Requiem For Habitat Lost

Quail Lake | Photo by Callyn Yorke

Quail Lake | Photo by Callyn Yorke

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine

Grant them eternal rest, o Lord

et lux perpetua luceat eis

and let perpetual light shine upon them.

Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion

You shall have praise in Zion, o God,

et tibi redetur votum in Jerusalem.

and homage shall be paid to you in Jerusalem.

Exaudi orationem meam.

Hear my prayer.

Ad te omnis caro veniet.

All flesh shall come before you.

Kyrie eleison.

Lord, have mercy.

Christe eleison.

Christ, have mercy.

Kyrie eleison.

Lord, have mercy.

These words are the introduction to the Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead. When I transferred out of Boston University over to Boston Conservatory of Music, my original aim was to be an opera singer, and I followed a voice teacher from BU over to BCM. The program at BCM for all voice students, as well as instrumentalists who didn't make it into the orchestra was to sing in the chorus. And, my sophomore, junior and senior years at BCM, the big concert with the chorus and orchestra was each year, a Requiem by great composers. So, in my sophomore year, we did Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem for orchestra and chorus and four vocal soloists: soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass. I was the "stand by" for the bass solos. (I got to sing most of the rehearsals, but didn't get to sing the solos in the concert). My junior year, we did Johannes Brahms' “German Requiem”: a rather Protestant departure of the Catholic text and the text is taken from both Old and New Testament Scriptures. And, it was for soprano and baritone soloists. I sang the baritone solos in that work. My senior year, we did the Antonin Dvorak's “Requiem”, back to the Catholic texts, for orchestra and chorus and the soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass solos. The bass solos were much too low for my high baritone voice; so, I was back in the chorus.

I thought about some of these musical masterpieces as I went up to scout out the western portion of the Antelope Valley: from Highway 14 and Avenue A west, which straddles Los Angeles and Kern Counties. With what unfolded during this fishing expedition caused me to add several more Requiem Masses to the aforementioned list. The two that I add to this list stretch the boundaries of something that has religious solemnity to a case for these masses to be incredibly dramatic, and almost cataclysmic. These requiems employ massive components that are even possibly beyond the religious and musical imagination. One is of the nineteenth century: Hector Berlioz's "La Grande Messe des Morts". The other is Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem". In writing this article, I got my inspiration by listening to all five of these monumental masterpieces. As I mentioned, the Berlioz and the Britten break all kinds of rules of restraint, in terms of a musical and spiritual journey. The Brahms, Verdi, and Dvorak don't show much restraint either. But, the last two are simply volcanic! Interestingly, of these great musical works, the Berlioz was written and performed first in 1837. In some ways, it is the most visceral and savage. And it employs one of the largest orchestras and chorus for these works. In terms of musical imagination, it also could be defined as the most outrageous and amazing (that said, not in a bad way). The Brahms was performed in 1867. The Verdi was 1874. The Dvorak was performed in 1891. Britten's opus was premiered in 1963. I remember the American premiere of the “War Requiem” the following year in 1964 from Tanglewood, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on network TV. And, it not only uses the Catholic liturgy, it also is inspired and propelled by the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen, a pacifist soldier who was killed in World War I.

Ferruginous Hawk | Photo by Larry Sansone

Ferruginous Hawk | Photo by Larry Sansone

I mention these gigantic musical works because I listened to them all as I began to grieve, tried to use my anger and disappointment for something positive, after my day up in the west AV. Each requiem was cathartic. They make writing easier. I'm glad to have recordings of these masses to carry me along. I started my scouting this day at the east end of the west AV, just leaving highway 14. The plan was to weave my way through the farm land and agriculture areas all the way to Quail Lake, as I had in past years when I discovered this winter paradise for birds. This winter, that scouting day proved to be shocking, disappointing, and sad. I will explain.

As of January 7, 2019, I have been in Los Angeles for 32 years. Ugh! I can't go into the reasons why I find myself here, there really is too much to tell, and maybe a book would be in order. However, I called the LA Audubon chapter and visited my first week here and I wanted to know where I could go to find wintering birds of prey. I remember speaking with dear Olga Clarke, who was incredibly helpful. I will never forget her kindness to me and the open smile on her face. And, she also suggested that I get in contact with Kimball Garrett, which I also did. And, I did find out exactly where I could go from Kimball to satisfy my hunger to see these creatures. I got maps; I charted my route and headed up to Highway 14 all the way northeast to Avenue D west.

Leaving the highway and starting on Avenue D, I was immediately stunned. Not even a mile into this journey there were telephone posts with Golden Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Prairie Falcons. I was less than two miles into this search and already I had more than I had even hoped to see. And, I was just beginning. Ferruginous Hawk and Prairie Falcon were life birds for me, and I was ecstatic. Not only did I see these giants, but, wonderful songbirds were singing and popping up before me as well. In this desert scene, there were Joshua Trees, and Cactus, Russian Thistle, as well as agriculture fields which had Horned Larks, Cactus Wrens, Loggerhead Shrikes, Western Bluebirds, Brewers and Red-winged Blackbirds. There were Merlin and Northern Harriers, both male and female. Quite frankly, this was a bit of a wonderland for me.

As I continued on Avenue D going west, as I headed toward Quail Lake, and as this highway which is also Route 138 and approached an area where the road gently curves, to the south as I looked, there are these beautiful rolling hills and to the north there is open area which would become part of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy. But, my focus was on the south side of the road and those rolling fields. These fields were showered with Mountain Bluebirds. I pulled the car to the side of the road and just lifted my binoculars and saw hundreds of birds in an indescribable blue. This was another life bird for me, and I was just enthralled with the large number of them, foraging, hovering and landing on the ground finding their food and perching on fences. I have said this before that the blue in this species is so very difficult to duplicate in pictures and in books.

And, as I neared Quail Lake, there were friends hovering –or soaring– in the sky. Rough-legged Hawks! To my surprise, these birds in the west are mostly the light morph. Having many encounters in the northeast, southern New York and New Jersey, specifically, the light morph birds are rare. The north eastern birds are mainly dark morphed birds. I have since found out, although I haven't done great research on this that the northeast dark birds come over mainly from Greenland.

I would make this journey up to the western part of the Antelope Valley each winter to see my "friends" for several years. But, in the early nineties things began to change. The Antelope Valley was beginning to be developed. And, the first species that started disappearing was the Rough-legged Hawk. Apparently, that species is averse to civilization. Coming from NYC, this seemed strange to me because I've seen Rough-legs soaring down the West Side Highway, in New York City along the Hudson River, and over such crowded areas as on the southern coast of Long Island. Here, they have left. There was a visitation of this species about five years ago, around Quail Lake, a female. And, this winter, there is a bird near the Piute Ponds in Edwards Air Force Base. I just don't get how, in the west, this species doesn't want to be around buildings and other things that go along with civilization. And, in the west Antelope Valley, it's not like it's a bustling metropolis.

Golden Eagle | Photo By Larry Sansone

Golden Eagle | Photo By Larry Sansone

During those early years of the nineties, the other hawks stayed around. At the eastern edge of the western AV, closer to Highway 14, there is a ranch, called the Nebeker Ranch. This ranch/farm was fully operational. I remember one year when I led an LA Audubon trip up there, where there was a sheep carcass out and there were at least four Golden Eagles gobbling up that rich morsel. Also around that ranch were Ferruginous Hawks light and dark morphs on the ground. The farm with its metal open shelters for hay bales harbored small birds and, of course rodents, which is why the predators were around. Occasionally you would see Roadrunners, Western Meadowlarks, and sometimes large insects which the Shrikes would grab and impale on barbed wire. Rabbits and Jackrabbits abounded around as well. There were coveys of Quail to look at.

With the development of the west end, the Golden Eagles were driven away, but the other big hawks still remained. And, so did the falcons. You could find Kestrels hovering over the fields for insects, small birds, or even lizards. Merlin would blast through low to the ground, and there were enough Horned Larks to keep the Prairie Falcons fed.

Slowly, the Mountain Bluebirds disappeared. On trips in more recent years, instead of seeing hundreds of them, I would only see maybe ten. Even though there were still Joshua Trees and cactus, the Cactus Wrens also seemed to vanish. I am not even talking about some issue of an even modest housing development began to happen. There would just be isolated houses in these open fields. Closer to the 14, more malls were being constructed, but, they were not going into highway 138. The land was still open, albeit pretty desolate. And, species continued to disappear. As recently as the winter of 2018, there were still things to see up there.

So, this winter, this January which is kind of my annual pilgrimage to the west part of the AV, I get off of the 14 at Avenue A, which in past years had also been quite productive, and started to work my way west; straddling the LA and Kern county lines. I did see Horned Larks, and lots of Starlings, some Savannah Sparrows, and being somewhat crestfallen, I headed for the Nebeker Ranch. I looked for the familiar landmarks, the three hay bale shelters. Gone! I went up and down Avenue B and there was nothing. On the north side of Avenue B, I looked for the neighboring farm area. That too seemed to be deserted. I'm now scratching my head. I ride north then south and east and west and I find something that completely stuns me.

These agricultural fields are now a farm for something else — solar energy. There are now fields upon fields of solar panels. I am slack-jawed. Huge areas which were once habitat for wintering birds and habitat for other mammals and reptiles are now solar farms. And, I'm not seeing many birds at all. And, I start thinking the worst: these solar panels fry these birds and insects and bats. The birds and the bats think of these panels from the sky as water. And, over water there are always insects, and the birds come down and get radiated and fry and die.

This creates a conundrum. We need clean energy. So, here we are with a solution. I have not studied this, but, I'm sure the solar energy company(ies) paid the farmers, the ranchers a fair price for their land. And, the farmers took the cash and left. So, hooray for steps taken to get solar energy going. But, wait! The people who have done this are doing it to try to get a grip on climate change. But, one consideration was obviously not nearly as important: habitat for creatures. I can imagine that when you look at the west AV; on first glance, all you see is desolation. What on earth is there to consider? Because of years of drought, most of this land is parched and starved for water. What life could there be here?

Loggerhead Shrike | Photo by BradRumble

Loggerhead Shrike | Photo by BradRumble

I raise this question, because there was life here. And, I understand the desperate need to get a grip on trying to ward off the demise of civilization. It also presents a circumstance like the wind turbines have. That is, killing vital living things we also need so that we are not overrun by insects and other things that could also be harmful to civilization. As the wind turbines are working to try to stop those machines from killing song birds, birds of prey, and bats, the solar energy companies have to figure out how not to draw birds to something that resembles water, so that it doesn't fry waterfowl and song birds and bats. And, also being thoughtful and inventive as to not take away vital habitat from the creatures that need it. We shouldn't only be thinking about saving ourselves; we should be thinking about saving all life forms. Because there are life forms which are going to be extinct before this climbs the ladder of evolution and finally zaps us. I even heard rumored that the companies are thinking of putting flowers and other vegetation around the panels to draw in birds and insects. If true - that would be a huge mistake. Birds would still have to navigate the solar panels which quite frankly would be death for them.

The only bird of prey I saw in this area was one Red-tailed Hawk! — One— when in the past there had been dozens. I confess that I haven't pursued finding out if there has been any feathered carnage around the panels. That is something that we should find out. And, further along Route 138, there is going to be a new gigantic housing development project, called Centennial; which has been agreed to by some environmental groups, to pay for the Tejon Ranch Conservancy's overall land and staff management. That has raised a number of concerns about the life forms which already live in the proposed area. Not to mention that Route 138 will be widened to support more traffic when more people are in the area. Route 138 has already gone through a huge traffic metamorphosis. Thirty-two years ago, traveling west on 138 was quite leisurely as there weren't a lot of cars driving through. Today, Highway 138 serves as a link from Highway 14 to the 5 Freeway. Not only are there speeding cars, but, there are also massive eighteen and twenty wheelers pressing through at a great clip. The "onion" is that if there is no Centennial, there will possibly be no Tejon Ranch.

Well, ain't we got fun! For a bit of consolation, there were ducks and other waterfowl on Quail Lake. But, that's a lot of driving to just see waterfowl. No offense duck lovers! I had to make a choice. And, I couldn't see leading a trip some sixty or so miles away and have very slim pickings. So, I cancelled the field trip. I understand that the east side of the AV still has agricultural fields; so, next winter that hopefully is an option. Also on the east side, there are the Piute ponds which draw lots of different birds. But, in order to do that you do need a permit, because it is on Edwards Air Force Base property. And, there are designated days during duck hunting season when you can and cannot go there. Also, during various Christmas Bird Counts, there seemed to be an assessment that there were less land birds than usual. Does this mean that climate change is much more aggressive than we've first believed? It seems so.

There have already been reports that each fall migration in recent years, birds have been migrating one mile less southward each season. The permafrost is disappearing in the arctic. Siberia has seen huge sink holes in the earth happening in areas where there was permafrost. How do we stop the madness? This present administration has no desire to halt the pursuit of corporate greed, and their aberrant need to make profit no matter the cost to all life forms on this planet. Even those corporations that want to slow the pace of the planet's warming have to start thinking about how everything that has life on this planet has a stake in trying to continue its life cycle. And, most of these entities don't have a vote. This is beyond profits and shareholders' financial benefits.

I was trying to look for something that might be uplifting. I was looking for something that would give us something to hope for — something cheery— but, that doesn't seem to be the way this is going. Of the five requiems that have carried me along this written journey, Brahms' German Requiem being different from the other four ends with Revelations chapter 14, verse 13: "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: yes, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them." The Berlioz and the Dvorak end with the Agnus Dei:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,

dona eis requiem, dona eis reqjiem sempiternam.

grant them rest, grant them eternal rest.

But, I'm quite partial to Giuseppe Verdi's ending. It's quite dramatic, for the soprano and chorus.


Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda

Deliver me, o Lord, from eternal death on that awful day

quando coeli movendi sunt et terra,

when the heavens and earth shall be shaken

dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem.

and you shall come and judge the world by fire.

Tremens factus sum ego et timeo,

I am seized with fear and trembling

dum discussio venerit atque ventura ira:

until the trial is at hand and the wrath to come:

quando coeli movendi sunt et terra.

when the heavens and earth shall be shaken.

I have hope that we will find ourselves out of the possibility of all life being erased. Leaving the Antelope Valley, things looked so bleak to me. However, we have to become more aware and more involved. And, I know that many of us are exhausted with the constant barrage of outrageous acts that endlessly flow from the White House and all of those factions around it. But, instead of turning off and tuning out, we have to become more engaged, so that we don't lose those precious things that continue to raise our spirit and make us happy. From the Garden of Eden, we have been commanded to be stewards of what we've been given. And, as stated before, even those corporations who are looking to slow down the warming of this planet, we have to make them most accountable, in their zeal to find solutions. They can't pursue this with blinders on. They, too have to be aware that the goal to save this planet is also to save all the lives which inhabit it, as well.

Eschscholtzia Californica | Photo by Larry Sansone

Eschscholtzia Californica | Photo by Larry Sansone