What measures should we as a civilization embrace to tackle the imminent catastrophe of climate change? Is it time to call upon sources other than western scientific interpretation to guide us in new directions? Maybe, as author Deena Metzger of A Rain of Night Birds argues, “a gross violation requires extreme action to set it right” (p. 242). Perhaps it is time to look to the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of those who have lived on the North American continent for thousands of years so we can learn what “Native people had understood after eons of intimate observation and interaction” (p. 52). But are we who cherish western cultural ways of knowing able to relinquish everything we think we understand in order to begin the habit of “learning to see differently?” (p. 252).
These are some of the questions that Metzger asks in A Rain of Night Birds through the main character, Sandra Birdswell. A climatologist, Birdswell is trained through academia to see the daily occurrences and accumulated patterns of weather. Her observations and intensive connection to nature move her to reconcile western scientific practice with indigenous and longstanding ways of knowing our lives and the Earth.
While many of us may believe we make attempts to draw these two thought communities into confluence, the theme of A Rain of Night Birds is that lived experience and releasing oneself to perspectives beyond our rational, culturally-transmitted norms is the most authentic pathway to meaning-making. And, as such, it is likely that we can only begin to ameliorate the scars of 200 years of Anthropocene thinking and behaviors by accepting that “the methodology and response of Western science was a factor in the rapidly disintegrating situation” (p. 64) of climate change.
The Anthropocene and Climate Change
No longer is climate change a question or a curiosity. For any human on any given day, it means “living in the whirl or threat of ongoing rain storm, fire storm, hail and lightning, flood and drought” (p. 135). The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change has confirmed that the use of fossil fuels is responsible for the dangerous rise in carbon emissions in the atmosphere and is currently preparing a special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems.
The Anthropocene era extended the power-creating stores and property of agricultural life into the Industrial Revolution with “fortification, hierarchy, conquest, war — the present” (p. 164). We see, as western readers of A Rain of Night Birds, that we are culpable alongside James Watt and the steam engine for the victimization of the Earth, which became apparent “when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane” (p. 12). Fast forward to the 21st century, where
the characters of A Rain of Night Birds we know that “the burning, melting, injured, poisoned world” (p. 136) stares here between us. We plod on, relying on western science without the international discourse to consider the valuable insights on direct and indirect impacts, as well as mitigation and adaptation approaches, held by indigenous peoples worldwide.
Knowing and Feeling as One with the Earth in A Rain of Night Birds
Institutions beginning with Sandra’s childhood schooling and throughout her life fail to respect her “intuitions,” so she is forced to “live in, to negotiate both worlds” (p. 16). She learns from her medical father doctor “what might be changed and what could not be changed” (p. 17). Does it matter whether her visceral responses to the Earth’s injuries in A Rain of Night Birds are to be read as literal or a metaphor for the feelings that we should possess, too, about the tragic actions committed on the planet? Not really. What is important is that we come to a sense of personal responsibility for the actions that we each take everyday that deeply affect the Earth’s interwoven life systems.
By age 12, Sandra knew that “weather was current and climate extensive and that climate depended on the ongoing patterns of wind, water, earth, light, heat, and that she had to know all of it” (p. 51). In this way, Metzger invites an audience who may not be familiar with the terminology of climate change to join along with Sandra on her quest.
From childhood to adulthood Sandra carries and fills a pail with dirt from the sites and geographic regions that she visits. To the untrained eye, the layers “resembled the tiers of sedimentary and volcanic rocks of the canyons of the southwest” (p. 21) to which she turns hungrily (pun intended — she sometimes places the dirt in her mouth) as she seeks philosophical meaning about the earth’s devastation near to the end of the book. Yet the dirt contains the various sources that allow us to meaningfully know our worlds: “evidence, memory, icon, ritual object, prayer” (p. 21).
Progression toward Reconciliation with the Earth
The first chapter is difficult, as the reader has no background context from which to draw. Our main character experiences a sun flare which introduces us as readers to her intuitive nature. We are required to immediately do deep work as we experience nature’s climatological effects on the earth with Birdswell. She does seem to live both within and without nature in this first chapter. The flare “had evoked a (sic) analogous attunement to global events that concerned her (p. 8).” We receive a preview of a thematic pattern in the first chapter, as Sandra’s “certainty that she and all humans are fully responsible for the current shift in weather, the grave expansion of deserts, and the deadly consequences of climate change” complement her capacity of “witnessing” (p. 11).
The next chapters look to Sandra’s first days, when her mother died in childbirth. The concept of not knowing one’s lineage extends into other characters and chapters as part of our contemporary inability to know ourselves without keen understanding of the lived experiences of our ancestors. It is analogous to the invasive, non-native olive trees that were planted in western canyons by European settlers; they are unknowable by the native wildlife who depend on vegetation for sustenance. So, too, is the influence of western ways of knowing and actions rife with consequences that affect nature’s cycles. Thus, the lack of family stories, a tainted Earth, and climate change seem as if they might spiral out of control in the early stages of A Rain of Night Birds.
Medicine’s Example of the Limitation of Western Scientific Thought
Chapter 4 of A Rain of Night Birds challenges western ways of diagnosing human medical conditions. Such contesting of what most US citizens see as norms extrapolates outward into a primer about our blindness to earth’s anthropogenic demise.
When Sandra’s father, John is in his late 20s, he chooses to practice medicine on a tribal reservation rather than to serve during the Vietnam War. He comes to consider “that other people might have entirely different values, interests, concerns, beliefs, and desires” (p. 29). John represents all of us who have come to privilege western ways without opening up to broader, more inclusive lenses. As a single father and good man, John often looks with wonder at this daughter. Interestingly, Neil Young’s lyrics provide a bridge for these characters when they are either unable or reticent to communicate with each other.
While he begins with a realization that “he had not questioned the lack of medical assumptions themselves,” (p. 29), he befriends Hosteen Tsada, an older Native man, at the Indian Health Service in Chinle, Arizona. The two form a 40-year relationship that frames the book’s larger themes of western dependence on scientific evidence as a kind of emptiness.
His daughter learns to love the “earth the way her father loved the body,” (p. 38), and Hosteen’s guidance, spoken with the cadence of Navajo — “consciously, deliberately” (p. 41) — moves Sandra to want “to meet the Earth” in the same manner: “with quiet attention, deftly tracing every energetic current and flow in the field, both discerning and easing in one gesture with his sure understanding” (p. 43).
Love in the Time of a Great Divide
When we’re first introduced to Dr. Terrence Green, Chair of the Department of Climatology where Sandra studies, we’re uncertain how to interpret his discourse. A Native man, sometimes he implores his students never to “forget that the Holy Wind is behind you” (p. 47) and this meaning “is harder to understand than quantum physics” (p. 49). Yet, when Sandra is compelled toward indigenous knowledge-based “seasonal forecasts to complete traditional meteorological methods” (p. 56), Terrence refers her to another professor to chair her committee.
Sandra’s earliest feelings that the “Earth and weather were speaking to her in their own language” don’t diminish during her graduate studies in Dr. G’s department; rather, “sometimes she thought she heard the Earth call out in pain” (p. 60). She comes to a sense that the “methodology and response of western science was a factor in the rapidly disintegrating situation” (p. 64) of places on Earth like the Arctic. Through Sandra, Mertger asks us to consider that, “if vibrations, waves, and particles from beyond the Earth might not be altering the planet, then might not the manufactured, continued constructed increasing radiation, toxic, emanating, explosion, earthquakes affect the atmosphere and beyond, even more intensely or create a feedback system from which Earth might not be able to escape?” (p. 65).
As they find commonality as colleagues and, eventually, as life partners, Sandra and Terrence find that “every new discovery” instills in them “dread instead of hope” (p. 65). Part II is a type of novel-within-the-novel, shifting to how love and lives shared together come into being through connections to the outdoors and wind, rather than interior constructed spaces. It speaks to the power of story and history and how traveling together in life is sometimes beyond mere will. Actions “arose from the two of them merging” as well as “yielding to something beyond themselves” (p. 99). Their acceptance that their two worlds can never truly know each other offers a kind of freedom to try anyways.
“Under the rain of night birds, under the dark cloud, a rainbow slipped, handhold after handhold, down the ruddy curved stone body of the canyon to the sand below and then tipped up in another arch to a distant perch in the east where dusk was being born. The palette of creation. The tools of beauty. A covenant” (p. 256).
I felt at peace as I read this book. I thought of the nature around me and its relationship to my life. I was reminded of efforts that I take on to help assuage the injuries that western civilization has done to the Earth. When I’m grocery shopping, I thank the baggers who offer me plastic bags, but I describe to them gently that “I’m trying to save the planet.” I reinforce meatlessness in my own family’s meals and teach others about how corporating large mammal ranching is an enormous detriment to lessening carbon emissions. I burn pellets instead of oil in my cold northern home, walk whenever possible, and compost to return nutrients to the Earth.
But all of this is really not enough, is it?
Our responsibilities to our planet move beyond recycling, biking, or switching to solar. We must learn, in an era in which urban residency is increasing exponentially and this generation of children has never been more disconnected from the outdoors, that we need to find ways to understand nature and to treat the Earth with respect. This means experiencing it viscerally and personally, such as Sandra Birdswell does when she exposes herself to a dramatic thunderstorm that crashes around her and embraces her with blue lightning. Yes, she sees the metaphorical light, and, so, too, must we. We must look to those who have come before us, recognizing that the knowledge we possess from western science may not be sufficient to answer questions about lifestyle, longevity, and Earth care that come from indigenous ways.