Songbirds in the Suburbs

House finches, Costco, and remaking the American wild.


It was gearing day—24 hours in San Diego to gather everything we’d need for our three-week field course in the Sea of Cortez—and Veronica and I had decided to commence our mission at Costco. But we’d barely made it through the low-lying archipelago of special offers and sale items before all the sumptuous distractions started getting to me. The vast sample trays filled with tiny paper cups of vanilla pudding; the long row of HD-TV screens all showing the same animated movie, which leaped and danced in a garish and precise can-can line; the intriguing contents of other people’s passing carts—it all seemed to exert a strong centrifugal pull on my attention, and the only means of resistance I could discover was to start small quarrels with Veronica. At least, I think that’s the real reason I wouldn’t stop making fun of the oversized tub of maraschino-red licorice twists, which she said she was buying for movie night at the field station.

Exasperated, Veronica finally sent me off to the pharmacy section to restock our first-aid kit. But since I lack any innate sense of direction, I figured my best chance of finding the pharmacy without getting irretrievably lost was to walk transects—the systematic to-and-fro one would trace in an ecological survey. And so, starting with one edge of the warehouse, I marched with my gaze fastened straight ahead, determined to resist the sirensong of HD-TV and all the other appeals for attention. To my left, the glass cases of frozen meats passed as a beige-pink blur, and on my right, the openings to aisles flashed in the corner of my eye—bright malls I felt determined to refuse. But as I walked by the bakery, with its distinctive scent of glazed donuts, a sudden grey flicker pierced the sidewall of my private tunnel.

It was a house finch: a small brownish-grey bird with a red head, which meant he was a male. On the smooth cement floor, he hopped, pecked, paused to tilt his head and observe the ground, and pecked again. The movements were quick and exact, at once mechanical and vibrantly alive. He flitted up to a table, where he perched on the edge of a plastic bin and fixed me with a tiny eye—a pinhead of glossy obsidian.

Since I lack any innate sense of direction, I figured my best chance of finding the pharmacy without getting irretrievably lost was to walk transects—the systematic to-and-fro one would trace in an ecological survey.

People were passing close to him, talking on their phones, reaching into the bin for flats of muffins, but he didn’t seem to mind. He stayed right where he was, and kept his eye trained on me. Evidently, it was my own behavior that seemed suspicious, not everyone else’s. He hopped a quick, irritated 180, and fixed me with his other eye: Why the sudden interest? he seemed to ask.

Eventually, Veronica found me by the muffin bin, watching a small bird forage for crumbs.

“Oh, that’s right,” her voice said behind me, “you were supposed to go to the bakery, to look for birds.”

At first I tried to explain: Why the interest? the bird had seemed to ask, and it was really my own question, of course, not his—

“Pharmacy?” Veronica said, and for the rest of the day, I forgot all about the house finch. But later, staring blankly at propagating waves of brakelights—5 p.m. on the I-5—or examining, in my boredom, the tub of red licorice, which we had ended up wedging under the windshield when it had proved a maddening remainder of otherwise perfect packing, I thought again of the bird and the question it had provoked: Why treat Costco as a swirl of unwanted distractions, whereas a little grey bird instantly receives rapt attention? Or to phrase it, frankly, as more of an indictment: Why can’t I enter Costco with the same sort of curiosity I would bring to a forest full of birds? Why can’t I, for instance, pick a product off the shelf and try to understand its origin and design, or the challenge of its manufacture, or the meaning of its widespread appeal?

Evidently, it was my own behavior that seemed suspicious, not everyone else’s.

Veronica was on her phone, resolving some complication with tomorrow’s border-crossing, so I settled into the numb rhythms of driving and began to puzzle over Costco on my own. Was there, I wondered, a real difference? Some critical distinction that made a warehouse of stuff less rewarding to investigate than a forest of birds? What occurred to me first was that the distinction might lie in ecology, for if Costco is viewed as a kind of foodweb, it exhibits drastic simplification, with all those thousands of products going straight to a single top consumer. In contrast, the forest’s ecological network is reticulate and integrated, with each organism affecting many others. So maybe that’s what makes the forest feel whole and coherent, whereas Costco gives you that fragmented, centrifugal feeling—too much stuff for you alone.

And yet, if one thinks just a bit less literally, ecological links do begin to appear, tracing their way throughout the warehouse. Certainly there is something like ecological competition (Powerbar versus Luna), as well as symbiosis (DVDs and red licorice). And if one were keen about discerning cultural or symbolic relationships between otherwise disparate items—Barbie dolls and treadmills, for instance—then surely the warehouse’s ecological network would light up like a cobweb in the sun. And finally, to suggest that Costco lacks real ecology is to ignore a point of history: Early ecological thinkers, including Charles Darwin himself, found their most instructive metaphors in Adam Smith’s theories of the free market. And if Darwin saw ecosystems as economies, it ought to be possible to invert the metaphor.

Ecology, then, was not going to offer the meaningful difference I was after. But every other distinction I tried—evolved versus designed, natural versus manufactured—failed just as soundly to vindicate my disposition toward the warehouse. At that point, I began to feel a bit like a detective whose investigation is steadily gathering clues that point unmistakably to himself: What made Costco less interesting than a forest was not Costco, or the forest, but me.

But what was my problem? Why couldn’t I get excited about Costco?

Ignorance, probably. If I knew a bit more—some engineering, maybe, or economics—then surely I could approach Costco with real focus and interest. I remembered, for instance, what Primo Levi, the Italian chemist and writer, could find inside an ordinary can of housepaint: a mini-drama of molecular affinities; a distillation of professional success or failure; a gift to posterity or an ugly reminder of a chemist’s incompetence. Just imagine, then, what he might have done with our bucket of synthetic licorice twists.

Why can’t I enter Costco with the same sort of curiosity I would bring to a forest full of birds?

For five miles of traffic, I felt quite satisfied with my mea culpa: Costco could be truly engaging, if only I would follow the example of writers like Levi, who could read the manufactured world in such fascinating ways. But before I could make good my new resolution, it soured.

I remember exactly where it happened, because the street signs had something to do with it. We had just exited the highway and were now entering a vast residential development, where some friends had generously offered their home as base camp for gearing day. I was beginning to feel uneasy, wishing Veronica would get off the phone and remind me where to turn. Granted, I had driven to our friends’ house many times before, but this sort of neighborhood—where the houses are all identical, the blocks self-similar—is a personal purgatory for someone with a bad sense of direction. That very morning, in fact, returning from a short errand, I had unwittingly parked in the driveway of a neighbor, and blithely walked into his house.

After that incident, I had memorized our five-digit street address, but now, in my involvement with the Costco problem, I’d missed my turn, or I thought so, anyway. Veronica was immersed in her conversation, so I was craning forward over the wheel, searching helplessly for any geographic cue. Irrationally, I sped up, then swung the truck around the next corner, looking up at the green street signs.

“Rock Ridge,” said one.

“Tamarack,” said the other.

And at that moment, I disavowed my recent resolution.

Each of us knows, from first hand experience, that Costco is a small part of an increasingly widespread environment. A plexus of shopping malls, parking lots, and residential sprawl now extends for hundreds of miles around every American city. In many places, it actually is the city. And its consistency is both extensive and exact: the box stores and the goods on their shelves; the restaurants and the food on their plates; even the residential neighborhoods—it is all replicated, with astonishing fidelity, from one coast of the United States to the other. When I pulled into the wrong driveway, I could have been in Albuquerque or Schenectady.

The metaphor of cancerous tissue is loaded, but it is also accurate in certain ways: In cancer, cells of a single variety replicate rapidly; they form a strangely homogenous tissue, because differentiation—the development of the distinctive properties that characterize mature, functional cells—is a relatively slow process, and cancer cells divide before they manage to differentiate. In fact, the less they differentiate, the more rapidly they tend to replicate, and soon they begin to invade and outcompete the various specific types of well-differentiated tissue.

A plexus of shopping malls, parking lots, and residential sprawl now extends for hundreds of miles around every American city. In many places, it actually is the city.

In ecosystems and economies—just as in the body—differentiation takes time: Whether it is the biological evolution that makes the scrubby Chaparral of southern California different from the Kwongan of western Australia, or the cultural development that makes San Diego taco shops different from Maine chowder shacks, the accumulation of local differences happens at a stately pace. But when that stereotyped plexus of malls and sprawl moves in, all the singular places rapidly give way to one single place.

At the corner of Rock Ridge and Tamarack, I saw a signpost of the problem. Developers often name their new neighborhoods and streets after what was there before the development. Near my hometown of Boulder, Colo., for instance, there is a mile of replicated townhouses called “Rock Creek,” and I can testify, from childhood experience, that once upon a time there was indeed a lovely creek in exactly that location. I suspect that, similarly, on a certain hillside north of San Diego, there was once an actual and particular rock ridge.

Tamarack, on the other hand, does not memorialize a tree that once stood on that same hillside. Of this we can be sure, because the tamarack is a cold-weather tree, which grows around the Great Lakes and northward into Canada. It is possible, however, that the street sign in San Diego does in fact hearken back to a particular tree somewhere—in Minnesota, say—because developers have, on occasion, constructed virtually identical subdivisions in multiple locations. Perhaps, then, somewhere in the native range of the tamarack, there is a corner, marked by a pair of street signs, identical to the one in San Diego, only there, it is the word “Tamarack” that marks the site of a towering tree now gone, while Rock Ridge refers to a place thousands of miles away. Whether or not such a duplicate really exists, the juxtaposition of those disparate landmarks struck me as a concise testament to the erosion of geography, the end of distinctions between one place and another in the new American landscape.

So maybe Costco is just as fascinating, or wondrous, or even, in its own way, just as beautiful as any other setting in which we might immerse ourselves. At least, we could find a perspective that would make it so…

The full article appears in the Fall 2013 Nautilus Quarterly. Subscribe today! 

Aaron Hirsh is chair of the Vermilion Sea Institute and the author of Telling Our Way to the Sea. His essays have appeared in literary journals, The New York Times, and The Best American Science Writing. He lives in Boulder, Colo.