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Writers on Writers: Douglas McGray and Jon Mooallem Go Birding at the Ballpark

The editor of Popup Magazine takes the author of the new book Wild Ones on a seagull-watching expedition.

Jon mines the past, too, finding funny, revealing stories about people and animals from America’s earliest years—like Thomas Jefferson’s feud with a French pseudoscientist who had managed to persuade much of Europe that American animals were all weak and small. (Jefferson was convinced that there were still woolly mammoths roaming the unexplored West.) Jon describes Jefferson, in this episode, as “an early American George Costanza, a seething nebbish quick to take umbrage but never quite able to respond convincingly.” In an effort to prove his point, Jefferson actually had a moose killed, stuffed, and shipped to his rival in Paris.

America was an abundantly wild place in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it isn’t anymore. But Jon is less interested in wringing his hands over what we’ve lost than in considering how our ideas about animals have changed—how we live among them, and how they live among us. Massive herds of buff alo used to block railroad tracks and delay trains for hours, and that was expected, even accepted. Now, we expect to manage the number of seagulls circling above a waterfront ballpark full of food scraps.

“For some reason, I find people most fascinating when they’re dealing with animals,” Jon says. “We can sit around and talk about what the seagulls are doing, how we’re going to stop the seagulls. And the seagulls will keep doing their thing. They can never answer back. They’re good raw material to make meaning out of. There’s a famous quote by Claude Lévi-Strauss: ‘Animals are good to think with.’ I think that’s true.”
The night grows cool, as it does. We zip up our jackets. Jon gets hot chocolate. I pull on gloves.

“Look at the Kiss Cam,” Jon says, pointing. “Otters.” Two pairs of cuddling otters frame the scoreboard’s footage of kissing fans. I laugh. I hadn’t noticed the otters.

“You know what I do see?” I ask.

“It is the seventh inning,” Jon answers.

The seagulls gather like smoke at the edge of the upper deck, turning slow circles in an updraft. They pass low over the cove, weaving between sailboat masts, and lazily buzz the arcade. Three of them, in tight formation, glide across the outfield, bank left at the scoreboard, and set out across the bay.

The Giants hold on to win, 4–2.

Douglas McGray is the editor of Pop-Up Magazine. He has written for the New Yorker, This American Life, and the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Noe Valley.

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Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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