"Just one person?" I asked.
"Yes. I wasn't here. But somebody did report a masked duck."
"Fantastic!" I said— as if, by sounding excited, I could lend after-the-fact credibility to my own report. "I'll come look for it!"
Halfway back to Brownsville, on one of the narrow dirt roads that Manley liked to direct me down, we stopped to admire a lushly green-girdled blue resaca with the setting sun behind us. The delta in winter was too beautiful to stay embarrassed in for long. I got out of the car, and there, silent, on the shadowed side of the water, floating nonchalantly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world—which is, after all, the way of magical creatures in enchanted places— was my black-bellied whistling-duck.
It felt weird to return to New York. After the excitements of South Texas, I was hollow and restless, like an addict in withdrawal.
It was a chore to make myself comprehensible to friends; I couldn't keep my mind on my work. Every night, I lay down with bird books and read about other trips I could take, studied the field markings of species I hadn't seen, and then dreamed vividly of birds. When two kestrels, a male and a female, possibly driven out of Central Park by the artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, began showing up on a chimney outside my kitchen window and bloodying their beaks on fresh-killed mice, their dislocation seemed to mirror my own.
One night in early March, I went to the Society for Ethical Culture to hear Al Gore speak on the subject of global warming. I was expecting to be amused by the speech's rhetorical badness—to roll my eyes at Gore's intoning of "fate" and "mankind," his flaunting of his wonk credentials, his scolding of American consumers. But Gore seemed to have rediscovered a sense of humor. His speech was fun to listen to, if unbelievably depressing. For more than an hour, with heavy graphical support, he presented compelling evidence of impending climate-driven cataclysms that will result in unimaginable amounts of upheaval and suffering around the globe, possibly within my own lifetime. I left the auditorium under a cloud of grief and worry of the sort I'd felt as a teenager reading about nuclear war.
Ordinarily, in New York, I keep a tight rein on my environmental consciousness, confining it, ideally, to the ten minutes per year when I write my guilt-assuaging checks to groups like the Sierra Club. But Gore's message was so disturbing that I was nearly back to my apartment before I could think of some reasons to discount it. Like: wasn't I already doing more than most Americans to combat global warming? I didn't own a car, I lived in an energy-efficient Manhattan apartment, I was good about recycling. Also: wasn't the weather that night unusually cold for early March? And hadn't Gore's maps of Manhattan in the future, the island half-submerged by rising sea levels, all shown that the corner of Lexington and Eighty-first Street, where I live, would stay high and dry in even the worst-case scenario? The Upper East Side has a definite topography. It seemed unlikely that seawater from Greenland's melting ice cap would advance any farther than the Citarella market on Third Avenue, six blocks to the south and east. Plus, my apartment was way up on the tenth floor.
When I went inside, no kids came running to meet me, and this absence of kids seemed to clinch it: I was better off spending my anxiety budget on viral pandemics and dirty bombs than on global warming. Even if I had had kids, it would have been hard work for me to care about the climatic well-being of their children's children. Not having kids freed me altogether. Not having kids was my last, best line of defense against the likes of Al Gore.