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Vulnerable and Resilient


David Weir

We're under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.

-- Ben Bradlee to Woodward and Bernstein (All the President's Men)

As we move through this dangerous transition period from a would-be dictator to a career bipartisan dealmaker, I'm alert to what role journalists can and are playing in this process. For inspiration, I returned to the familiar classic, "All the President's Men," which all journalism films have to be measured against.

What strikes me now, four-and-a-half decades after Watergate, is both how vulnerable and resilient our Democratic institutions have proven to be.

Vulnerable and resilient -- that would be the ideal state of our youth when we send them out into the world, which is exactly what we do with our ever-youthful democracy.

Nine months ago, as the pandemic was getting underway, my daughter and her children drove to a farm in Sonoma to purchase 16 domestic quail chicks. The kids were excited. They gave the chicks names and speculated which would turn out to be boys or girls.

As they raised them indoors in cardboard boxes under a heat lamp, their father built a quail run out back, using wood pallets and wire fencing. My granddaughter Sophia, who is nine, worked alongside him day after day, learning to use saws and hammers and levels to construct the building at the rear of their lot.

The chicks grew into adults, and the family gave away most of the males to other families, keeping one male and the three females from the original group. As the weather warmed, the females started laying eggs, some brown-spotted and some baby blue in color. We ate the eggs, and they were delicious.

Well into the summer, something remarkable happened. Sophia discovered that one of the females had built a nest and was sitting on some of the eggs, not only her own but those of her sisters. This was strange because this breed of domestic quail is known for dropping their eggs willy-nilly and never returning to care for them.

Eventually, one of the eggs hatched and out came a baby quail, soft and furry. This seemed like a miracle. Sophia, who has an entrepreneurial streak, envisioned raising the baby and perhaps others who would hatch to launch a new business of providing quails that would raise their young to other families in this town.

Word of the miraculous birth circulated and the mother and baby became the objects of interest and affection to her friends in the area.

On one occasion, Sophia discovered a neighbor child had left the door to the quail run unhitched and all the birds had escaped. All of the adult quail lingered near the door of the structure, but the baby was nowhere to be seen.

Sophia, who'd been keeping a close eye on the mother and baby for weeks, quickly noticed that the mother was calling for her baby and the baby was responding from the other side of the fence dividing their yard from the neighbor's. My son-in-law sprang into action, went next door, and rescued the baby even as a blue jay was perched nearby, eyeing it hungrily.

The danger from predators was constant, as raccoons and rats and probably other creatures visited the exterior of the quail house at night, but they could never figure out a way to get in.

Then one day last week, my daughter came in and said all of the quail were gone. We had been out late the night before, celebrating Thanksgiving in the city and this was the first time that anyone had checked on the birds.

The news was not good. A small hole far outside the building led to a tunnel into the quail house. Under a pallet were piles and piles of feathers and the bodies of the four adult quail. The predator had eaten their heads.

The baby was missing.

The bodies of the adults had been dragged by the predator until reaching a spot where they were too big to fit and there they lay. The baby had apparently been dragged to another place to be consumed.

Thus ended the experience of raising these birds and Sophia's dreams of starting a new business. And if the mother and baby represented some sort of beneficial mutation toward a new type of domestic species, this ended that night too.

My granddaughter was sad, naturally, and she told me she's been crying a lot. But her eyes are clear. And her gaze is steely.

"Next time we get quail we have to fix the house so that a determined enemy can't tunnel into it,” she said firmly.

In America at large, that next time is now, and we have to fix our democratic system so that a determined enemy cannot tunnel into it.

Our collective fate hangs in the balance.

David Weir is a journalist who has worked and published at Rolling Stone, Salon,, The New York Times, The Nation, Mother Jones, New York, New Times, SunDance, and many other publications and sites. He is a co-founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting and the author of four books.

Song of the Birds ::: Pablo Casals

Siegfried Idyll ::: Glenn Gould

Round About Midnight ::: Baden Powell