What the Marabou Stork Taught Me About Writing in an Era of Mass Extinction and Waste
Ashia Ajani on Figuring Out How to Thrive During an Apocalypse
The Marabou stork is a scavenger bird usually found on the African continent south of the Sahara. Like most storks, it has long legs and a long, stout bill, perfectly engineered for catching fish and small aquatic animals, but the Marabou stork is even more unique in its appearance—and dietary preference. Bald-headed and scabbed, sporting large, reddish air sacs on their necks, and reeking of decay, these odd birds keep their stomping grounds clean by feasting on carrion, slowing the spread of disease and pathogens.
Often called “The Bird of Nightmares,” Marabou storks reject the old wives’ tale that babies are delivered by storks and in fact, would probably consume them whole too. During the sixth mass extinction, Marabou storks are one of the few species that are thriving. More waste means more food.
I spend too much time thinking about beauty. I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror, picking acne scars and stray hairs with stork-like precision. If I look long enough, the image distorts, and all I can see is a sea of brown-pink skin lesions peppered with eyes, nose and a mouth.
An avid young Animal Planet viewer, I watched the colorful male bird attempt to entice the camouflage-preoccupied female with a display of pomp and elegance. I wanted to be useful like that, be the backdrop on which beauty could find a perch. I dove into the world of strange creatures because for the longest time, I had felt like one. Now, I stand at the nexus of aesthetic and loss, mourning the beauty that is lost due to human greed, celebrating the creatures that survive in spite of it.
Since 1970, human activity such as industrialization, colonization, and urban sprawl has eradicated sixty percent of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish, not to mention countless invertebrates we rely on for decomposition, filtration, and pollination. These essential ecosystem contributions make life possible: breaking down waste into organic matter, siphoning out harmful toxins in our soil and water, assisting plants to reproduce. Every animal has its role, and gaps in the matrix leave room for larger tears.
Scientists have been ringing the alarm for years, alerting us that the dual harms of habitat loss and wildlife extinction are a global emergency that could bring about the end of human civilization (as we know it). But there are some organisms that will remain.
The category “species of least concern” is an intriguing moniker. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categorizes species according to their vulnerability, and this category is reserved for species that are still plentiful in the wild and thus not a conservation focus. In 2008, humans were deemed as a species of least concern. Fifteen years later, and I wonder if that categorization deserves an update.
When all attention (rightfully so) is on species who are in decline or increasingly at risk due to human influence, such as climate change, little notice is given to species that remain stable or, in some rare cases, thrive as heat worsens and habitats are lost. Many of these “resilient” species are critters who already benefit from decay or are themselves harbingers of it. Many of these species already cause some damage to human life: mosquitoes, ticks, termites, and raccoons, just to name a few.
As temperatures warm and humans are driven in closer contact with each other, these creatures find their habitat ranges expanding, adapting to an abundance of new food sources, many of which are made available by human activity. The Marabou stork is one of the few creatures categorized as a “species of least concern” that may actually benefit humans (and their surrounding ecosystems) as the climate crisis worsens.
As of late, Marabou storks have become more common in urban areas, eager to be closer to the human refuse they feed on. They are an in-between species reflective of the landscapes it inhabits: landfills, fisheries, grassland fires, all places where decay and growth meet. Black ecologies offer a different perspective, one that is reverential of the relationship between environment and humans, one that rejects the tired mysticism of the untamed Dark and instead seeks to identify modes of insurgency among overlapping environmental and social justice crises. And despite systemic neglect of these regions, we don’t die, we multiply.
In his essay “Forever Gone,” ornithologist and author J. Drew Latham writes: “Humans have always looked skyward for inspiration, imagining themselves unbound by gravity or the weight of oppression. Flight means freedom.” I too look upward, bewitched by the sky’s capaciousness, watching distant cousins of the Marabou stork glide over a human-made lake in the dead center of a city known for its decay. I see people who look like me emerge for their daily commutes, overlooked, cast to the margin, penalized for existing, nevertheless building better worlds out of spoilage, growing gardens in vacant lots.
Somewhere on the other side of the equator a strange looking bird is shitting on its legs to keep cool, basking in the heat. Simultaneously gregarious and ill-tempered, the Marabou stork reminds me of my hair braider, who gives me a different price every time I come to her, the man at the bodega keeping a watchful eye for shoplifters, the grill lady slinging greasy plates at the lake. Its existence parallels the way we make do when everything around us relies on our suffering. How we transform our pain into possibility.
Marabou storks are shockingly successful at finding new habitats when their old ones are no longer viable. How a creature can build its entire livelihood off destruction—of course, not by its own hand—and thrive ignites an impossible dream during the climate crisis. Their adaptability and utility make them beautiful. Their tenacity, enviable.
When I first began writing my debut poetry collection, Heirloom, I wanted to reach elbow-deep into the muck of the past to extract some bare green roots. But the deeper into the archive I dug, I found that those roots were woven around bones; I had unearthed strange carcasses that I was meant to devour.
If I could stomach this, digest, become part of a cycle I haven’t quite figured out my place in, perhaps I would lose my desire for the “Before.” I could endure all of this, help others endure it too, processing the refuse of the past in order to fertilize the soil of the future. The way Marabou storks chase after reminds me of how this work can be buttressed by both hope and pragmatism, and of course, a voracious appetite.
Even when I’m writing about climate possibilities, the specter of extinction lingers in the space between word and page. Too often, I find myself writing my way out of apocalypse by writing from a place of it, sewing together raptures and fragmented histories, chewing on the fat that greased wheels turning towards a new life. As a Black femme, people want me to write about hope, because if I am hopeful, they are then allowed to feel that hope as well. But I am reluctant to conflate hope with fantasy, burying my beak in what is readily in front of me. Black earth. Connection. Seeing the beauty in the mundane.
Marabou storks take care of each other, creating groups of one thousand or more birds, working together to find better hunting or nesting grounds. After these gatherings, they scatter, moving on to new pastures, supplying their contributions wherever they land. It’s just their trash-filled world, and we’re living in it.
Heirloom by Ashia Ajani is available via Write Bloody Publishing.