PEOPLE SEE NATURE IN IRAQ
by Whit Gibbons
June 25, 2006
Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Trouern-Trend gave a most unusual report at the
Outdoor Writers Association of America last week: an account of bird-watching
in Iraq. His intriguing talk, about his daily observation of birds during
his tour of duty, was based on his book "Birding Babylon: A Soldier's
Journal from Iraq" (2006, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco). The
talk was sponsored by the Sierra Club.
time I can recall writing about Iraq and ecology was during the Gulf War
15 years ago. I referred to oil spills that were the result of storage
tanks and refineries being bombed by U.N. forces and intentional dumping
by Saddam Hussein's soldiers. During that war, at least 1 million, possibly
as many as 6 million, barrels of oil entered the waters, polluting more
than 300 miles of beaches, mangrove forests, and tidal marshes in Kuwait
and Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of dolphins and porpoises and more than 20,000
seabirds, including cormorants, grebes, flamingos, and herons, perished
in the oil?contaminated waters.
view of nature in Iraq was more uplifting than an account of oil spills
in a previous war, and it looks beyond what he referred to as the "almost
daily rocket and mortar attacks" in the current war. He demonstrated
a positive approach to life, noting that "observations of nature
offer connections that transcend events" in the world around us and
that "nature binds us together." I really like his attitude,
especially that he could focus on and enjoy nature no matter where he
was and that he found "comfort that nature was all around us."
is mostly a daily journal recounting his bird sightings and other observations.
Among the first birds he saw in Iraq were swallows returning from Africa
in January, a sight reminiscent of their return to various regions in
the United States. Like any birder anywhere, he was interested in adding
to his life list, and during his first day in Iraq he was clearly ecstatic
at having seen 26 kinds of birds and adding more "life birds"
in a day than he had in more than a decade.
mix of war and nature in "Birding Babylon" is captivating. The
author explains how helicopters are considered safer than driving but
fly as low as possible in hopes of not being spotted in advance, thus
reducing enemy gunfire. He records in his journal that flying close to
the ground, the helicopter once hit a bird that came through a window
and landed on the floor. He identified it as a male pin-tailed sandgrouse.
"I'd like to see one alive," he notes, "maybe later this
In his talk
Trouern-Trend introduced the topic of the Mesopotamian Marshes of southern
Iraq, an environmental casualty of Saddam Hussein's regime. In 1976 the
vast wetland area was twice the size of the Everglades and home to thousands
of wintering waterfowl. The area was also inhabited by a culture known
as the Marsh Arabs, who lived off of the productivity of the natural marshlands.
However, the Marsh Arabs, a 5,000-year-old culture, reputedly fell out
of favor with Saddam, for reasons unclear to me, and became a target for
attack during the 1980s and '90s. How do you eliminate a population that
lives in a marsh? Drain the marsh and cut off the water supply. The wetlands
decreased to 5 percent of their original size; they were turned into desert.
Two Iranian rivers not under Saddam's control kept the remaining marshlands
alive. Many of the Marsh Arabs died or dispersed to other regions; a culture
was destroyed or at least severely disturbed; and hundreds of native species
of birds and other animals disappeared. In 2003 efforts were made to restore
the marshes and much of the vegetation and wildlife has now returned,
including many of the birds.
Babylon" is a short but moving book. Trouern-Trend's last sentence
describes a scene from his last day in Iraq, as he was leaving the dunes
where he had been observing nature. "I saw a pure white dove circle
over the camp. I'll take it as a good omen." Let's hope it was.
you have an environmental question or comment, email