Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world

Conversation 62

This Isn’t a Conversation
Kathryn Mockler

The Cormorant
J.R. McConvey

On a crisp day in early fall, the government held a public meeting to address their plan to introduce a hunting season for cormorants. The birds were not much loved, or at least had that reputation; they were accused of stripping once-lovely islands bare of greenery with their waste, and ravaging local fish populations to the detriment of leisure and industry. Still, they had their defenders, who claimed the hunt was cruel and unjust. 

As attendees filed into the meeting hall, they naturally split into two camps, seated on opposite sides of the room. On one side were hunt proponents: mainly representatives from the Lakefront Residents’ Association and the Anglers’ Federation. On the other were conservationists, birders and scientists from various disciplines, there to argue that what was being framed as a cull was, in fact, no more than a license to wanton slaughter. 

The murmuring crowd settled as the Minister of Nature and the Environment made her way to the podium at the front of the room, flanked by three aides tapping at phones. 

“Good afternoon,” the minister said. “As you all know, we’re here to have a conversation about the province’s proposed cormorant hunt, and the impact these birds have on local habitats.” 

“Bet your buzzards we are!” yelled one of the anglers, who received a brusque shushing from a senior member of the Residents’ Association. 

“Well, I guess we’re ready to begin voicing opinions!” said the minister, not without bite. “We’ll start with brief introductions, which means that any group wishing to speak should elect a spokesperson.” At once, the senior member of the Residents’ Association stood, waving a sheaf of marked-up foolscap like a dinner bell. 

“I think it needs to be stated, up front, how destructive these birds are to our natural environment,” he said, gearing up for an oration that was clearly rehearsed. “Beautiful islands have been defiled, their trees stripped by mountains of foul-smelling guano! Residents have had their water supply tainted! And fish stocks are collapsing as a result of the birds’ voracious appetites. Minister, fellow members of our beautiful lakefront community, we mustn’t simply allow the hunt to go on—we must shoot until the skies and shores are clear of these vermin!” 

A few members of the Residents’ Association applauded. The chairman of the Anglers’ Federation stood up to speak next, but a small bearded man wearing a “Bird Nerd” T-shirt interrupted him. 

“No way,” he said, shaking his head with vigour, face red as a cranberry. “Nope. Your side had a say. Now we get a turn. You want to talk about destroying nature? I’ll tell you how pesticides brought cormorants to the brink of extinction here as recently as the 1970s. I’ll tell you that putting no limit on possession, with no requirement to use the birds for food, means that any sadist with a small game license could legally kill thousands of them a year, just for a kick. This isn’t a hunt, it’s a massacre!” 

His supporters offered a spirited cheer and shook cardboard signs. 

“Well, okay,” said the minister, frowning. “You have a point. We’ll hear from the anglers next.” She pointed her pen at the chairman of the Anglers’ Federation, who tapped the side of his nose as though acknowledging a secret between them, even though everyone was watching. 

“What a sham!” shouted one of the conservationists, a big woman with a booming voice. “Minister, do you have any intention of conducting a meaningful conversation here? Or can we dispense with the theatre and assume that you’ve already been paid for your complicity?” A sizzle shot through the crowd. The Bird Nerd came to stand beside the conservationist, binoculars hanging from his fist like a spiked flail. Others joined. The conservationist pointed a thick finger at the podium. “Well?” 

During the moment in which the minister paused, suspended in the possibility of danger that important public officials carry around with them like a toxic cloud, a man dressed in a neat grey suit appeared to drift from the back of the room to the front, where he came to stand beneath a provincial flag pinned to the yellow walls. When he spoke, it was to address the whole crowd, albeit from off to one side, so that everyone had to crane their necks to watch him stare down the minister. 

“Equal say is important,” said the man, who made no effort to identify himself. “Profoundly so. Indeed, all of us here may take a turn to speak—and yet, at the end of it, could we truly say we’d heard from the most integral voice? Alas, no. As it stands, that voice is absent. I believe this to be a grave injustice, which demands to be remedied. Would you not agree?” 

The minister, who couldn’t agree until she knew what the man was talking about, knew that the only way to learn more was to agree, nonetheless. 

“Of course!” she said. “We need to bring those voices forward, if and when the opportunity arises, and with due respect to process.” She smiled, taking a moment to taste the evasion on her lips like sweet milk before moving on with the meeting.

The man countered with a half-smirk, one side of his mouth rigid, the other curled up in bemusement. 

“There is,” he said, “no time like the present. May I be permitted to introduce into the proceedings a guest witness—someone who can speak more directly to the issue than any of us here?” 

“This is hardly due process!” yelled the Bird Nerd.

The minister laughed, as though she’d witnessed a splendid pony trick. 

“Oh, come,” she said. “This isn’t National Defence. We’re talking about birds! Let’s see who this gentleman has hidden behind the curtain.” She gestured to give her assent. 

“Excellent,” said the man in the grey suit. “With no further delay, allow me to call to full account the soul on whose fate we have gathered today to deliberate—with the understanding that true accountability is only possible when conducted face to face.” 

At this, a side door burst open, hammering the wall. A sterile silence followed, ushering in a faint tang of ammonia and dead fish. Then, clattering in on an AV cart pushed by a hunched, balding fellow with a droopy moustache, appeared the quarry itself: an oily black cormorant of the double crested variety, its hooked beak framed by a golden throat and shocked, hungry eyes the colour of blue topaz. Although the bird was not visibly restrained, two tall, broad men in polo shirts followed closely behind the cart, one carrying a catch pole with a wire loop at the end, the other a small dart gun. The bird’s feathers ruffled as the cart thumped over the pitted floor tiles, coming to a stop not four feet from the minister’s podium. 

The minister frowned, visibly agitated by the cormorant’s presence in the room. 

“Well?” she said. “What do you have to say for yourself, bird?” 

The cormorant pecked itself under the left wing, then spoke. 

“First off, let me say that I’d really rather not be here today.” Its voice was a gluey, guttural croak that made many in the crowd wince. “Water bird and all. But I was made to understand that there’s a risk of significant harm coming to my community. So I was compelled to come and speak on our behalf.” At the word ‘compelled,’ the bird thrust its curled neck toward the man in the grey suit, as though preparing to vomit up a rotten sardine. The room quivered with anxiety, a huge gelatin mold of tender nerves. 

“As I understand it, I’m here to provide context and information,” said the cormorant, partially extending a wing. “I know a lot of you see us as pests. Or worse, invaders. But if you look back at pre-contact populations, and the postwar decline that followed the introduction of DDT and other toxic pesticides, you’ll see why studies suggest we’re actually—”

“Studies!” spat a member of the Anglers’ Federation. “From a damn bird!” 

This drew a lusty cheer from his fellow anglers and residents, which in turn triggered a tumble of boos from the other side of the room. Unchecked yelling ensued, while the minister looked to her aides for rescue.  

The cormorant’s song is neither lovely nor especially loud, so the bird had trouble cutting through the din, finally resorting to a frenzied flapping of its wings to get everyone’s attention.

“Look!” it said, half-word, half-retch. “The big question here is, why? I know, I know: we shit everywhere. But trust me, you don’t want to know how much untreated sewage gets ‘accidentally’ flushed into your lake every day. Yes, we eat a lot of fish. But let’s be honest—you people put pucks of tuna in cans by the literal billions. Your yards are beautiful, and honestly, we’re trying to respect—”

“Filthy vandals!” 

Again, the interruption came from the pro-hunt side, this time from a woman from the Residents’ Association with hair the colour of barbecue chips. 

“The indignity you monsters have visited on my hydrangeas—no respect at all!” 

“This bird is a menace!”

“Kill it now!” 

The calls for retribution came fast and loud, knots of anger unspooling into whips of wrath. People stood on chairs and shook fists. The anti-hunt camp recoiled at first, shocked by the fervour with which these people hated the cormorant (and, truth be told, a little nauseated by the insistent tang of smelts in the air). But they soon found their mettle and sprang back, their anger stoked by their opponents’ crude ignorance; they waved signs and shouted rebuffs, calling them murderers and fools. The minister had retreated behind her hand, where she was engaged in an extensive round of whispering to her chief aide. After a few minutes of chaos, she picked up a metal water bottle sitting on the podium and clanged it on the wood until the room was quiet again. Beside her, on the cart, the cormorant nervously nibbled at a trout scale gleaming in its feathers. 

“All right, everyone,” said the minister. “Let’s just shut up for a moment, shall we? Before we send this devil bird back to the hell it came from, I want to return to the point about us not having heard from a full spectrum of voices in the conversation. Well, sir, I’d like to know who exactly it is that you’re here to speak for.” She shook the water bottle at the man in the grey suit, who had stayed back from the kerfuffle, quietly observing with his skewed, hook-like smile intact. 

“Honourable Minister,” he said. “I represent a consortium of interests in the commercial fisheries—many small, independent fishermen among them. Honest, hardworking people. Did you know that our beautiful province is home to the largest freshwater fishery in North America? Of course you did. You’re the minister.” At this, he raised his hand and pinched his fingers into a fleshy beak tapering to polished nails that spoke of neither hard work nor honesty. “A bird as loathsome as this, who pecks away at fish stocks”—the finger-beak snapping forcefully on every stressed syllable—“likewise pecks away at the economy. The lifeblood of your constituents.” The beak became an extended index finger, a direct accusation. “Are you telling me and everyone here that you’re willing to compromise good people’s ability to feed their families over the welfare of a stinking bird?”

Whether he intended to continue, or whether his question was part of the cue, there were no more words. A loud thunk gave way to crazed screaming, as a trio of masked figures pounded through the door and ran down the centre aisle, each bearing a large plastic drum sloshing with chunky broth. In choreographed turn, they halted before the podium, hoisted their drums and pitched the contents forward, emptying a storm of bloody chum all over the minister and her aides. Bones, fins and plum-dark organs spattered against skin and linoleum. A pungent reek flooded the room, sour blood and minerally offal. After seconds of horrified silence, the crowd erupted in screams and curses. Scrambling to flee, people on both sides knocked over chairs and snack tables, scattering cookies across the floor and spilling a puddle of scalding coffee in the corner. The minister stood, petrified, covered in piscine slime, breathing in heaves that were half-rasp, half-screech. 

Now, however, no voice was louder than that of the cormorant. 

Flapping wildly on the AV cart, trying in heroic fashion to stifle the croaking fit that had seized it as soon as the first fishbone hit the minister’s lapel, the cormorant quickly drowned out the crowd with its tortured gagging. Around the room, people stopped and turned to find the source of the terrible sound. The sudden quiet made it all the worse when the bird, unbound from its polite, presentable self by an inability to see such gifts go to waste, launched from the cart, wings beating in chopper-blade blasts, and drove its hooked beak into a tidbit of perch liver that had landed on the minister’s right eye. It pecked twice, removing the organ and the ocular jelly beneath, then moved on to her left eye, plucking out the meat like the innards of a snail. It continued gnashing at the face of the screaming minister until the man in the grey suit nodded his head and the man with the catch pole stepped forward, whipped the loop over the cormorant’s head and tugged the handle to tighten the wire, cutting a clean line through the bird’s neck. With a ruby spritz, its tufted head flipped forward and fell, glancing off of the AV cart on its way to the floor, where it lay like a dropped wallet, gemlike eyes paling to dull grey. 

While sirens moaned in the distance and the minister’s aides tried to calm her frantic, blood-choked screams, the man in the grey suit flicked a downy wisp off his sleeve and said, to no one in particular, “I believe we have a resolution.” 

*

That November, dead cormorants piled up in mounds along the waterfront, an oily sludge of steel-chewed carcasses, tangled reeds and plastic waste that blanketed the shoreline for kilometres at a stretch. Feathers choked the creeks and streams, poxed the rivers with black eddies and mires. The stench of death wafted through the region, an earthy sweet spirit that sickened the wind and seeped through sealed windows and haunted the tap water, casting a gloomy pall over the impending holidays. 

And so, soon enough, a meeting was called to address the problem—with the understanding that, even in death, the cormorant would be made to atone. 

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