From the Editors

Outside the Confines


                                                                                                                                            Photo: E. Lombardi

Vagrant is the ornithological term for a species of bird spotted well outside its normal range. Consider the West Indian white-cheeked pintail, blown off course by inclement weather, bathing with mallards in a Florida lake. Or the ruby-throated hummingbird shivering through a Syracuse winter, thousands of miles from Mexico’s tropical flora. Or the Puerto Rican flycatcher—a stowaway arriving at a New Jersey port aboard a large steel shipping container.

The disruption of the patterns of migratory birds is an inauspicious sign of our changing climate. Birders, nevertheless, delight in spotting a vagrant.

The condition of vagrancy in humans, on the other hand, is less celebrated. In contrast to the hummingbird, people sleeping rough are more commonly regarded as nuisances whose life-sustaining activities conflict with an ever-increasing number of ordinances intended to drive them from sight. And unlike the pintail, the more than forty thousand children who this summer crossed the southern border of the United States fleeing gang violence in Mexico and Guatemala were met with a cool welcome. Two million people have fled their homes to impoverished neighboring regions in the humanitarian crisis in Southern Sudan, and more than six million refugees of war-torn Syria have found shelter in Turkish camps constructed entirely of shipping containers.[1]

For the world’s most vulnerable populations—indigenous peoples, the poor, and others whose livelihoods keep them in close proximity to nature—the effects of climate change are immediate, a fact that was meaningfully conveyed by the leading role indigenous groups played in the People’s Climate March that took place in New York City in September. As part of a global mobilization, members of indigenous groups from as nearby as Indian Point and as far away as the Marshall Islands marched in the shadow of  “Billionaire’s Row,” a series of high-priced, ultra-high-rise residential towers being hastily erected near Central Park. They wore traditional costume; sang, danced, and prayed; and spoke to television cameras, preparing statements to be delivered days later at the UN Climate Summit. Some—like the dance troupe encircling a sculpture of the Aztec earth goddess, Coatlicue—displayed their feathers.

In common with enthusiastic birders, we could not help but delight in the sighting of a vagrant in the form of an unfamiliar goddess floating slowly down Central Park West. Neither could we escape a creeping sense that an eventual confrontation with the circumstances that had transported her there was advancing at a far more reckless pace.




[1] McClelland, Mac. “How to Build a Perfect Refugee Camp.” The New York Times. 13 February 2014.