Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Antecedent of Compassion


 Twenty years since my last entry into the Orlando Florida hotel and conference scene, I entered the Marriott Hotel this week to attend the North American Veterinary Conference.  What a huge undertaking – possibly the largest in the world with over 16,000 attendees.  I was astounded at the amount of business and wealth in the veterinary profession.  My last major foray in veterinary medicine had been as a wildlife veterinarian in Latin America and I’m still getting use to the privileged life our communities of all species enjoy here.  May I never take it for granted and always question it.  My primary goal in Orlando though was not to question.  Instead I desired connection with veterinary colleagues in our hope for the flourishing of all life. 


One lecture addressed the syndrome and in my mind, tragedy, of feather picking in captive birds.  Medical and behavioral approaches exist to curb this destructive behavior, so aptly taught to us by the presenter. What struck me though as profoundly indicative of our human culture was how the instructor spoke of causes of the feather picking in birds, termed the “antecedent.”  The list was rather long but did not include the primary ones that I hold in my heart in my combined approach as both avian veterinarian and minister.  Way back before we get into behavior or telos that is thwarted by captive situations, we need to look at the initiating cause, captivity.  Clearly if we removed captivity from the history of the bird, we’d not see feather picking for it barely exists in wild birds.


Even before captivity though we can follow the chain of antecedents into our hearts, minds, and human biology and culture.  There we might come up with a host of initiating causes.  What might you suggest?


Here are a few of mine.


  • We desire beauty and companionship.

  • We humans center ourselves and our needs in the web of life and objectivity other life forms, including ourselves.

  • We orient towards dominations as a way to meet our basic needs as opposed to the consideration of all beings needs and the earth communities needs as a whole.

  • We struggle to face the tragedy and harm of our decisions, leading to denial and disconnection relationships for ourselves.

 Even further then these is an even more fundamental antecedent.  We yearn for connection and a sense of belonging on this planet, and suffer ourselves and bring it onto others when we think we are separate from the whole of existence.  If we could but just see how we are so precious with the conduit of life flowing through us in our uniqueness, and also how insignificant we are, we might temper our actions and be able to face the consequences of our life on earth.  We could do this with a deep awareness of interconnection, and with the mantra that the suffering of one is the suffering of all, and the beauty and flourishing of all, is the beauty that never leaves us – it is behind us, in front of us, flying overhead, under us, and in us.  These embodied knowing then is the antecedent of compassion and seems to me to be the primary treatment for most dis-ease in ourselves and in the life around us.  As veterinarians, as lover of birds, as conservationists, and as humans, may we heal ourselves so that we may be healers of the world.





Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hudson Airplane Crash With Geese




The recent crash of the airplane into the Hudson and the miraculous survival of all people aboard brings to mind, geese.  Reports indicate that a flock of geese was involved in the crash, sucked into the jet engines that then failed.   I get “goose bumps” thinking of how wonderful that the people lived through this, with incredible acts of courage and shared compassion. 


The birds though didn’t live through it.  They, our brothers and sisters, are among millions of birds each year that lose their lives in the U.S. to cell phone towers, buildings, windows, feral cats, pesticide use, habitat destruction, etc.  Well the list just goes on and on. 




I wonder how it is that you find a way to live in world of such harsh contrasts with the paradox that each moment can fill us with joy and celebration as well as pain and loss.   Perhaps the only way that we can truly know that we belong in the family of things is to know our center and our being is of this earth, and that we are never “wrong” and that what ever happens is “never wrong.” May we find a way to hear the geese, hear the jet engines, hear the cries of fear and terror, read the headlines of tragedy and beauty with equanimity that judges ourselves as life and love flowing through us, engaging with what is so that we may bring about a world without end.  Amen.


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver

Sunday, January 4, 2009

National Bird Day!

What a day today is - it's National Bird Day!  To celebrate this our congregation held it's annual bird service yesterday.  Many different kinds of folks flocked to lift up the value of our communities of mixed species.  We even had a Barred Owl perched in the play ground throughout the service and afterwords for all to see.  Part of the excitement we share this year is the abundance of Sandhill Cranes on Payne's Prairie along with two Whooping Cranes.  I heard a story yesterday about a woman who was crying while looking at the Whooping Cranes, exclaiming, "I've waited 43 years to see this!"  That's about how long it's been for me, waiting, for the wonder of biodiversity to be so easily shared with others and in my life.  Thank you Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville for your engagement, compassion, and gifts of art, music, and love!

Below is an editorial that our local paper, the Gainesville Sun printed yesterday. 


Why dedicate a day to the birds?

Sun file photo

Published: Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 at 2:12 p.m.

Tomorrow, Monday, January 5th, we have the chance to celebrate National Bird Day!

Perhaps you wonder why dedicate an entire day to birds when the economy is in recession, war and terrorism continue across the globe, and climate change and habitat destruction threatens our very existence.

When we interact with other species we come closer to understanding what it means to be human in communities of mixed species, and can then draw upon our human potential to respond accordingly. We will change our destructive habits not so much when we are told to do so, but when we want to.

This compassionate engagement with the world comes from understanding the deep interconnection we share with life, and bird watching is a relaxing, available, healing, comforting, and fun way for all ages to engage with the world around us.

I recently returned from Puerto Rico where I witnessed the release of captive raised Puerto Rico parrots into the wild. When Christopher Columbus first arrived on that island, over 500 years ago, there were an estimated 1 million individuals of this green and red parrot. By the 1970's they numbered only in the teens. Through many years of hard work there are now about 260 in captivity and in the wild.

Once the Carolina Parakeet, North America's only native parrot species, flew in numbers that "darkened the sky," as did flocks of Puerto Rican parrots. Now the only thing that remains of them are paintings, stuffed skins, and one remaining nest of eggs long dead in the Florida Natural History Museum here in Gainesville.

Ironically, the eggs from this last remaining nest in Florida were "collected" not to preserve the species, but to advance the wealth and status of egg collectors many decades ago.

If we only knew then what we do now, here in Alachua County we could still witness the deep rich diversity of native birds and peoples living abundantly with us today, freeing our hearts and imaginations as we fly with the birds.

As a bird veterinarian, conservationist, and minister I have come to see that liberating the human heart cannot be segregated from the well being of all life.

How do we live in that polarizing tension and still manage to walk in beauty and treat one another out of love when we are also called to compete within nature's web for our secure spot? The answer comes to me not so much in words, but in feathered wonder that brings awareness of the breath-taking and what some would call the sacred interconnection of life.

In that vision is the glory of what we might do together, and I pray we will do together, here in Alachua County.

We might not be able to save all species, but we might just save one, and in so doing we might just save ourselves as we savor the world. So this week, I invite you to join with millions of others across this continent to enjoy and preserve the beauty of our native birds. Visit one of the locations of the Great Florida Birding Trail, join others on an Alachua Audubon bird trip, or walk along the La Chua Trail and behold thousands of Sandhill Cranes.

They are the oldest known species of bird and they are right here literally in our own backyard. Hearing them croak as they fly over Gainesville we harken back to a wilder time, and our hearts might remember a wildness that will set us free from the prison of the daily grind and that which binds us.

You might also wish to engage in conservation efforts.

There are plenty of birds who need our help. One quarter of all U.S. birds are at risk, including our own Florida Scrub Jay.

To find out what you can do visit Alachua Audubon at I also invite you to join our congregation today, Sunday, January 4th, at 11 a.m. for our annual bird service.

Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville