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Conservation and Avian Stewardship as a Mindfulness Practice

Keynote Speech at the Foster Parrots

Remembering and Rebuilding Fall Fundraiser Memorial

It has been a tough time recently. Of course there is the pandemic, the ongoing loss of biodiversity and decreasing wildlife numbers, ravaging climate change induced storms and wildfires, and the suffering experienced by people and their communities the world over. The list of hardships is long, and it cuts straight through to our hearts, for it also includes the devastating fire last April at Foster Parrots where so many animal lives perished.

Do you sometimes find yourself on the point of despair? It’s natural. I get there sometimes myself. It’s a hard place. It hurts. You want to get out of that mood as soon as you can, don’t you? It’s not comfortable, and also we want to be productive, and be present to others and this beautiful life.

We can regret times when we sink away from our lives and from others. The character Legolas did so in the movie, “Lord of the Rings.” The coming day the enemy hordes would be upon them, and the heroes faced a battle they could not win. Legolas took his anxiety and fear out on Aragorn, blaming his leadership for taking the innocent into certain death. But sometime during the night he experienced a reckoning and apologized to Aragorn the next day by saying, “It was wrong of me to despair.”

I want to say to Legolas, and to you, it is not wrong to despair. We have to mourn, and mourn together. But perhaps the invitation is not to stay in that space, but to wrestle with discomfort and find the glory. To stay there is to give false witness to reality, to be persuaded that the hard parts of life are everything. It is a perversion of existence to dwell only on one aspect of reality.

But we can get sucked into overwhelming and faltering perspectives, because the loss can be so very painful. Let us return to Lord of the Rings where Gandalf the Wizard has just fallen into the abyss, and died. His bereft companions barely escape, and the hobbits fall to the ground sobbing and withdrawing. The violent enemies seeking to destroy them are close, and Aragorn commands them to get up. Another points to the hobbits and says, “How can you ask them to move when they have lost hope?” Aragorn replies, “Then we shall just have to move on without hope.”

Yikes, that is hard news indeed, and so true. In conservation and earth stewardship we go on without hope. However, there is a corollary to this truth: though there might not be hope, we always go on with beauty all around us and the ever present possibility of love and connection. We go on refusing to see only what a mirror shows us, which is human hubris and the projections of our internal, culturally constructed, and constricted world view. The earth is not a mirror, just as parrots do not just mimic human speech. If we would just listen we could hear what life is really saying to us.

Let us take a deep breath and listen for a moment here. Feel your heart beat, listen to your breath and the shuffling of those around you. The human body is a flowing miracle, a community of billions upon billions of species living together as cells who are cooperating and who have given their DNA to bring your unique nexus into being.

Look outward now and ponder the miracle of the universe. We are so unique here on this planet and so minuscule. There is more than can ever be seen, felt, loved, be in awe of, and to be sad over. Wonder is infinite.

Our work as conservationists and animal caretakers is to expand our awareness of the interconnecting beauty and tragedy inherent in existence so that we can be present, be engaged, and be in love.

This task lends an understanding of conservation as being a mindfulness practice. Even though there is loss, and there is a lot of that in our calling, there is also beauty and love. Other mindfulness practices emphasize how to be present to the tragedy and the hard parts of life and difficult feelings so that we can respond to what life asks of us. This means coming to terms with death as part of life. In this way conservation contains opportunities to practice the letting go of outcomes and to live fully in the present moment. With all the uncertainties and challenges in preserving the splendor of this planet, our work then is like a death chant, preparing the way for acceptance of what seems like senseless loss of what is precious and beautiful. In this case our death chant is not repeating, “how shall we go on with no hope?” but instead we ask different questions, as does singer/songwriter Gene Keller in his song, “Parrot Girl:"

How much love do you need?

How much love can you see?

How much love will set you free?

How much love can you be?

People began to ask these kinds of questions during the pandemic and turned to birds for the answers. Birdwatching has soared! We turn to them for beauty, for hope, and out of love. But bird watching is not about always feeling good, for if we really observed birds, we would see that their lives tell us of suffering. I know I’m preaching to the choir here – you know how much we can learn from birds. They tell us that there is not such a big difference between humans and other species, and between individuals. Birds too have pandemics and they too mourn.

During the West Nile virus 15 years ago some areas in North America lost over two-thirds of the crows. The remaining crows mourned. They changed. They experienced social and individual trauma. These are the conclusions that scientists came to after studying them during this time. Females didn’t disperse as much from their biological families and territories shrunk. Birds were reluctant to try new things. Crows normally move as small family groups, but these were torn asunder. They forged new families, such as adults taking care of chicks from another pair. Does this response to the pandemic, or loss in your life, sound familiar?

Birds offer us a chance to choose to share the deep ache within us and look squarely at death. Conservation and avian care is at times an onerous spiritual practice, but it can connect us to an ever greater sense of wonder and beauty. I am not saying that if you just work hard enough all will be well, for I don’t know how much choice we might actually have. I don’t think any of us have this figured out, such as the hero in the movie “The Thin Red Line.” He was a soldier in the Pacific during World War II and was walking along a hillside that was being bombed. One bomb felled a tree in which there was a parrot nest, spilling the chicks to the ground. As he watched the final struggle of the parrot, he mused:

One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there's nothing but unanswered pain, that death's got the final word, it's laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.

By being with birds we can see our fragility, and yet an enduring connection to the reality that pain and loss cannot be avoided, and neither can love. In that reckoning of both tragedy and beauty, lies the path to freedom. It is a difficult journey but it is graced with one love, on heart, and one earth. Bob Marely’s song "One Love," says, "Let’s get together and it’ll be all right." Getting together is right. Thank you for being here and helping us all fly free.

If you would like to help Foster Parrots rebuild, go here.

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