Thursday, September 18, 2008


They who bind to themselves a joy

Do the winged life destroy

They who kiss the joy as it flies

Live in eternity’s sunrise

- William Blake (adapted)


Once upon a time there was a FireBird known far and wide in many cultures. Often named Phoenix, the bird lived on dew, hurting none during her long life span. Year after year as she flew all over the earth she witnessed the toils and troubles of humans, and became increasingly sad. Eventually, the burden of what she saw and knew tired her, and her feathers became dull. Her time on the earth was ending. Though she desired to live, she knew she must say goodbye to the earth and the sun so that new life could come from her. Using the last of her strength, she gathered twigs from ancient Redwood trees and cones from even older Bristlecone pines that were young when she had been just a chick. She then added leaves from her favorite tree, the fragrant Sassafras, until she had a soft mound upon which to lie. Before settling into a deep sleep, she looked out upon the painful beauty around her one last time before she closed her eyes. The human peoples gathered round her, confused and afraid because Phoenix’s brother, Thunderbird, began to rumble. The despair of one so beautiful angered him, and his rage lit the sky with lightening. One bolt struck her tinder-ready bed, and she was consumed in flames. The ashes had barely cooled before a bright rainbow head poked out, and the beings of the land cheered to see their prophet, their witness, and their winged hope alive once again. Beholding the death and reemergence of the FireBird, the people felt that they too had come through the fire of desire, and felt as if their souls had been burned. Even the fledgling FireBird knew better. The humans had not stepped but one toe into the fire. They did not yet know what it meant to give of one’s self so hope could be born.


Thus the cycle or death and rebirth of the FireBird repeated again and again. The people not only continued, but also increased their devastation of one another and their brother and sister beings. Each generation of the Phoenix lived shorter and shorter life spans, because the Great Bird could only carry the burden of so much suffering and loss in one life-time. One day it came to pass that so greatly had the climate changed that the Phoenix no longer had to build her own funeral pyre or Thunderbird to light it. She simply burned while she flew through the gray skies full of the ash of the burning lands below and of the bones of others whose flesh and habitats were consumed by human desire. In this not so distant time, the ashes of life constantly fell and never cooled, and there never was seen another Phoenix that could love, care, and hold beauty and tragedy together.


This story speaks of common human experience and directly to many hearts whose work with birds, ecology, and conservation have left them with confusion and despair. I count myself as one among those. My first trip to Guatemala witnessed the burning of old growth tropical forest and with it acres of nesting trees. Even after ten years of working in conservation there, the burning continued as field upon field of sugar cane supplanted the food, nesting, and roosting trees of generations of wild parrots. To harvest sugar cane the fields are first fired and the ashes rain down as "nieve negra" (black snow). Now the north forests of Guatemala are aflame, endangering the remaining 200 Scarlet Macaws there. Once this rainbow colored bird flew throughout Guatemala in the tens of thousands and now there is but a remnant, waiting, waiting for new life and hope to emerge.


As an avian veterinarian and later as minister, I have been waiting. I’ve worked in avian research, on large scale poultry farms, in the pet bird industry, and on the front line of avian conservation. Time and time again I’ve seen hope go up in flames, ever expecting some new idea, some research, some new religious or ethical understanding, or some collaborative project to arise and illuminate what we might do to save ourselves and the life around us. Each year, the ashes of trees and bird bones fall ever more thickly, as do the tears.

Though it seems we are in darkness, not all is lost, yet. Sparks exists in each of us that if kindled and cared for, may provide enough light to lead us out of the darkness that is our brokeness and our disconnection from the whole of nature. To walk this path, I believe the time has come, must come, for humans to be the FireBirds themselves and carry the firebrands to light a new way. This new way shines in my heart through the story of Tsesuna, a FireBird of the Abenaki tribe of North America.


Tsesuna the Raven was the son of Thunderbird and went all around the Earth seeking good. In those days, he was a bird with exceedingly beautiful plumage that shone with the colors of the rainbow. His greatest hope was to find light, for the world and its peoples lived in perpetual dark. One day he came upon the Fire of Life burning brightly in a great house. This fire he knew would warm the hearts and hearths of humans, and light their way. Singing a sad song that it had come to this, he jumped into the hot fire to secure one brand for the people. In the process all his feathers were burned black and his voice, once melodic, became only a harsh croak. He flew towards the people, who at first ran from the apparition that spoke their worst fears that were also their great truths. "The light of wisdom and the warmth of love comes not from the cloying darkness of perceived separation, and denial of the harm we perpetuate in our lives. It comes from jumping into the Fire of Life and letting the flames burn our egos away. The songs we hear may be sad and the news harsh, but the giving will allow us to spread our wings to hold all that we see, and give light unto others." Tsesuna passed on the fire to the people, who in turn carried it throughout the earth, no longer waiting for light, but singing.


My hope is that this blog inspires you to pick up firebrands where you may and carry their truth back to the people. No doubt you may wish to run and hide. I know I’ve spent most of my life doing the same. Perhaps like me though you have heard the disappearing songs of birds that you can no longer ignore. I hear the birds calling us to jump into the fire so that our ego may be as ashes at our feet as we spread our wings in joy to hold all that we may. This holding is of the "whole dang" world that nurtures our spirits and heals the earth. In this shared healing, we become whole as we act from the deep knowing that the fate of one is the fate of all. Through our actions we affirm a covenant that we can live as one people and as one earth. Then in some not so distant time, I pray, the promise of life will arc over us as rainbow wings, and with the birds we shall fly free.

Credit pictures: Fire
Scarlet Macaw:

1 comment:

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