I wrote this five years ago for a nonfiction writing class. My topic was a bald eagle webcam in D.C. that went viral. I set out to write a light-hearted essay, but I found that the more I thought about the eagle cam, the more my thoughts were directed back to theological questions. I realized that if I could relate something as far afield as an eagle webcam to God, maybe I should focus more on my interest in religion. Five years later, I think it holds up. I‘d love to hear your thoughts about it.
Adorable Eagles: Can We Commune with Nature Through a Webcam?
When two bald eagles hatched at the National Arboretum in D.C. live on a webcam, the fanfare that followed bridged the ideological-political divide in an exceptional way.
Fox News ran feel-good segments about the eagles, the snarky feminist blog Jezebel published a somewhat ironic post about the birds and Jill Biden tweeted to congratulate the eagle parents. The spokesperson for the nonprofit that runs the camera told me that the feed got more than 35 million views in just a few months.
When I first tuned into the eagle feed, I saw one of the adult eagles towering over two mangy gray chicks. The nest swayed in the wind and eventually one of the chicks laid its head face down into the nest.
Watching the cameras certainly wasn’t thrilling, but there was something about the feed that made me want to keep watching. Perhaps it was the experience of looking at these striking creatures that are so different from us — as the adult bird turned to face the camera, I saw that it had a sharp yellow beak and these piercing black eyes.
Intrigued, I looked through the eagle cam website to learn more about the birds. It was then that I found the disclaimer.
“This is a wild eagle’s nest and anything can happen,” read italicized text in a gray box below the video feed. “While we hope that two healthy juvenile eagles will end up fledging from the nest this summer, things like sibling rivalry, predators, and natural disasters can affect this eagle family and may be difficult to watch.”
The United States has a long tradition of people feeling inspiration and even religious transcendence in nature. In an 1836 essay, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that the happiest person is someone who learns “the lesson of worship” from nature. Very often, the inspired observers of this tradition felt small in comparison to the totality of the universe that surrounded them. Many of them were challenged physically by their surroundings. At the very least, they spent time outside.
But nature now comes with a disclaimer, as people watch it while sitting at room temperature, sometimes thousands of miles away. I wondered about the experience of people whose only encounter with nature happened through a video feed. Why do so many people watch the feed? Do they ever experience something like what Emerson felt while walking in the Massachusetts woods?
For the next year, I couldn’t shake this question of whether people could have a transcendental experience through a webcam. I scoured Twitter, the Facebook page of the nonprofit that runs the webcam and Google search results for anyone who saw something deeper in the video feed. But in comments online people discussed how “adorable” the eagles were, made patriotic statements about the eagles and asked scientific questions about them. Sylvia Peters, a Facebook user whose profile picture shows a parrot, commented, “Watched a feeding a few minutes ago. The eaglets ate lots and looked too cute!”
Throughout American history, the people with the closest contact with eagles would not have described them as cute. As recently as 1971, the New York Times reported that 770 eagles were slaughtered in Wyoming by men shooting rifles out of helicopters. (Although one of the men involved claimed that the vast majority of the birds, which were slaughtered to protect livestock, were golden eagles and not bald eagles.) Still, as the scholar Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence explains, some classic figures in American history also despised the birds. The naturalist Charles Audubon wrote that bald eagles have a “fierce, overbearing and tyrannical temper” and Benjamin Franklin, criticizing the decision to put the eagle on the American seal, wrote to his daughter that the eagles are “of bad moral character.”
The conception of the birds as adversaries fits into one way Americans have thought about the wild. As the scholar Roderick Nash wrote, “For most of their history, Americans regarded wilderness as a moral and physical wasteland fit only for conquest and fructification in the name of progress, civilization and Christianity.”
But gradually, as the American frontier disappeared from public view, this vision of nature as an adversary was generally supplemented by Emerson’s and Henry David Thoreau’s view of nature. For these romantics, nature was a wellspring of beauty, a source of masculine vitality and a setting for religious inspiration.
While I very much admire people like Emerson and Thoreau’s insights into divinity through nature, they were by no means saints. Their conceptions of nature were loaded with hypocrisy and exclusivity. As has been so often cited, Thoreau’s family brought him food and did his laundry while he was living in the woods during his experiment at Walden Pond. And when the canonical thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century described man in nature, they were thinking of men (not women), and men who were white.
Beyond the critique of the romantic approach to nature as being exclusive, I wondered why prominent intellectuals today so rarely talk about wonder in nature. Yes, spiritually-inclined and outdoorsy people celebrate nature, but the dominant secular intellectual world of today seems not to be concerned with divinity in nature. One of the best-known writers who discusses nature is Michael Pollan, who in his writing breaks down the barrier between humanity and nature. In his book “Botany of Desire” Pollan argued that plants and humans often evolve together. Tulips, marijuana, apples and potatoes were all bred to bring out characteristics that were mutually beneficial for the plants and humans.
While Pollan is certainly onto something when it comes to how we relate to nature, I wondered whether there is room in Pollan’s approach for Emerson’s revelry in nature. In fact, headier writers like U.C. Berkeley Professor Jake Kosek go even further than Pollan in breaking down the nature/human divide. Kosek’s bio on the U.C. Berkeley website describes how he has been “exploring how the flow of knowledge between bees and human collective behavior has remade discourses of modern citizenship and populations.” I was left asking, if we focus on the ways we are in this material interplay with nature, can we still lose ourselves in it?
Another modern approach is to see nature in terms of environmentalism. In fact, it seemed that at least some of the organizers behind the D.C. eagle cam had an environmental aim in setting up the eagle cam. Dan Rauch, a D.C. biologist attached to the project, told me, “If people become emotionally attached and really care about eagles, maybe that will make them care for these dynamic ecosystems that these species require.”
It is clear that there is value to the environmentalist perspective, particularly when it comes to bald eagles. In large part due to the pesticide D.D.T., the population of bald eagles in the contiguous United States declined from about a hundred thousand in the 1700s to fewer than 500 nesting pairs during the 1960s, according to The American Eagle Foundation, which runs the D.C. eagle webcam. But thanks to the ban on D.D.T. and conservation efforts, the bald eagle population has boomed in recent years. In 2007 the species was removed from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s list of endangered or threatened species.
While this victory and the environmentalist perspective more generally are worth celebrating, if we only think about nature in terms of something that needs to be protected, it seems like we are again missing out on a deeper meaning nature has to offer. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that thinking in terms of the mainstream secular ways of conceiving of nature left little room for rehabilitating the Emersonian approach. Seeing nature only in terms of its material links to humanity or environmentalism leaves little space for transcendence.
And so I returned to scouring the internet. I remained convinced that I would find someone who described the eagle cam in transcendental terms. I clicked and clicked through Facebook comments, tweets, Google search results and media reports.
I stumbled on another post about the eagles on the feminist blog Jezebel. The writer sarcastically wrote, “Isn’t nature the best? I think the only thing that’s better than nature is TV.” I am willing to admit that the internet isn’t a good place to find earnest conversations of pretty much anything, but would it really be so hard to show some sincerity?
But then, deep in search results, I found Rose Booth.
Booth is a Christian blogger in Kentucky. A post on her blog, “The Gospel According to Eagles,” described the eagle cam through her Christian lens. She remarked at how the eagles share parenting duties, work hard to preserve their nuclear families and put their protection in the hands of God. Her blog post concluded that the eagle’s dedication to their eggs was a reminder of pro-life, anti-abortion values.
Despite what I believe is Booth’s projection of her Christian values onto the eagles and her political views that I found to be objectionable, I connected to how much Booth was in awe of the eagles. She wrote, “When I watch these cams, I’m completely enamored at the intricacy of creation.”
Curious to learn more about Booth, I reached out to her by Twitter and we exchanged a few emails. Booth seemed like a pleasant person and was sincere in her beliefs, but she didn’t offer a worldview I could ascribe to. She told me that she is “not a big fan of the theory of evolution/the big bang.” When I asked Booth about the disclaimer on the eagle cam that warned that things could go wrong for the eagles, she referred to a verse from Mark and wrote that God was protecting the eagles.
It felt like I was being presented with two contradicting paradigms that were each inadequate in their own ways. I had already found the secular approaches to be uninterested in describing wonder in nature. Now I was offered Booth’s Christian outlook, which had the benefit of offering a space and a vocabulary with which to describe the awesomeness of nature, but whose theology seemed to offer problematic and skimpy answers.
Ultimately, it seemed that I wouldn’t be able to find what I was looking for on the internet — I couldn’t find anyone who at once described the magnificence of the eagles without adopting theological positions I find to be deeply flawed. And yet, people still watched the eagle cam. I couldn’t help but think that I wasn’t alone in wanting a coherent prism that offered space for marveling at the eagles.
Tired of the internet, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
The National Arboretum was a fifteen-minute drive from my apartment in Washington, DC. Based on my research, I knew approximately where the eagles’ nest was. Rauch, the wildlife biologist, had told me that there was a perimeter of 660 feet around the nest to keep visitors out. “They couldn’t find a more secure area to find a nest,” he said. “It’s on federal property, it’s closed at night and there’s a full security team.”
I didn’t plan on breaking laws to see the eagles, but I wanted to get as close as I could. As much as possible, I wanted to bridge the gap between myself and the nest.
It was a sunny day in late March. After driving through the arboretum gates, I turned right onto Azalea Lane. Immediately, I saw a metal barrier with signs explaining that this was an “eagle protection area” and that cars weren’t allowed to continue on the road. I parked and proceeded on foot.
I realized how much the eagle cam experience was missing because it doesn’t have sound. I heard the whooshing of the wind in the trees, cars passing by loudly on a nearby road and even the D.C. Metro screeching in the distance. The eagles live in a noisy world.
I was reminded of how even Thoreau’s pristine cabin in Walden was disrupted by the sounds of nearby trains. It would seem that from the outset, the ideal of pure contemplation in a pristine wilderness was just that — an ideal.
I walked for a half hour, through empty, not-quite-blooming Azalea gardens and into a poplar grove.
An arboretum groundskeeper passed me in a golf cart-like vehicle. Would he think I was here to break the law in my quest to get close to the eagles?
He smiled, waved at me and continued on.
Thirty yards down the road, I made it to a metal barricade with a sign telling me I should go no further.
Anxious that I was being foolish, I sat on a wooden fence. I took out my iPhone and pulled up the D.C. eagle webcam. One of the adult eagles stood there, looking away from the camera, pruning its feathers. The two eaglets lounged around below her, doing nothing.
Now I could hear the same wind as the eagles, and I watched their nest sway gently. Even in their most banal moments there was something spectacular about these birds. More than their striking yellow beaks or their stately faces, I appreciated the simple fact that these creatures were alive and putzing around and that I could watch them. Even if our perception of the natural world is caught up in the mud of our twenty-first-century reality, something about the spectacularness of nature is inescapable.
Our challenges in seeing awe in nature are different from previous eras. Previous generations had to contend with even more oppression that we do, which denied most people the space to appreciate nature. They also had to overcome humanity’s adversarial relationship with nature in order to see its beauty.
I thought back to the sarcasm of the Jezebel blog posts. The fact that the website posted the video feed showed that Jezebel readers were getting something out of watching the eagles — but they seemed so reluctant to admit it. Could it be that this sarcasm was a defense mechanism? Does describing the incredibleness of the world mean showing vulnerability in a cold, jaded world?
Of course, Rose Booth in Kentucky had no trouble marveling at the eagles. As correct as I believe the secular world is about so many things, it seems people who live in this world will always feel like something is missing unless they learn from people like Booth and her shamelessly unironic ability to apprehend wonder. After all, Booth had said it best. Even as I stared at my phone, here was the intricacy of creation.