Where are the birds?

Bird Feeder no birds

We have always had birds in our back yard in the winter, coming to our feeder, or rooting around on the ground. But this year, we’ve seen almost none at all. We didn’t fill the feeder over the summer–but many birds visited during that time, in the orchard and in the nearby trees and all over the place. So we expected that filling it up again would bring the usual winter birds. But I can count on one hand the birds I’ve seen. And no cardinals.

In trying to comprehend this, I noticed that only one other thing has changed. The lot behind our neighbor’s house–not visible in this photo–had been overgrown with bittersweet, and then the vines took down part of a big maple tree. Plus Margy had been cutting a lot of the invasive bittersweet.  So that field has less tree and vine cover, which some birds may have preferred.  More ominously, I’ve read that in North America the total number of birds has declined by 25% in the last fifty years.  Is it finally affecting our own yard?

I have seen a few birds here and there on my walk in the neighborhood, and there have been a few in the crabapples in the front yard. But despite our full feeder, plus a thistle feeder, and even a suet cake, no one is around.  It seems so strange and empty.  Have you noticed fewer birds where you live?

All of this got me thinking sadly about extinction, and I happened to see a documentary about the early Neanderthal humans, who lived in Europe and Asia for several hundred thousand years, before becoming extinct about 40,000 years ago. According to the DNA testing company “23 and Me”, all modern humans, except for those from sub-Saharan Africa, have between 1 and 4 % Neanderthal DNA, from interbreeding of the two related species. So the Neanderthals can be counted among my ancestors too. By the way, they were much smarter and more cultured than the myths that were taught about them early on.

There are a lot of theories about why they went extinct. But this particular documentary, Neanderthal Apocalypse, made the hypothesis that one factor was the eruption of a super-volcano near present day Naples 39,000 years ago. However that might have effected the Neanderthals, I found myself more focused on what it might do to us today. If a super-volcano were to erupt in our time, ash and debris would cover miles and miles of land, and kill all vegetation, crops, and the animals who rely on them (including us.)  Ashes and toxic gases would rise up into the upper atmosphere and block out sunlight, plunging a large portion of the earth into a volcanic winter. Civilization over.

Now this might be a depressing thing to think about, but for some reason, I didn’t feel depressed. Instead, I was reminded of how very powerful the Earth really is.  We are so small, and so reliant on all of the Earth’s interwoven life.  So, in a funny way, I felt less afraid. We humans know some things, and the activity of our species is causing damage to the climate, and wreaking havoc everywhere. But so much is beyond our control and even our understanding. It is profoundly humbling and reminds me to be grateful for how the earth provides everything we need.

So I come round to this Winter Solstice holiday, today, and say thanks to the Earth for birthing us, for feeding us, for fire that warms us in winter, for so much beauty that inspires our lives.  And I say a prayer for the birds: please come back to once again feast with us in this little patch of land we call home.

 

Disruptions of Spring

Turkey Tom display

Spring is here in its northern way, with unexpected delights and disruptions–the wild turkey toms proudly displaying in the midst of old snow and random automobiles–a flock of starlings taking over the trees in our yard—two ducks hanging out in the brook. A small group of us celebrated with ritual on the Equinox to welcome these disruptive forces into our lives, to undo the stuck places we’ve found ourselves, and make room for new growth, new movement. We used a frozen bowl of ice, in which we placed candles, to symbolize the thawing times.

We do still have snow or ice over most of the yard, but each day another small patch of brown grass appears; our neighbor was already out raking in her snow-free yard.  In the middle of this, two days ago, my car was rear-ended as I was driving the on-ramp toward the highway after grocery shopping in town. No one was hurt, thankfully, though my car is now in the shop waiting for the insurance bureaucracy to authorize repairs. I was able to drive it home from the scene, and take out the groceries, being careful to go through and watch for broken glass in the bags.

Still, it shook me up with the vulnerability that is life.  We never know which day might be the last.  And meanwhile I’ve been watching a show on Netflix called “Last Chance to See” which follows Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine as they make a journey in 2009 to visit endangered animals that were first documented twenty years earlier by Mark and Douglas Adams (author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Stephen Fry brings a comedic voice to their adventures as the urban klutz who doesn’t usually traipse about in nature. (I recognized his voice from the movie version of Hitchhiker’s Guide.)

But underneath that veneer of comedy is wonder and grief.  The final episode was originally going to be about the Yangtze river dolphin, but the dolphins were declared extinct in 2007.  So instead, they search for blue whales.  Mark tells Stephen that blue whales, the largest animals ever on the planet, have been here for forty million years.  Forty million years. And now they are endangered, along with so many others.

I was caught up in the awe Stephen and Mark experienced in getting up close to these majestic beings.  I was filled with amazement at the beauty of this complex interwoven planet that we have been blessed to inhabit.  And I tapped into the grief that has been haunting so many of us these days.  Grief for the demise of so many beings.  Grief for the losses that are being propelled by human activity.

I feel so powerless to stop this roaring train that “western civilization” has become.  Perhaps there is nothing we can do to save all that is dying.  All I could think to do was to let myself choose conscious gratitude and love–gratitude and love for the utter wonder of life on our planet.  Gratitude and love for the animals and plants that are our elders and companions.  Gratitude and love in the midst of grief.

Flock of Starlings

Starlings in the trees.

 

 

Ecological Connection and the Wall of Grief

Jon Young, founder of the Wilderness Awareness School, teaches young people the skills of wildlife tracking and plant identification, fostering an ecological connection to nature. Many skills and techniques are easy to learn, and there is a deepening sense of wonder and gratitude that grows along with their skills. But when the youth reach a certain stage in their learning, they hit what he calls the “wall of grief,” an experience of being overwhelmed with sorrow at the loss and degradation of the natural world around us. That grief is the most difficult challenge the young people face in all of the school’s programs.

Live-video-of-BP-oil-spil-004I felt such a wall of grief, during the spring and summer of 2010 watching millions of gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from the broken BP oil well. It seemed as if the earth itself was bleeding from this gaping human-made wound deep below the waters of the sea.

I believe that our spiritual growth depends on deepening our connection to the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. The natural world is vital to our spiritual journey. We might say that the earth is our Bible, our Quran, our sacred revelation, and our paradise. We echo this principle in the mission statement of my own congregation, when we say, simply, that we walk with care on this earth.

But there are times when that careful walk awakens deep sorrow and anguish. We know so much more than human beings have known before. We know what is happening all over the globe. We see the melting of ancient glaciers, as the climate heats up from greenhouse gases. We know there is a vast soup of plastic refuse possibly twice the size of the continental United States floating in the Pacific Ocean. We know that the topsoil in which our food grows is being depleted, and the rain forests which renew the world’s oxygen are being cut down. We know that increasing numbers of species are threatened with extinction. We know that there are nuclear stockpiles that could destroy most life on earth many times over.

We know so much more than human beings have known before, but we don’t know the solutions to these problems that threaten our future. And that is a wall of grief that can stop us in our tracks as we seek to walk with care on this earth. How do we live with the painful questions that do not yet have answers?  

I learned the story of the Wall of Grief in Starhawk, The Earth Path