by Lynne Huffer
Why did five thousand redwing blackbirds fall out of the sky on New Year’s Eve over the small town of Beebe, Arkansas, turning the ground black and provoking widespread panic? And why, the next day, did one-hundred thousand drum fish die in the Arkansas River?
“The End Times,” my partner Tamara quips.
And sure enough, the news report we’ve been listening to quickly turns to the subject of Biblical prophecy.
“Five thousand birds, one-hundred thousand fish,” the announcer says. “What’s next?”
“Four horsemen riding down the street in Arkansas,” Tamara replies, facing down the television. “It looks like Arkansas is ground zero of the Apocalypse.”
I wasn’t raised with the Book of Revelation the way Tamara was. Her seriously religious Jamaican grandmother used to wash her in the blood of the lamb every time she crossed the threshold of the front door. And her even more seriously religious mother still occasionally sends her pamphlets about the End Times, urging her to give up her sinful ways: her woman-loving (yes, that’s me) lifestyle. It’s never too late to be saved.
These words and images – dead birds and fish, the horsemen of the Apocalypse, the blast of a trumpet in a fiery sky – still make Tamara’s blood run cold, even though she long ago rejected the theology behind them. As for me, my own agnostic-leaning-toward-atheist belief in “whatever it is that makes the grass grow” is fueled more by a Spinozist God-as-Nature than any redemptive flesh on the cross. During childhood, my typically WASP dalliance with the Episcopalian church was all about gaining the approval of Sunday School teachers by memorizing Bible verses. (And yet, despite all those gold stars for my flawless performances, today I’ve somehow managed to forget them all.) My commitment to God was more about an abstract sense of academic achievement – and an obviously fleeting achievement at that – than it was about the salvation of my soul.
The birds falling from the sky over Arkansas like the hail, blood, and fire of the Book of Revelation has no theological resonance for me. But I do know this. If Tamara is right – if the Rapture is coming, if we look back on Arkansas as the beginning of the End – I’d rather be left behind. Left behind to struggle for this spring ephemera: fiddleheads, trillium, dogwood, violet, the impossibly orange flicker of a wild flame azalea William Bartram called “the most gay and brilliant flowering shrub yet known.” In my quiet fidelity to Beebe’s redwing blackbirds and the drum fish of the Arkansas River, I’ll stick with Spinoza who, for all his rationalism, held fast to his own rapturous belief in this thing he called conatus: Life’s stubborn, mysterious, erotic persistence.
The earth may be fragile, but it’s also gay and brilliant. It won’t give that up without a fight. Sinner that I am, I’ll stay for the struggle.