Feed Your Head: Sparrows, Mao and the Meaning of the Black Mountain Institute

Jim Rogers' gift to UNLV’s writing institute will help arts and letters flourish in the valley

Illustration by Christopher A. Jones

Illustration by Christopher A. Jones

I cannot imagine killing a sparrow. Maybe if I were starving? Maybe if they fixed their tiny eyes on me in a freakish, Hitchcockian sort of way? But really, a sparrow is a frail, sweet bird. When I think of China’s 1958 “Destroy the Four Pests” campaign, in which Chairman Mao enlisted everyone—adults and children alike—to kill all sparrows because he perceived the little birds as an impediment to national growth, I think of the importance of education and empathy. I also think about poet Joshua Kryah and the UNLV Black Mountain Institute.

The nearly 8-year-old Black Mountain Institute recently received a $10 million donation from former Nevada higher education Chancellor Jim Rogers and his wife, Beverly. The literary and liberal arts institute will now be called the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute. (Founder and Executive Director Harter, a former UNLV president and a prodigious fundraiser for the institute, has announced her retirement effective at the end of the academic year.)

The donation will be used to reinstitute BMI’s City of Asylum program, which provides a safe haven here for international writers who suffer the threat of imprisonment or death for their work. It will also support UNLV English Ph.D. and fellowship programs, and enhance BMI’s community outreach—a series of free public readings and panel discussions about arts and political issues.

All of which brings me back to sparrows. Among the many literary and cultural events sponsored by BMI was a 2011 reading by poet Joshua Kryah. I was not familiar with his work when I attended. He read from his book We Are Starved, including a poem called “The Day Without Before This Without,” which was, he said, a re-imagining of Mao’s 1958 sparrow slaughter.

Mao said the birds were ruining the crops; interfering in his plan for China’s “Great Leap Forward” from agriculture to industry. So, in hopes of geopolitical greatness, people shot, poisoned and slingshot the little birds, stomped on their nests, and—in a peculiarly cruel ploy—collectively banged pots and pans for days to create so much noise that it scared the birds from landing, until, exhausted, they began to fall out of the sky, dead.

Of course, it wasn’t long before locusts took over—free to eat the crops with no sparrows to bother them. Ecological imbalance contributed to the ensuing Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961), in which 15 million to 40 million people died.

I sat in a UNLV auditorium 50 years later and worlds away awaiting Kryah. I’d been considering the difficult-to-monetize value of liberal arts in an American pop culture that celebrates wealth and ignorance. I’d been specifically thinking of its value in Las Vegas, a place whose intellectual reputation is more about capitalizing on the id than creating an ambience of thought. I’d recently spoken to Harter about her mission to educate the community. She said, “You get a very different look at the world through a liberal arts education. Maybe it’s more empathetic. It’s not just analytical. It’s caring about the culture.”

Then, Kryah took to the quiet stage and read his re-imagining of the sparrow war:

How we pinched their necks as our parents looked on, banged / pots and pans, drove them from yards, tore down / their nests, broke their eggs, devoured their young.

We were starved. / We went around making everything around us more starved. …

So many times since then, when I’ve witnessed the underbelly of Las Vegas’ epic, consequence-less money-and-sex image, I’ve heard those lines: We were starved, and we went around making everything around us more starved. Every day, there’s a headline that recalls it: An ill-equipped mental health hospital is overflowing, more than half of Clark County schoolchildren qualify for food assistance.

Of course, it’s a heavy sentiment for a city that’s now, thankfully, feeling some momentum, climbing out of a recession, experiencing a revival Downtown. But it reminds me of the importance of a community’s well-rounded education. It makes me grateful for the current cultural renaissance that’s expanding the Las Vegas ethos, making us a budding city of arts and letters, a city with pronounced heart. It reminds me that work like that of the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute is invaluable.



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