Birds make good neighbors because they are survivors and we have a lot to learn from their example. At the top of spring we had a cardinal couple making a nest on our porch and we were so proud. We bought seed, we took photos, and we watched their progress with excitement and pride. This agitated them and so we started only watching from inside but they caught a glimpse of me at the window twice and, before I was fully aware of what happened, they were gone. They moved out and abandoned the nest they were building. I didn’t intend harm but their concern was rooted in the centuries of information I didn’t have. They chose survival.
Americans, especially the ones afraid or too proud to take responsibility for poor choices that led to any level suffering, love to talk about the tradition of the sacrifice of the few for the benefit of many—the few usually being military folks but I’d also like to recognize for this discussion the inadequately-protected and provided for immigrant community, the non-subsidized artists, the struggling working class and those who inhabit the muck underneath the workers—the undergrounders. It is our position, however, that (as has played out time and time again in our culture) blind allegiance is not patriotism. Not today, but not ever either. The true failure is in not being nimble enough, flexible enough, to admit failure and to accept change.
A lot of the lyrics in Birds Make Good Neighbors deal with choices, in general and/or in specific ways, in the small and familiar lives we live and in the more archetypal, historical accounts of the people who established the first colony in America which was to be the great “Cittie of Ralegh,” modeled on London, but, as it happened through poor choices, they became the group officially known as The Lost Colony. And when I say “archetypal” here, I am referring to that which would become a pattern of failure. Yes there were other bad choices made by others before the Lost Colony--we all know about Columbus and the Spanish policy of rape, murder, and decimation of the Native North and South Americans. For gold or land or power, which, in retrospect, never really equaled amazing prosperity for Spain. That’s a huge story to wrap one’s mind around. Trying to write about it would be like trying to write about any specific war—too enormous. It seems more natural and appropriate to write about the story of regular people like us coming to a new country and how it was for them—full of ideas, hope, contrariness, and, for the casualties, a deadly inability to admit failure or to accept that change may enable survival.
The Lost Colony was a mix of young and old, little kids, newlyweds, pregnant women, business men, teachers, experienced seamen, all of it--the people who came in 1587, even before the Mayflower and the Puritans came to North Carolina, set up a colony and then completely disappeared. They ruined relations with the natives right away, and were either killed by those Indians, or were taken in by a different Indian tribe, offered protection and a new life—not as an English man or woman in an Indian village, but the complete life of an Indian. The first scenario is easy to believe—the colony of 107 people could have easily been slaughtered. But the idea that these regular English people would choose to go live as Indians with the Croatan tribe (which later became the great Lumbee Indian tribe of NC) fascinates me. It’s the admission that they were wrong to have offended their hosts, and that they will no longer live the life they have lived and will no longer dream about establishing the London of the new world, but will essentially become Indian for survival. There has been no conclusive evidence to reveal which scenario actually happened but there is evidence that both could have happened and it is my opinion that both did happen. Perhaps a split occurred—the old thinkers decided to march up the coast through hostile territory to establish their city and were slaughtered, and the flexible survivalists admitted failure, and were taken in by the Croatans. Either way, their governor, John White, whom they sent back to England to get supplies, food, and backup was delayed because of the impending war with Spain and so, instead of returning in three months, he returned three years later to find the colony empty. No bodies, no sign of life either—just one word carved into a post: “CROATOAN.”
This story fascinated us so much as children growing up in and around the Outer Banks of North Carolina that it’s always been strongly planted in our minds, informing our awareness of the world around us, giving us the cultural context within which other knowledge of risk, failure, and survival would be placed and with which it would be compared. The main lesson has always been that our poor choices and the poor choices of others mean we have to struggle.
No, old folks, today is not like the old days at all, and today’s children you are afraid for (and of) are different from the children of your day, but they are survivors. Do they resemble barbarians? I say that’s good training for how they will live tomorrow. They don’t care about manners? Have you read their poetry? They care about survival. And love. And that is why we sing proudly about both.