Chicago Portrait no. 27: Dead Birds Before Green Buildings

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All the universities invest in fancy Green buildings made of glass.

They are beautiful, clean lights and natural light basking the studying and mulling-about students in the lobbies, water being pulled from the roof and dispensed into the toilets, mint and basil growing in planters suspended above coy ponds, organic produce grown on campus wedged between slices of bread in the cafes.

They sit as miniature cities upon artificially green hills. The grass is real but it’s presence is not, placed as it is atop layers of sod and dirt and manure shipped from the backwoods, its lush tendrils cleaved short and its expanding mass boxed in by concrete. Flowers spill out of great cement bowls, tenderly placed by temporary workers three or four times per year. The foliage changes with the semester, changes with the season, gets water from great metal pipes that thread underneath like veins in a flushed appendage.

These buildings are beautiful. They are the money shot of every campus tour. The parents are agog, the prospectives imagine themselves happy and productive inside the glass walls, leaves falling, snow falling, rain falling outside. The buildings are given awards from ecological foundations. Pages and pages of brochures are printed in heavy ink on thick card stock, depicting and celebrating in high resolution these perfect feats of design and economically sound benevolence.

These buildings kill birds by the dozen. I’ve seen it every early morning at every university where I’ve ever worked. Their air-light corpses strike the sensible beautiful damnably reflective glass and they are crushed by their own halted momentum. Perished instantly, they hit the pavement with an unhearable thud, a spray of feathers and a twisted leg or outspread wing the only sign of violence, and it is so quiet and pretty that nobody even cringes at the sight, nobody even feels bad. At least when a mammal dies it is disgusting. Birds can be massacred in droves and look like wilted flowers.

There have been protests. There have been bleeding heart zoology students who have kept records and called attention to the injustice. Bearing spreadsheets and graphs, they can tell you about the cost of this building that is so cheap and efficient to run, and remind you that in edition to clean energy and reharvested water and local tomatoes, there is another cost. Like gold it is lightweight and delicate but dense with value. Unlike gold nobody sees the value in it.

One such building sits right on the lake, only a thin strip of white rock separating it from the sloshing grey dark waters. At sunset you must settle into a lake-facing easy chair and cast your attention out at the vanishing horizon and the halo of purples and reds. It’s a stunning sight that will prevent you from reading your book. You must look out in the nature that colleges cannot colonialize and stare at where the earth bends some miles ahead of you, and feel yourself as small and animal and awed.

In the morning and the night the glass sparkles and casts back the very image that faces it. It becomes a long flat expanse of blue and grey with tufts of white clouds, like a hologram placed in the middle of an unending water. The birds rise from their nests or their homes in the rocks and set out screeching and looking for food.

And then they crash into it, skulls banging right on the glass. There is a crack and a gushing sound but we can never hear it. We can hear the thud, if we’re there early enough in the morning, and we’re staring out at the vision beyond the window. The window keeps us safe from water and wind but it strikes the birds will all the force of thousands of years of progress.

Hopefully death comes fast. Then they’re just a body, a wisp of colored down and bone and maybe a squirt of blood on the pavement growing tepid as the rest of the world awakens. They are passed or brutalized by an onrush of sleepy heavy feet, and then discovered by some librarian or work-study employee or grounds keeper, and swiftly swept up, whole, into a dustbin and pitched into the nearest non-recycling trash can on the edge of the lush green quad. A spray of Lysol hits the pavement and a synthetic sponge or torn, oily rag is dragged across the concrete to lap up the blood and return the building to its pristine, earth-friendly virtuousness.

A tour group passes and marvels. An administrator somewhere feels good about himself. Life goes on and death goes on and another one is built.

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Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.

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