been seen in Arizona in any given year, though they can still be found south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Their old saguaro nests are occupied by ghosts, or taken over by more common birds like purple martins and brown-crested flycatchers.

OUR DAUGHTER IS an only child; before she was born, we’d made that decision, wary of overpopulation and painfully aware of the high cost of raising a family. Now a decade has almost passed since she joined us, and we can’t imagine life without her. Every year of her young life, she’s heard us talk about how the Earth is growing warmer. She knows that resources are limited and that natural disasters and extinction are a part of modern life. It’s her normal. And ours, too, even though we’ve been slow to acknowledge it. It’s hard for us to keep track of the ways our natural world has changed since we were kids; we’re too sad to imagine how much worse everything could get.

But every parent knows that you cannot help your children find the right path if you cannot model good behavior yourself. We want to inspire our daughter; we want her to care for the environment even as it is falling apart, to work for conservation however futile it seems.

The author and her daughter hiking in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona, last year.

So we talk openly about these subjects, and we mourn the losses we see — the pygmy-owls in the Sonoran Desert, the white rhinos in Africa, the vaquitas of the Sea of Cortez. When we do this, we are talking about death. Some days are harder than others. We wake up without knowing the words to say, sometimes lacking the emotional fortitude to accept that so many species will not return — that we will only know of their existence through books and pictures and zoos. On other days, we feel foolishly optimistic. We indulge in fantasy. “What if it turns out that there are more vaquitas hidden somewhere? Or they were undercounted?” our kid says when we visit the Sea of Cortez. We take in its vastness and have a hard time imagining how a once-abundant native species could ever be gone. “That would be wonderful,” I tell my daughter. On those days, I do not have the heart to pit my reality against her imagination. It is a quality that will help her cope as she grows up, I hope.

“We’ll need to find comfort in the fact that we may die. But life, in some form, will go on without us on this planet.”

But increasingly, I wake up clearheaded, convinced that humans are well on the path to self-destruction. This knowledge makes me eager to slow the destruction however I can, through my actions and my words. On those days, we talk about the wonder of being alive, knowing our time is a finite reality we cannot waste. We talk and read about extinction. It’s a part of life; it happened to the dinosaurs — why shouldn’t it be our fate as well? We don’t see these discussions as morbid. We see them as evolved, as necessary. Someone I know recently asked over Twitter: “Has grief become the new hope?” For us, I think, the answer is yes. Increasingly so.

I last saw my dear friend and mentor Eddie four years ago when he came over for dinner and stayed the night. He’d recently returned from a trip to Kenya, where he’d been reporting about poaching for National Geographic magazine. He told us about how hard it was — seeing endangered mammals bludgeoned for their tusks. How do you deal with that pain? we asked him. How do you make sense of the climate crisis?

Eddie was a gentle giant — over 6 feet tall in his black leather jacket and worn-out jeans. “We’ll need to find comfort in the fact that we may die,” he said. “But life, in some form, will go on without us on this planet.” Back then, I couldn’t wrap my mind around his words. Our daughter was too small, too fragile still.

A year later, I got the news of Eddie’s sudden death. As I mourned him, I began to understand what he’d meant during our last chat: That humanity needed to take a leap of faith. If we want to survive in this era shaped by the climate crisis and extinction, he believed, we need to accept uncertainty. This is our opportunity to circle back and rediscover the courage it takes to raise a child, knowing that your species might not survive. That may require the biggest leap into the unknown yet. Like the little owl in my daughter’s book, we have good reason to be fearful about what lies ahead. But as life passes, we have to learn to bear witness and accept what we see. I’m beginning to understand that when the last human is gone, some other form of life will take our place. Maybe they’ll be huge, like dinosaurs, or even more fantastical, like dragons. But more likely, they’ll be tiny — smaller than our daughter when she was a baby, even tinier than the little pygmy-owl. Seemingly insignificant and simple creatures. They may not be able to fly from the top of their nests. They won’t let fear stop them. They will just be.

The author and her daughter hiking in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona, last year.

Ruxandra Guidi was formerly a contributing editor for High Country News. She writes from Tucson, Arizona. 

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Note: Roberto (Bear) Guerra is HCN’s photo editor and Guidi’s husband.

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