No Relation

Megan Sandberg-Zakian

Memorial Day weekend in New York City was chilly and gray and deluged by a record-breaking rain. When the sun finally came out and the temperature began to rise on Monday morning, Christian Cooper got out his bike. He rode up the length of the island of Manhattan to spend a few hours birding in the Central Park Ramble, a well-known haven for migrating birds in the spring and fall.

In the Ramble, Cooper encountered a white woman and her off-leash cocker spaniel who was dashing energetically around, disturbing the wildlife Cooper was there to observe. When he requested that the woman comply with park rules requiring her to leash her dog, she refused. When he called the dog over and offered it a treat, she screamed at him and dialed 9-1-1, fabricating for the dispatcher in a distressed tremolo: “There’s an African American man threatening my life!” We know this, of course, because Cooper filmed the encounter, and, luckily, lived to tell the tale. When the video went viral, the woman, Amy Cooper—this is where news reports inevitably note “no relation”—issued an apology, but nevertheless lost her job and, briefly, her dog Henry.

I, like so many others, spent much of spring 2020 sitting on my couch staring at the internet; I saw the posts about “The Central Park Birdwatching Incident” right away on that sunny Monday, May 25. I was instantly riveted. I too am a watcher of birds. And though I lack the discipline of serious birders like Cooper, I felt connected to him anyhow—because of the birds, and also because he was queer and brown, and because when I lived in New York I used to ride my bike the length of the island and it was the only thing that made me feel free. Also, he was a storyteller who loved big, mythic tales and had, as an editor at Marvel in the 90s, created their first openly lesbian character, paranormal investigator Victoria Montesi. I could imagine us running in similar circles, hanging out at a show opening or a book event.

I didn’t want to hang out with Amy Cooper, but I could feel the ping of connection to her, too—faint, but perceptible. I do love dogs. And I remember being single and female in New York City, the constant level of vigilance that hovered at all times between the buzz of awareness and the shooting adrenaline of terror. I was young and working in the theater. I remember the walks home from the train at night and the jogs that suddenly took me around an unfamiliar, empty corner. I’d clutch my hand inside my coat pocket with my keys poking out between my fingers like Wolverine, ready to gouge at the eyes of anyone who came too close. My compulsive attention to my own safety meant that my default assessment of the people around me—the men and boys, really—was always first as a potential threat, as a violent predator waiting for an opportunity, rather than as a fellow New Yorker. I knew that I had made this dehumanizing leap, many times, in my mind.

Then again, I never would have let one of my dogs off leash in Central Park. And I certainly never would have walked into the Ramble alone, with or without a dog. Perhaps New York had changed in the fifteen years since I lived there. Or maybe Amy Cooper felt more right to move through the city as she pleased than I ever had.

My own hyper-vigilance had been grounded in the assumption that no place in the city was safe for me—no subway platform, no elevator, certainly no park. After 9/11, living in Manhattan, I used to worry about covering up enough to avoid the worst catcalls, but not so much that I’d get Islamophobic slurs instead. I’d check myself in the mirror in my winter hats and scarves to make sure I didn’t look too Muslim, feeling guilty and scared. My Armenian and mixed Jewish heritage made me adjacent enough to whiteness to benefit from certain privileges at certain times, but brown enough that I could never count on them. I learned to run whole crosstown blocks in heels, to lock and unlock doors at warp speed, to keep my face blank and walk faster no matter what I heard; always flight, never fight. I imagined that I understood some of what Amy Cooper might have felt, but my imagination stopped short of understanding what she had done.

So it must have been because I felt so much connection to both Coopers—the brown and queer and bird-loving parts of me, the white and female and fearful parts of me—that the constant refrain of “no relation” got so far under my skin.

Before 2020, I thought of Memorial Day mostly as the beginning of summer, the portal to white shoes and barbecues.

“How do they know there’s no relation?” I remember asking my wife as we scrolled side by side on the couch that pandemic Memorial Day, “Have they done 23andme?”

She half-laughed without looking up. We’d done 23andme a few years back. I’d thought that Candice’s results would reflect her understanding of her heritage—100% African American—while mine would have the kaleidoscopic, messy look I associated with my mixed-heritage, mixed-class, mixed-religion background. But when we looked at our DNA pie charts side by side, mine was neatly split down the middle: half “Northern West Asian” and half “Ashkenazi Jewish.” Candice, on the other hand, had a pie with many-colored slices. Most were located in various parts of Africa, but there was also British, Irish, French, German, Scandinavian. We could guess where many of those slices had come from; her last name, Crawford, was the name her ancestors were given by people who enslaved them.

That snippet of conversation on the couch is the last thing I remember about Memorial Day 2020. This is likely because the day’s second viral video was Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds.

Before 2020, I thought of Memorial Day mostly as the beginning of summer, the portal to white shoes and barbecues. I didn’t know that the holiday has its genesis in the ritual of bringing spring flowers to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers, mourning those who lost their lives in the service of their country. Though most agree on this concept of the holiday’s origin, almost everything else about Memorial Day is contested, from its name (some places still use the original name, “Decoration Day”) to when and where and how it was first celebrated. Factions in both Northern and Southern states claim to have originated the tradition as a commemoration of Union and/or Confederate dead. Many Southern states continue to treat the holiday as an opportunity to venerate the myth of the Lost Cause; as of 2021, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee still commemorated Confederate Memorial Day.

Americans, writes Isabelle Wilkerson in one of 2020’s most-read books, Caste, are like homeowners who inherited an old house—impressive to look at, but built on land “whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even.”

Anyone who’s ever lived in an old house knows the feeling: as soon as you learn to read the signs, they’re everywhere. The crack in the wall, the bubble in the floor, the discoloration creeping into the perimeter of the bedroom ceiling. Things you may have lived alongside for years without understanding what they meant about the nature of the structure. When I learned the history of Memorial Day I felt the gut-plunge of recognition: ah, this house is built on unstable loam and rock.

A few days later, there was a follow-up article in the New York Times. Christian Cooper, the Times reported, “was back in his happy place on Wednesday: Central Park during migration season. He was trying to focus on the olive-sided flycatchers and red-bellied woodpeckers—not on what had happened there two days earlier.”

I knew red-bellied woodpeckers well. But the olive-sided flycatcher was new to me. I looked it up.

According to the Cornell Ornithology lab, the olive-sided flycatcher is a “husky, barrel-chested” olive-gray songbird, between a sparrow and a robin in size, often spotted singing from open perches in the highest parts of dead or burned trees. Of all the flycatcher species that breed in the United States, olive-sided flycatchers have the longest migration; some migrate between central Alaska and Bolivia, a distance of 7,000 miles. The birds Christian Cooper was seeking in Central Park had come from far away. And if he was concerned about making sure they could feed undisturbed during their stopover in the Ramble, he had good reason. I felt my stomach lurch as I looked at the graphs of songbird population decline. Numbers of olive-sided flycatchers have fallen by 79% since 1970. Seventy nine percent.

Scientists don’t seem to fully understand why this is happening, but here’s their best guess: boreal birds evolved to thrive in an environment where natural disturbances like forest fires and insect outbreaks were common, and thus were well-suited to adapt to some degree of human activity, such as indigenous controlled burn practices, logging, and modest development. However, the accelerated changes of the late 20th and 21st centuries—clear-cutting, insecticide use, and the effects of climate change, including more frequent and widespread fires—have surpassed the species’ “disturbance threshold.”

As a result, we have twenty one percent of the olive-sided flycatchers that we had fifty years ago. Probably fewer, by the time you read this. The species is now on the Red Watch List for declining populations.

When I scrolled back up to the top of the identification page, I did a double take. I wondered if the author of the Times article knew, I wondered if Cooper himself knew, the Latin name of this bird. It is Contopus cooperi. Genus name: Contopus, meaning “short foot.” Species Name: Cooperi, after wealthy New Yorker and nineteenth century naturalist William Cooper.

I blinked and whispered “No relation.”

I discovered quickly that Cooper is an old name. It originally designated the makers and repairers of barrels and casks, one of the most widespread trades in the Middle Ages throughout Europe.

As I followed the Cooper trail, I found not only William Cooper—for whom several other birds are named, most notably the Cooper’s hawk, a vicious raptor known for crashing through foliage to snatch songbirds from feeders—but also his son, James, founder of the Cooper Ornithological Society, a precursor to the country’s definitive birders association, The American Ornithological Society. In other bird-related white William Coopers, there was William Thomas Cooper, a painter renowned for his detailed portraits of Australian birds.

Black William Coopers included William Y. Cooper, painter and muralist of intricate, bright, jazz-influenced works, and William Cooper Nell, a journalist and abolitionist who I knew from his successful campaign to integrate Boston schools in 1855.

There are a lot of Coopers. Cooper is the 35th most common surname in England and the 4th most common in Liberia, a country peopled with the descendants of freed American slaves. As I read, I could see Coopers in time lapse, moving from the old world to the new, from one hemisphere to another, through ambition and journey, yes, I imagined, and through apprentice and trade and marriage—but also through colonization and slavery and rape. Coopers traveled and thrived, sometimes through careful cultivation and long incubation with the heat of the body, but also sometimes by kicking another fledgling out of the nest. Things that end up everywhere don’t end up there by accident.

Coopers—like other old-world creatures that are now endemic to any American city, like Starlings and House Sparrows, like English Ivy and Hamlet—easily feel at home in a new place, and are soon ubiquitous enough that it is hard to remember what it was like without them. In the end, any kind of travel, even the invasive kind, is inevitably relational. Not in the sense of creating genuine kinship or connection – but in the sense that suddenly two previously unassociated things are now in very close proximity.

Following the trail of Coopers made me woozy. I clicked away from my research and back to the Times homepage. The homepage story sobered me right up. It was an interactive timeline of Covid deaths in the US. As you scrolled down, small images of human bodies multiplied, a ticker on the right side grimly tallying—March 26: 1,345. April 6: 63,140. A name and identifying sentence were offered for a handful of these tiny human shadows—“Knew how to make an entrance. Melita Baker, 86, Norwell, MA.” “Emergency room doctor who died in husband’s arms. Frank Gabrin, 60, New York City.” “New father. Israel Sauz, 22, Broken Arrow, OK.”

And, perhaps inevitably, at the end of March, “Loved big and told people she loved them all the time. Minette Golf Cooper, 79, Louisiana.” And then, scrolling down to the first week of April, her spouse, Marcus Edward Cooper (83, Louisiana), who “loved his wife and said ‘yes, dear’ a lot.”

On that day, May 27, 2020, the number had reached 100,000.

...part of me still imagined we would come together to protect each other.

I closed the computer and sobbed deeply for a few seconds. Then I just sat there vacantly, tears drying on my cheeks, staring at a mourning dove cooing from his perch on top of our window bird feeder. How do we grieve this many losses? The dove turned his back to me and blithely pooped on top of the sunflower seeds. I thought about bird flu. I remembered that our current pandemic, too, arrived by leaping unceremoniously across species lines, uninterested in any theories about how we are different from them.

In those early days—before the vaccines and the variants, before the marches and the reading lists, before I knew the difference between an N95 and a KN95—a part of me still imagined we would come together to protect each other. It seemed so clear that there was no escaping the fact of our interconnectedness. The path of contagion drew the picture starkly enough: “We will live or we will die,” it said, “but whichever it is, we will do it together.”

We’d already made our decision, of course. I don’t know when it was that we decided that we would die together. Probably long before this virus. I didn’t want to see it, because I so badly wanted us all to live. But now, in the wake of the ever-continuing contestation—over masks, over vaccines, over monuments, over whether a person who kneels on the neck of another person until they die has committed homicide or not—what other interpretation could there be? We had, it seemed, passed our disturbance threshold.

As we soldier on, now, past our third pandemic Memorial Day and into the "new normal," I find myself thinking again about Amy Cooper. I think about how she brought Henry Cooper, her cocker spaniel—a breed of dog that was bred to hunt birds—into the heart of a refuge for migratory birds at the height of the spring migration, and how she became enraged at the suggestion made by a dark-skinned stranger that Henry should not be able to run free. I think about her discernment in that moment. What caused her rage? The suggestion that she was wrong? But wrong about what? Not just the surface wrong of “you are breaking the rules of the park,” not even the slightly under the surface wrong of “you are wrong to imagine that the rules of the park do not apply to you,” but perhaps also a deeper wrong: “You are wrong about the relationship between yourself, your dog, this land, and the other living beings on it. You are not an exception to the rules of this interconnected universe.”

Under other circumstances—delivered from a burning bush, perhaps? Or not in the middle of a pandemic?—this could have been revelation. It could have been received as a message of reassurance, of care. What I imagine, though, is that Amy Cooper experienced this reminder of our interconnected reality and the ask to take responsibility for her part in it as a terrifying destabilization of the narratives available to her, the foundational if contradictory stories that made up the unstable loam and rock on which she stood: “As a white American, I occupy this land on my own terms” and “As a white woman, I’m less powerful than white men but more powerful than black men, dogs, and birds.” I imagine this disruption happened in a few seconds, in an unconscious space; what Amy Cooper was actually aware of was a quickening of her pulse, an elevation of her temperature, perhaps a pit of dread opening in her stomach or her knees. Her body felt that she was, in fact, in danger. I think she experienced the tug of interrelatedness as threatening and that the narratives she knew told her that if she was threatened by someone or something less powerful than she was, she could summon protective violence.

The summoning of violence is what most of the public dialogue has focused on. White women with phones – at barbecues, at Starbucks. But it is what catalyzed the summoning, in this instance, that has lingered in my mind: for this particular white woman, the revelation that she was a threat to others felt like a threat to her. Or, alternatively: she interpreted the request to protect the safety of another as a message that her own safety was at risk.

And maybe this is where I most empathize with Amy Cooper, where I most understand all those journalists and their knee-jerk parenthetical denial of relationship. The reality of our relatedness is, actually, terrifying. It would be terrifying even in the most idyllic natural state—the vulnerability of prey to the presence of the predator; the vulnerability of predator to the absence of the prey—but in our current situation of imbalance, of California towns swallowed by fire and children inhaled by storm drains in New Jersey, it is untenable. We are all so utterly unprotected from ourselves.

To accept the proposal offered on that Memorial Day would mean stepping into the unbearably intimate reality of action and consequence–a truer and more terrifying kind of union than the one we have now. Our cherished American fantasy of free choice and individual liberty is, in a sense, a dream of division–a protection against feeling the holistic impact of our choices. If we cling to the myth of our separateness, we only have to mourn one set of losses.

Amy Cooper chose divide over union. Though she probably didn’t understand her choice, not really, some of us know full well what we are choosing. I know I do. As I fill my car with fossil fuel, as I toss my single use plastics, as I roll my eyes at anti-vaxxers and message friends on democracy-eroding social media platforms and pay exorbitant medical bills with my inherited wealth.

Meanwhile, the New York Times death tally has long ticked past one million.

And so, planted in this unstable loam and rock, we hurtle inexorably into a dizzying future of expansive human achievement and pandemic destruction, of lightning-fast information and the projected extinction of more than a million plant and animal species in the next few decades.

I wrote “inexorably” because that’s what all the signs point to: a devastating momentum, impossible to slow or stop. And yet, even as I write it, and even as I know it, I don’t believe it. There must be something exorable about this motion—some part of our collective soul that is still susceptible to persuasion, some plea that will transform us—if we can just be quiet long enough to hear it.

A husky, barrel-chested songbird on her way from South to North perches on the highest branch of a dying tree in the late spring, in the middle of a park in the middle of a city, tilting her little dinosaur head as she sings her ancient song. She is easier to hear than to see. She is easier to see than to identify. She is easier to identify than to understand. The easiest thing is to avoid her altogether, to let our cocker spaniels and ourselves off the leash and off the hook, to imagine we have no obligation, no dependence, no connection. But, like all of our relations, she is there whether we claim her or not. Until, one day—as we strip the boreal forests, as we warm the air and deplete the insects and abandon the indigenous management method of controlled burn in favor of clear cut—she will not be there. If we have not claimed her, surely we can avoid the awful mourning that will follow, the acute grief that will wash over us at the loss, the preventable loss, of our relations.


Sandberg-Zakian Headshot


Megan Sandberg-Zakian is a theater director, facilitator, and essayist. She is currently the Artistic Director of Boston Playwrights Theatre, an award-winning professional theater dedicated to new work for the stage located on the campus of Boston University. Her book, There Must Be Happy Endings: On a Theater of Optimism and Honesty, is available from The 3rd Thing Press, and her essays have recently appeared in American Theatre Magazine, The Flashpaper, and The SDC Journal. Megan is a co-founder of Maia Directors, a consulting group for artists and organizations engaging with stories from the Middle East and beyond, a graduate of Brown University, and holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College. She lives in Jamaica Plain, MA with her wife Candice.