Cortés and the Tenochtitlán aviaries

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Dec 17 10:42:29 MST 2000

Barry Lopez, "Crossing Open Ground":

THE IMAGE I carry of Cortés setting fire to the aviaries in Mexico City
that June day in 1521 is an image I cannot rid myself of. It stands, in my
mind, for a fundamental lapse of wisdom in the European conquest of
America, an underlying trouble in which political conquest, personal greed,
revenge, and national pride outweigh what is innocent, beautiful, serene,
and defenseless—the birds. The incineration of these creatures 450 years
ago is not something that can be rectified today. Indeed, one could argue,
the same oblivious irreverence is still with us, among those who would
ravage and poison the earth to sustain the economic growth of Western
societies. But Cortés’s act can be transcended. It is possible to fix in
the mind that heedless violence, the hysterical cries of the birds, the
stench of death, to look it square in the face and say that there is more
to us than this, this will not forever distinguish us among the other
cultures. It is possible to imagine that on the far side of the Renaissance
and the Enlightenment we can recover the threads of an earlier wisdom.

Again I think of the animals, because of the myriad ways in which they have
helped us since we first regarded each other differently. They offered us
early models of rectitude and determination in adversity, which we put into
stories. The grace of a moving animal, in some ineluctable way, kindles
still in us a sense of imitation. They continue to produce for us a sense
of the Other: to encounter a truly wild animal on its own ground is to know
the defeat of thought, to feel reason overpowered. The animals have fed us;
and the cultures of the great hunters particularly—the bears, the dogs, and
the cats—have provided the central metaphors by which we have taken
satisfaction in our ways and explained ourselves to strangers.

Cortés’s soldiers, on their walks through the gleaming gardens of
Tenochtitlán, would have been as struck by the flight paths of songbirds as
we are today. In neither a horizontal nor a vertical dimension do these
pathways match the line and scale of human creation within which the birds
dwell. The corridors they travel are curved around some other universe.
When the birds passed over them, moving across the grain of sunlight, the
soldiers must have stopped occasionally to watch, as we do. It is the
birds’ independence from predictable patterns of human design that draws us
to them. In the birds’ separate but related universe we are able to sense
hope for ourselves. Against a background of the familiar, we recognize with
astonishment a new pattern.

In such a moment, pausing to take in the flight of a flock of birds passing
through sunshine and banking gracefully into a grove of trees, it is
possible to move beyond a moment in the Valley of Mexico when we behaved as
though we were insane.

Louis Proyect
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