Rachel Carson Writes, a War Against Nature is a War Against Ourselves

In order for me to write poetry that isn’t political

I must listen to the birds

and in order to hear the birds

the warplanes must be silent.

– Marwan Makhoul, Palestinian Poet

I Heard a Caged Bird Sing

Two summers ago, I navigated a rocky street in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank of Palestine. A local led me and a dozen other UNC students through the neighborhoods in the early light, pointing out brick apartment buildings housing multiple generations of refugees. I looked up through stacks of balconies and clothes hanging to dry in the salty Mediterranean air and spotted two Palestinian children sitting with their legs threaded through the balcony railings. They watched us, kicking their bare feet in the air and singing like birds, taking turns shoving their fists into a shared bag of snacks. The little girl saw me looking and grinned, then dropped one of her treats onto my head, chortling like a warbler.

If you haven’t before, scroll to the bottom of this page.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as of mid-March, over 13,000 children have been killed in Gaza, while others are so hungry that hospital wards have fallen silent. The kids lack even the energy to cry, let alone fly.

Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani (1936 – 1972) wrote, “I wish children didn’t die. I wish they would be temporarily elevated to the skies until the war ends. Then they would return home safe, and when their parents would ask them: “where were you?”, they would say: “we were playing in the clouds.”

I can’t hear the birds. Can you?

The “Silent Casualty” of the Environment

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson writes, “But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” She likely meant to address our increased separation from land as a species. We in the United States often fancy ourselves superior to animals, immune to the swaying of the seasons and the tides. But Carson also touches the hot wire of another truth. Declaring war on a specific people and land destroys much more.

When I visited Palestine and Israel, I had very little background knowledge of the history of the region. It took ten days of intensive listening for me to feel even vaguely confident in the terms I was using, let alone their meanings. If you feel similarly removed or unaware, take a look at this brief, visual history. It helps, I promise.

In December, ahead of COP28, Al Jazeera published an article discussing the environmental effects of Israel’s war on Gaza. “From polluted water supplies to toxic smoke-filled air from burning buildings and bodies, every aspect of life in Gaza is now filled with some form of pollution,” writes journalist Indlieb Farazi Saber.

People living in Gaza were already on the frontlines of climate change. They’ve had to adapt to rising temperatures, and many have even switched to solar power as a result of Israel’s chokehold on fuel in the region. But after incessant bombing, their solar panels are buried in the rubble of broken buildings.

Israeli forces have destroyed Gaza’s wastewater infrastructure, leading to sewage floods in the streets and the perfect environment for water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid. Groups like Human Rights Watch have also accused Israel of using white phosphorous munitions in Gaza, which further pollute the atmosphere.

In the Guardian, Doug Weir lists some of the impacts of the war on the land: landscape fires, burning oil refineries, diesel-hungry military vehicles, and astronomical carbon emissions.

War is never environmentally friendly. For the first time, researchers are attempting to comprehensively document the carbon emissions from Russia’s war on Ukraine. The best estimate we have so far is that globally, militaries are responsible for 5.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. If the global military were a country, this would place it fourth in terms of its emissions, between India and Russia, according to the Guardian. In 2017, the U.S. military was responsible for 59 million tons of carbon dioxide – equivalent to the overall emissions of Sweden.

The former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said: “The environment has long been a silent casualty of war and armed conflict. From the contamination of land and the destruction of forests to the plunder of natural resources and the collapse of management systems, the environmental consequences of war are often widespread and devastating.”

Despite Everything, the Birds Still Sing

Violence at this magnitude is violence against the land and the people who call it home. The two cannot be disentangled.

In Gaza, families are struggling to find food. They are starving and injured, and the hospitals are in pieces. Gazans have been without food, power, clean water and fresh air for far too long. This is a war on children who are too tired to cry, let alone sing, let alone fly. This is a war on birds.

Image of caged birdsDespite this violence and mass destruction, Palestinians are still listening for the canary’s song. Survivors are seeking out songbirds to distract their families from the sounds of relentless Israeli shelling. The birds partially drown out the violent humming of hovering drones bearing missiles.

Birds of Gaza is a community art project based in the United Kingdom that gives children the opportunity to craft birds in remembrance of each child killed in Israel’s war on Gaza. Take a peek.

I am writing to you through the lens of someone who has had the privilege of standing on Palestinian dirt. I have never walked the streets of Ukraine, Armenia, Sudan, Myanmar, or many of the other nations that are ravaged by genocide, violence, and terror, but don’t let my narrow focus keep you from researching and engaging in those discussions as well.

Stay engaged, you are a witness. And listen for the caged bird’s song.

RCC National Environment Leadership Presidential Fellow – Molly Herring –
University of Santa Cruz

RCC Presidential Fellow Molly Herring is pursuing a Masters in Science Communications from UC Santa Cruz. She recently graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with a double major in Biology and Global Studies and a minor in Creative Nonfiction. She has been published in Oceanographic MagazineCoastal ReviewThe Marine Diaries, and Cellar Door.