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.Read more