As we’ve noted in the past, the wonders of National Geographic – unparalleled anywhere else in the Penny Press – come with a price tag. Just as the magazine is capable of infusing your day with the curiosity and sheer joy of exploration (the two exultations on which it was founded), so too is it capable of placing right before your face tragedies about which you might otherwise have known very little. The joys stick with you a long time – just recently, for example, articles on Brazilian caimans rebounding, or on the newly-revealed secrets of the planet Mars – but so do the tragedies … maybe even longer.
Such is the case in the July issue of the magazine, which features an incredibly sobering article on the systematic devastation being wrought on migratory birds by hunters all across the world (basically, everywhere outside the UK and the US). The article was written by Jonathan Franzen with an extremely deft control of the pathos inherent in the subject (that this precise control is missing from his fiction is more than ironic; it’s a sure sign of a missed calling), but as fair as he tries to be, he can’t hide his bafflement, and readers won’t be able to avoid it either. These hunters slaughter migratory birds – songbirds, sea birds, even storks and cranes – for the most ad hoc of reasons, or no reason at all, and Franzen does a wonderful job of conveying how it both confuses and tortures him.
I think he’s if anything too earnest in trying to extend empathy to a bunch of trigger-happy gun-nuts. Without exception, regardless of native country or language, the hunters he interviews for the piece display the same low-burn psychopathic exhilaration; they know they’re doing something objectively horrific. They know they’re acting out of simple bloodlust. Despite his own shock and revulsion, Franzen tries to offer them some understanding, even on cultural grounds:
But the political and cultural divide between the West and the Middle East is also daunting. The basic message of environmental “education” is, unavoidably, that Egyptians should stop doing what they’ve always done; and the concerns of a bird-smitten nation like England, whose colonization of Egypt is in any case still resented, seem as absurd and meddling as a Royal Society for the Protection of Catfish would seem to rural Mississippians.
The article is accompanied by heartbreaking photos by David Guttenfelder and gorgeous low-key color illustrations by Mesa Schumacher, and the whole package does what National Geographic always does: it enormously and effectively informs. That process is the same whether the information deals with the glorious birth of a star or the latest travesty perpetrated by humans. And it’s important – indeed, a duty – to read both … but it’s not easy.