Disease Takes Wing

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The Boston Globe

Disease Takes Wing

If birds are not a friend to the human species, where in all of nature is friendship to be found? Each day come more reports of the dispersal of diseased poultry and fowl, moving from east to west, Asia into Europe, and alarms begin to sound.

The grandeur of winged migration has become a niche for deadly disease. With the threat of avian flu comes a change in the way the flight of birds must strike the human eye.

In describing the conviction that life is good, and that the transcendent sources of all existence are benign, poets have again and again settled on the metaphor of the bird. In Genesis, the Creator ''hovers" over formlessness with, in the phrase of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ''bright wings." The flutterings of the wings themselves evoke the creative breath of God, which is why, in Christian iconography, the Holy Spirit is rendered as a dove.

The author of Deuteronomy, in expressing the benevolence of the Most High, writes, ''Like an eagle watching its nest, hovering over its young, he spreads out his wings to hold him, he supports him on his pinions." Jesus is remembered in Matthew as longing to gather the people ''as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings."

But what if the hen has a virus? The wings can cast a shadow.

In the sagas of plagues and pestilences, the role of the infecting agent has been played, in the past, by creatures that seem somehow suited to such villainy -- rats, fleas, spiders, crawling things. Birds seem of another order, never more so than at the time of year approaching now. When we see a V-shaped flight of migrators, beating from south to north, our hearts will follow in the lift of our eyes. The songs of birds, their wondrous patterns in the air, the astounding calculations that allow whole flocks to move as one creature, the pairing off that invites a romantic anthropomorphism, the defiance of the law of gravity, their simple, uncomplicated goodness -- all of this makes them the harbingers of heaven. If we look up when we want to picture that place of ultimate hope, isn't it because the birds are there already? Why else do we imagine angels with wings?

But, wondering what infections might be aloft, will we now feel a kind of betrayal? The reports of cases of human infection that have so far occurred include stories of poultry farmers who were vulnerable because they lived so intimately with their birds, especially in the cold when the creatures were brought inside. The required slaughter of birds has been an economic, but also a personal catastrophe for many.

Yet if there is betrayal here, might it go the other way? Birds have given us so many metaphors that we must ask if this threatened malady is not yet another? Abstracting from the actual origins of avian flu, can we recognize, perhaps, a message from the natural world? Health workers are properly rushing to reinforce the great divide that separates the human species from the animal realm, to keep avian flu avian. But hasn't that divide itself become a problem?

In the developed world, the birds we eat come to us wrapped in cellophane, ''processed," by which we mean denatured. Conditioned air, bottled water, screened sun, polluted dirt, changed climate -- we speak of nature as if we are not part of it.

The deep memory of Genesis posits a human dominion over nature, but the banishment from Eden indicates an alienation from it. Today, the so-called environment is discussed as if it is a surrounding bubble, like a space capsule that can be replaced when it is trashed.

Judging from our reckless disregard, we humans seem to imagine that we can have a destiny independent of the earth on which live; even that word ''on" suggests the problem, since the truth is that we humans are the earth. It is more than where we come from, where we go. Indeed, we get our name from ''humus," the word for earth. Did we think we could forget that and not suffer for it?

If the worst case unfolds, and the dreaded transmission mutations occur, avian flu might be taken as nature's revenge for the human despoiling of the planet. The best case will be that this outbreak came as a timely reminder that the health of humanity and the health of nature, including beloved winged creatures, are the same thing.

James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll is a Boston Globe columnist and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. He is the author, among other works, of House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and, most recently, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age.

 

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