I woke up early. Since Sierra was born, I hadn’t been able to sleep past six. Daylight savings had fallen back and the dawn light was leaking over our South LA neighborhood. I brewed a pot of coffee and made my way outside to write and take attendance of the morning, a mindfulness practice of noticing the flora and fauna around me. I had been meditating this way for years, learning to see and hear again. For weeks now, flying insects had been missing. No swatting at flies or mosquitos. But that day there was something else missing. Something was wrong.
It was quiet. I listened for a beat. Then two. No buzzing. No tweets, no chirps, no caws. The air felt thick with noiselessness.
For months I had been following the hashtag #wherearethebirds. I’d heard a scientist talking about it on the radio. At higher elevations, the disappearance of flying insects was followed by the disappearance of small Aves. But it wasn’t birds falling from the sky, emaciated, like we’d seen across the desert during the early fall migration. No, this time the birds were just gone, like the insects, sucked into the atmosphere as it stretched upward, the air thinning around them.
I stood in the front yard, drinking my coffee, awed by the silence and then frightened. It was happening here near sea level, which meant it was happening everywhere. Where were all of the birds going? And if the birds were disappearing, what exactly did that mean for all of us?
I pulled out my phone and found the #wherearethebirds hashtag trending. BirdLife International had, for the first time ever, spotted no songbirds in Central Park, and in St. Louis a warbler tracker hadn’t heard a single warble all morning. I wasn’t the only one noting the absences, and now that the West Coast was awake, we were playing catch up with the East Coast and Midwest, who had already been birdless for hours.
I set down my phone and remembered the words of Dr. Suzumi this past Saturday, at the end of a college football game in Colorado where the Buffalos scored a field goal from seventy yards away. “We’ve always noted shifts in density at higher elevations. But as gravity weakens, the air thins for airplanes, insects, birds, and possibly footballs,” she’d said. “This field goal could indicate a rapid, more severe shift in our global density. Insects and birds disappearing could mean additional shifts in our planet’s weights and measures.”
The front door opened behind me, and Sierra, my seven-year-old daughter, walked into the morning light. She was sometimes an early riser and didn’t like to be inside the house when I was outside. She joined me, settling onto my lap.
“Morning, Sweet Pea,” I said as she nuzzled in close.
“Morning, Mama,” she replied, her voice raspy with sleep. “The sky is pretty,” she added as she gazed toward the east. We sat there, in the stillness, and I could feel her small breaths, in and out, in and out. I didn’t say anything and let the silence settle. “Where are the birds, Mama? It’s too quiet.”
I took a deep breath. “I know, Sweets. I was afraid it might happen.” I placed my palm on the top of her head, her soft brown hair warm from bed and sleep. “Honey, the birds are gone.”
“Wait,” she jolted up and peered at me with those big brown eyes that looked like her father’s. She looked around, searching the empty sky, telephone wires, and tree limbs. “Where did they go?”
I searched for the right words. “Well, with mining and fracking and glacial melt, the planet’s density is shifting. Earth is not as heavy as it was and this is weakening its gravitational pull. The air is thinning. Some birds are migrating, looking for food elsewhere, but the smaller ones…” I paused. Saying it sounded unbelievable. “The little ones … could be lifting into outer space.”
“Lifting into outer space?!” She asked. “Why would they do that?!”
I looked up at the morning sky growing lighter as we spoke.
Sierra gazed around again, listening to the silence. “Oh,” she said with a shrug. “Well, I hope they come back. I miss them.” And with that she skittered off my lap to kick a soccer ball. I smiled, watching her little girl body dance across the grass, but what would growing up look like for her? How would scientists be able to explain these global changes to the public so we understood the gravity of the situation and could take action? And with scientists conflicted about the disappearance of insects, I wondered how the public would respond. Maybe with the birds no longer here, in the silence they left behind, people would listen.
I sipped my coffee, and stared at the morning sky, transformed from yellow and pink to bright blue. Sunlight filtered through the trees casting long shadows across the yard. The morning was so beautiful, I started to cry. Ever since I had become a mom, I cried about everything, but as my daughter played in that muted, birdless dawn light, I worried about our world and the future. We already had solar panels on the roof. We drove electric cars, and only traveled when we had to, but as much as people told us every little bit counted, these emerging gravity issues felt like a tipping point. What could we do about gravity?
It seemed that until the sun failed to rise, people would continue with their daily lives. We would adjust. Maybe Major League Baseball and tennis would weigh down baseballs and tennis balls, or the NFL would shift the value of a field goal. Clothing companies would weight hems and airlines would praise the new levels of fuel efficiency. This was how we would respond to a threatened world, we would figure out how to make life go on as usual.
I watched as Sierra juggled a soccer ball. She strung together six touches of the ball in a row then balanced it on the top of her foot like a professional athlete. I wondered if she’d suddenly gotten better at controlling it, or if density shifts had caused the ball to lift like a helium balloon. Losing the momentary balance, the ball rolled toward me, and I nudged it back to her.
Life carried on, but what about when it couldn’t? What would we do then? Would Sierra be able to make a life in a world like this? Would it resemble the lives we’d led? Would she have the chance to grow up or would this planet no longer sustain her generation or the next? Would she remember that birds once sang to us every morning, or would this become legend, a memory from some long-ago time when magical flying creatures sang as the sun came up? Back then, we burned gasoline that polluted our skies. Back then, we knew we were ruining the planet but were more concerned with profits and growth than sustainability. Back then, we could have made changes, but we didn’t. And the new world that followed? What would it be like? Birdless, hot, and weighted down so we wouldn’t drift away.
My tears were small but light on my skin. I wiped them away to make sure they didn’t float from my eyes. I couldn’t understand why we weren’t all constantly in tears, trying to make sense of the planet’s destruction. But it was like all of the injustices in the world. How did we make sense of all that was wrong? How did we keep breathing?
Drew came back from his run then, and I dried my face. “You okay, babe?” he asked, and I nodded even though I wasn’t.
I wondered if he’d noticed the birds. “How was your run?”
“It was good,” Drew answered and then he kicked the ball to Sierra. “It’s really quiet today, right? ‘It was the quietest night ever.’”
We laughed. This was a line from a murder documentary we’d watched where a neighbor described the night of a terrible crime as the quietest night on the street ever. Whenever someone mentioned the quiet, we made this joke. We’d been making it for decades.
Just as he turned back toward me, Sierra kicked her soccer ball into the neighbor’s yard three doors down, at least two hundred feet away. She turned to us, awed by her own power. Drew raised an eyebrow, “Did Sierra just . . . ?” He asked, and I nodded. “Maybe we have a soccer phenom on our hands,” he said before he left to chase down the ball.
They passed the ball back and forth between themselves, delighted by its buoyancy, but I didn’t know how much longer I could make light of things. “Or maybe we’ve woken up to a quiet new world,” I said. But nobody heard me.