“The Five-Bird Quest”: Finding Meaning in the Lost Bird Project

Gary and Kari with the Passenger Pigeon Lost Bird Sculpture

“Should we sit here?” Kari asks, pointing to a bench. “I think I’ll stand,” chimes in her husband. Only minutes before inside the Grange Audubon Center had they both agreed to an impromptu interview. Now we all stand—or sit—beside the magnificent bronze memorial of the Passenger Pigeon, gifted to the Center by sculptor Todd McGrain. It was this very sculpture which drew Gary and Kari to Columbus, and constituted only one of five stops on an environmental pilgrimage.

Others have come to see the Passenger Pigeon situated on the grounds of Grange Audubon, and others came not long after these pilgrims went on their way. The sculpture is sibling to four similar artworks—all bronze, all by McGrain—to be found across five eastern states as part of the Lost Bird Project. Each sculpture depicts one individual of an extinct North American bird species. The other four members of this lonely company are the Carolina Parakeet, the Heath Hen, the Great Auk, and the Labrador Duck. While each memorial holds a permanent place, a mobile exhibition travels the country every so often. All five birds are featured in their full-size, dark bronze glory alongside the titular documentary exploring McGrain’s project and the histories of the extinct birds. In 2012, one of the tour’s visits would be at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, where Gary would see the film and first feel the impact of its mission.

According to the project’s website, http://www.lostbird.org, more than anything else it seeks to impress upon viewers the use of art in expanding awareness of the interconnectivity of the earth. With Gary, its mission certainly struck home. He would remember the film and its accompanying sculptures for the next several years, and, one day in 2016, come to bring it up to his wife.

“Last year he told me about the show,” Kari explains from her seat on the bench. “I said, ‘why don’t we go see them?’ The first one was just two hours south.”

For this eco-conscious couple it was a direct invitation, a call to adventure. They set off on their trip, which would take part whenever they had the time. The first stop was the Labrador Duck, situated in Elmira, New York. The Pigeon is their second bird, to be soon followed by the Carolina Parakeet in Florida, where the winter weather will be markedly kinder. Visiting the Duck seemed a natural thing to do—but as for the others?

“Well, what a quest!” Gary exclaims. “These are five symbols of the mistakes we made in the past: five reminders of the cost.”

Many would call these sculptures morbid; and, in truth, there’s no denying the sadness of their subjects. But what draws Gary and Kari onwards in their journey is not the depression of the past, but the reminder of what needs to be done for the future. Each sculpture serves as a rallying cry for its viewers to come to the aid of other threatened species before they, too, trade in their animate mortality for an eternity in bronze.

“It’s our responsibility to take care of the land,” Kari tells me. Her voice has more than a trace of forcefulness. “Things are not the way they were back in 1975, when I started birding. Now, ecological diversity is way down in any given place. Many different species have just plummeted.”

Gary cuts in. It’s a common occurrence with the couple, with both of them passionate to share the importance of their mission.

“It’s like a wall,” he says, referring to the placard at the base of each sculpture, each detailing the last sighting of its bird. “Like a murder has taken place, you know? And we have many more species that are on the edge now.”

Among other things, it’s the amount of species “on the edge” that is driving more environmentalists today into a deep pessimism about the future of the earth. In July of this year, New York magazine published a widely read article by David Wallace-Wells entitled The Uninhabitable Earth. Its tone purposely alarmist, it laid out what could, and very possibly might, happen in the near future due to human-imposed climate change. In the scenarios it outlined, untold numbers of species go extinct in the coming decades due to the rising presence of greenhouse gases, a factor that expedited mass extinctions in our planet’s ancient history. Other results included never-ending droughts, a deadly lack of oxygen, and an exponential increase in certain diseases. Many scientists both criticized and supported the essay, and the general public quickly made it go viral.

Where we’re holding our interview, it’s a seemingly perfect day. The end of summer and the beginning of autumn make for a clear sky, warm breeze, and crickets singing in the nearby reeds. On days like this it’s hard to imagine worst-case scenarios such that Wallace-Wells predicts. Whether we can picture them or not, however, climate science has made clear that we will indeed face consequences in the years ahead.

Kari has realized the realities of our situation. What, in her mind, is the greatest threat to the nation’s natural environment today? In a word, Monsanto.

“The biggest risk right now,” she tells me, leaning forward with a steely look, “is the farming. Genetically modified crops, pesticides, herbicides: they don’t stay on farms, and I think a lot of species are feeling the impact of these farm crops. The best thing to do right now is to fight Monsanto.”

But she, along with many other environmentalists, still argues that hope for the future is fully present. Even in the face of such grim reminders as the Lost Birds, prophecies like The Uninhabitable Earth, and the old toxic soil in their very own garden, Gary and Kari keep their courage.

“Grassroots have gone a long ways to making the world a better place,” Kari says. “Cities are far nicer to be in than they were back in the 60s and 70s. We’ve also let a lot more land go back to nature.”

Despite her consciousness of declining wildlife diversity, she still gives credit to the work conservationists have done across the country. “What I’ve seen over the last forty years is the greening of America. We have way more forest than back then, and some endangered species have come back.”

Gary, too, is an optimist for the future, though he knows it will require no small amount of hard work. He maintains, however, that passion projects just like the Lost Bird Project are a key part of motivating people into environmental action. He agrees that it’s not just scientists who have an effect on the field: there’s a deep power in art as well. Everyone can do something to partake in environmental stewardship.

“In the spirit of these birds,” he says solemnly, “we must learn to protect those creatures that cannot protect themselves. Hopefully this will inspire other people to do just that.”

What’s next for them on their journey, I ask.

“The Five-Bird Quest!” Gary says, lighting up as we return to what’s ahead. “Next up is the Carolina Parakeet!”

Wherever their journey takes them, we at the Grange Audubon Center bid them happy travels and thank them for their environmental passion. Anyone wishing to see the Passenger Pigeon sculpture for themselves may visit the Scioto-Audubon Metro Park any day of the week and find it to the left of our front walkway. Singularly beautiful in any season, let the memorial inspire you, as it did Gary and Kari, into action for the protection of our world’s future.

Thanks to Gary H. and Kari M. for their participation and passion.