a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The current total flamingo population in 2019 is 200,000 and declining; total plastic flamingo population, 20 million and increasing. If the real bird is synonymous with free thought, is ninety-percent of all thought manufactured?
Stephen Hawking warned robots will be the end of mankind. Are plastic flamingos the end of the tropical bird?
Thinking such things, how robot and plastic were once thought-embryos—ideas conceived in the mind—I’m reminded to mind the gap between the world in my head and the world outside of it. Watching the flamingos strut in the African mud and thinking of the two plastic birds on my aunt’s front lawn, in Miami Beach, I see how language is a magic-conveyor-belt that transforms abstraction to concrete. Words signpost ideas, and things are born—a Virgin Mary carved from oak or marble, ivory chess sets, plastic fun-meal toys, bottles, bags, flamingos.
Williams Carlos Williams wrote: “There are no ideas but in things.”
If you can conceive a flamingo
you will never be without
Don Featherstone produced the first ever pink plastic lawn ornament in 1957. A professional sculptor, Featherstone was employed by Union Productions in 1956 to further a collective idea: “Plastics for the Lawn.” The collection consisted of 2D frogs, dogs, ducks, and flamingos, and Featherstone was to use the magic of art to transform the creatures to 3D lawn ornaments. But without access to a real flamingo to mold, Featherstone had to study photographs of the tropical fowl in National Geographic. He saw the bird with his hands and thumbed and pressed a bird from the warm clay. The red clay clung to the unmarked skin beneath his fingernails, stained his palms, caked arm-hairs up to his elbows, and smudged his cheeks and forehead. His wife agreed, his hands had a certain magic to them. From clay to plaster cast, he molded a hollow flamingo shape and filled it with plastic. He envisioned the flamingos with wooden legs, but it was too expensive, so he used metal—and the thin wire became the bird’s legs. Thanks to Featherstone, the world would never be without a plastic flamingo.
Tens of thousands of flamingos flocked to the South Florida coast in the 1800s but were hunted for their feathers—sugar pink plumes used for quills, hats of exotic design, gifts of fallen angel feathers. Flamingo eggs were traded and sold as a sign of social stature—ornamental or poached. The birds flew away, and Florida lost a native privilege. Imagine a cloud of plumage pink as a Texas dawn, clamoring, black beaks hooking the wind as they migrate south, to the Caribbean and Central America.
When does the bird migrate from the idea of a bird?
How does the President of the United States of America migrate from the idea of government?
Wild flamingos departed South Florida a century ago. But Florida embodies the idea of the bird. Flamingos populate lottery tickets, guarding your lucky numbers. Flamingo Parking Garage marks where you parked your car at Miami International Airport. The name is stolen from the bird and given to shopping malls and side streets, condo associations and visitor centers. As a child in the 80s, I lived in Flamingo Plaza, a condo tower in Miami’s North Bay Village. Now, Flamingo Apartments on South Beach is where all the young and beautiful party-people live. I pass them sometimes at 6am, on my way to the ocean, and notice their bright eyes, wild faces, bodies bumping to basslines. They are known as the Flamingo crowd. Beyond the flamingo crowd are flamingo businesses, flamingo consultants, clothing companies, magazines, logos and brands. Rare Flamingo Tours depart from the Flamingo Center at Everglades National Park where a flock can occasionally be seen, blushing the distance beyond an edge of sawgrass.
Rozzy and Danny, friends from England, are honeymooning in Miami. I’m driving us down to the Upper Keys for a couple of nights. We’re nearing the end of the stretch, the strip of road that cuts the ocean and connects the islands, when Rozzy asks:
“Where can we buy plastic flamingos?”
We stop at every tourist attraction on the way down to Islamorada. No plastic flamingos, but Shell World is a hit. They leave with a miniature porcelain flamingo, two conch shells and a shell- wind-chime. Watching the sunset with frozen cocktails at Rumrunner’s, Rozzy asks:
“How can there be no plastic flamingos?”
“There are real flamingos at Everglades National Park,” I suggest, “Maybe they’ll sell the plastic ones in the gift shop?”
“But then we should go on the rare flamingo tour,” says Rozzy. “I’ll feel bad if we only go for the plastic ones.”
“I bet we could buy one online,” says Danny.
“A plastic one? For a moment, I thought you said you could buy a real flamingo online.”
“I bet you could, from one of those dodgy black-market websites. You can buy anything on there, tiger penises, crystal meth…”
“Who would buy a real flamingo?” asks Rozzy. “And why?” I ask.
The more we drink, the more interesting the idea of the flamingo becomes. “What are you writing about these days?”
“Trump,” I say, “Maybe Flamingos.”
Sitting on the small couch next to Alan, I flip the channel from PBS News Hour to a nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough: A baboon grabs a flamingo by the tail and pulls it to the clay. The delicate tubular soft pink neck crinkles in the monkey’s fist. An eagle lands on the carcass, interrupts the old-world monkey and chases after it with talons outstretched. The eagle returns to its prized meal, strips meat and feathers. Rows of flamingos with fluorescent orange eyes jerk their half-heart-heads, fuchsias in the African mud.
Human desire is shaped like a flamingo.
Joseph Widener was the father of the flamingo logo. He was not native. Neither was Julia Tuttle, “Mother of Miami,” who first owned the land on which Miami was built. Like Tuttle, Henry Flagler and Mary Brickell, Widener came to Miami to profit from the tropical wilderness. Nobody is native to Miami, except the Tequesta, and the flamingos; they thrived before the mass extinction and migration of the 1800s. Florida was founded by out-of-towners and branded as the last frontier—a paradise carved from wilderness. The flamingo logo means paradise. But the founding father of the Florida Flamingo wasn’t interested in flamingos.
Joseph Widener quelled his desires with the control and influence of the Miami Jockey Club. He wanted to own hooves and kicked-up dirt, thoroughbreds with white necks, greased with sweat. In 1931, Widener bought the Hialeah Race Track, and in 1934, he imported the first flamingo flock from Cuba. They populated the man-made lake in the middle of the track. Nobody thought of the word Hialeah—how it is the Seminole word for high-ground. Names cling to native origins. But even the Seminoles are not native to South Florida, they came from Georgia. Nobody questions this, nor why Widener had to import flamingos back to their native land. He saw the flamingo as a symbol of his vision and coupled the bird with his idea to restore Florida’s most famous racetrack. The flamingo trademarked his grand idea, the Flamingo Stakes—a significant race that preceded the Kentucky Derby. To mark the start of each race, the flamingos ascended in flight, simultaneously.
The spectacle was branded, “The Flight of the Flamingos.” On occasion, eggs and chicks were stolen in the night. Why? We’ll never know. I can’t imagine flamingos are captured for their meat. And I can’t imagine them serving as affectionate pets. But the flock never flew away. They lived up to fifty years in their manufactured habitat of shallow marsh and volcanic shaped mounds of clay. The National Audubon Society marked the lake a sanctuary, as it was the only known artificial habitat to foster and sustain breeding. The flamingos flourished, were sold to zoos in Miami, St. Louis, and Inglewood, CA.
In 1937, three years after Widener imported flamingos to Hialeah Race Track, Edward Bernays presented his vision of a new democracy at the New York City World’s Fair. He envisioned a democracy married to capitalism and constructed a prototype of the new society named “DemocraCity.” People came out in hordes and marveled at the miniature city ornamented with advertisements—logos that signified desires. Edward Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. He had no dealings with flamingos but rather with the ideas of things—the psychology of group mentality. Bernays built his vision from his uncle’s findings, that mankind, collectively, is not civilized and cannot be trusted to make democratic decisions. But Freud disagreed with Bernays—that capitalism could suppress the dark forces that reside within us all. Freud died from jaw cancer with a broken contempt for mankind. Bernays presented capitalism as a form of mind control, to satisfy the masses with things that masked disruptive ideas, to maintain a happy and tranquil status-quo—this is how a plastic flamingo quells fear and feeds desire. The pioneer of marketing, “the father of public relations,” Bernays studied irrational fears and desires of the human mind and “magicked” ways for us to see things anew. Cigarettes symbolized the liberated woman and became a sign of female independence and feminism. He marketed cigarettes as freedom torches and likened them to the Statue of Liberty. Bernays created the first commercials: guided the desire of the masses and satisfied them with the things of the world. He conceived marketing and boomed industry for our primal appetites. A world of plastic flamingos. A world where the ideas of things become bigger than themselves.
When does the bird migrate from the idea of a bird?
How does the President of the United States of America migrate from the idea of government?
Don Featherstone’s flamingos retailed at $2.76 a pair. It was the 1950s, the first decade of commercials and advertising programs on Technicolored TVs. Illuminations of manicured lawns treated with chemicals. Plastic provided supernatural colors. Every suburban lawn across American needed a hot pink flamingo. Everyone needed a pink Cadillac in the driveway, crimson refrigerators, turquoise microwave-ovens, Velcro, bubble wrap, polyester pants. In South Florida, flamingos are hunted to near extinction. Numbers fall to fewer than five thousand.
If the real bird is independent thought, then is ninety-percent of all thought manufactured?
In 1986, the Hialeah flamingo became the official logo for the Florida Lottery “in the hopes of providing Floridians with a familiar image.” This meant that the image means something, means more than an endangered bird. The flamingo conjures paradise, racetracks, winning lottery tickets, ocean-side homes, apparel, magazines, marketing firms. Today, the few wild flamingos populating the outreached wilderness are escapees from Hialeah racetrack, escapees from Miami Zoo, liberated by a list of hurricanes. What does it mean to glimpse a wild flamingo? What does it mean to buy a lottery ticket? What does a flamingo mean to you? To ask questions is to cast fishing lines. The answer is the idea of the fish, dwarfs the fish. The idea of everything dwarfs the thing.
The things of the world web to new referents and orbit back upon themselves. Things like how the idea of a flamingo quells fear, sates desire. Are all my thoughts plastic, inherited? Masquerading as the real deal?
Rozzy and Danny email a photo of themselves posing with a pair of plastic-pink flamingos. They sport matching flamingo sunglasses—dark lenses framed with the extravagance of flamingo necks. Flamingo sunglasses to shade the bright grey English sky. The birds are luminous against green, wet leaves. Rozzy and Danny smile with four thumbs up. In the months to come, they send photos of themselves and the flamingos at music festivals, outside the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower. A photo of them upholding the plastic flamingos at Will and Kate’s wedding—flamingos above the London crowds, above the Austin Martin, between Will and Kate’s heads as they step out of the car.
Pink plastic flamingo lawn ornaments, globes in my exfoliator, children’s beach shovels and buckets, pink latex dildos, a pink Jesus that looks like a bright dildo on the bar at a poetry reading. Steve Bannon as the Grim Reaper on Saturday Night Live on a muted TV above the bar. A headline runs under it: World to lose 70% of the world’s wildlife by 2020.
Flamingo sales declined in the 1960s—a backlash against the plastic flamingo and its posture in manicured lawns. It was a decade defined by a multiplicity of things. The masses stood against being the masses. People claimed individuality. Deep down, do you crave dirt-clogged roots, ocean-wind, organic salt, sex, someone’s blood, a hot pink flamingo? Deep down, are you an irrational, emotionally driven person?
Don Featherstone’s plastic lawn ornament made a comeback after John Waters 1972 movie, Pink Flamingos. The movie is about a drag queen who strives to become “the filthiest person alive.” The movie had nothing to do with flamingos and everything to do with flamboyance and extravagance, desires the flamingo has come to signify, has conjured. The big screen redirected the nation’s love back to the kitschy pink lawn ornament. The familiar image of the Florida flamingo later became the backdrop for TV shows as well, Miami Vice, The Champ, Let it Ride. Ideas of flamingos resounded through theaters, on VHS, on Tell-your-Visions across America.
News headline from Fox News in 2006: Pink Plastic Flamingo Faces Extinction.
Having a beer with Alan on the porch, he asks how the flamingo essay is going and tells me about the time when he was a boy after Hurricane Andrew. In 1992, he lived near the Miami Zoo and witnessed a flock of flamingos spreading across the sky, cawing like crows. Helicopters whipping in the distance. The flamingos, sleek lines of pink against the flaming sky, tossed the final colors of the day across suburbia.
In a few weeks, when he comes home after digging shovel-test pits at the edge of the Everglades, he’ll tell me of the lone flamingo he glimpsed, flying over the sugar cane fields.
In a few weeks, my aunt will be forced to throw away her plastic flamingo lawn ornaments when a vandal fastens used condoms to the beaks of the birds. The condoms droop and sag, damp with dew. She will call the police and demand they investigate the heinous crime, but nothing will come of it.
Chloe Firetto-Toomey has an MFA degree from Florida International University. She currently teaches nonfiction at Everglades Correctional Institution and is an author assistant. She is a two-time finalist in Tupelo Quarterly‘s Prose Open Contest and a finalist in Diagram‘s chapbook contest. She won the 2017 Christopher F. Kelly Award for Poetry and 2020 Scotti Merrill Award for poetry. Her chapbook of poems, Little Cauliflower, was published in 2019 by Dancing Girl Press.