Monday, March 30, 2009

Trees of Life, Trees of Death

From the heights of tierra alta I ride down
through the volcano pass to
Costa Sur00 in (south coast). 
I am in the good company of Marco Centeno and Dr. Juan Pablo Duarte
Sagastume.  In the early nineties I
worked with them in Proyecto de Loros (Guatemala Psittacine Project).  Marco was a student biologist that worked
with us, and in those years, Juan Pablo was a student at San Carlos University
studying veterinary medicine.  We reunite
to count the Yellow-naped Amazon (loro) in their roost site in our study area
and to purvey the changes over the last time we were here in 1995.  The loros roosted in a group of trees near
the corals of Finca Ilusiones, some
100 thebreeding season in which we are now,
and over 200 in
the nonbreeding season.  In that breeding
season of 1995 the three fincas we worked with started converting from cattle
ranching to sugar cane, and we lost half of our nest trees that season.  We fear the worse of what the fires of desire
might have wrought to these birds, their remaining nest trees, and the roost


(Cain, Marco, Juan Pablo)

Using Google Earth I believed I could see
that some of the trees were still standing, but not the tallest two, one of
which could be seen from miles away, named
La Chinga Ceiba becauseit was so difficult to climb and we lost much gear learning to climb up to the
loro nest over 30 meters
above us.  As we approach the finca I
cannot see
and only hope that there are some trees there left.  Outside of the finca we meet up with Don
Ernesto, administrator of the finca.  We
worked with him years ago in the time when the previous administrator had been
killed by the guerillas in the sugar cane fields to which we travel now.  When asked about the changes that sugar cane
has brought and he says it is “doloroso” (painful) to see the changes in the 37
years he has lived here.  Cain Hernandez
drives up in a rusty truck with his family to join us.  He was a main stay and foundation for our
project all those years ago. The kidding begins immediately, the introductions
end, and we drive down the dusty road to the corals, every 100 meters asking, “Is
life still there?  Do the trees still


Indeed they do, and Google Earth was
correct, the two tallest Ceibas are gone, one still with a burned remnant of a
trunk pointing towards the sky, like an exclamation mark.  I walk around the remaining trees and see
that there is little burn damage and they, with care, might just make it
another decade or so.  But will there be
any parrots to perch in their branches?



As the sun sets and darkness comes, we
settle down in the burned sugar cane fields whispering our awe when we see our
first lone parrot flying over the roost trees, likely headed off to a nest
somewhere.  Then a pair comes in and we
grow excited.  They are still here!  Though by dark’s final approach, we count
only 12 among us – down to about 15 % of what once was.  They all came in pairs, no visible juvenile
flocks gather that once were the predominant demographic in the nonbreeding
season.  With the approximate 95%
poaching rate of our times, it is no wonder that there are no young birds to
replace their dwindling elders.



Usually at this time the loud conversations
and squabbles of the parrots settle down into a peaceful gratitude for the
stars above, but in this moment, all we hear is the clamor of the constant
movement of sugar cane trucks in every direction.  There are no stars to see, obscured by the
haze of fire and dust from the dirt roads. The only lights we see are the
headlights of sugar cane trucks.


There is death in these fields and we all
carry the mark of responsibility.  Who
here does not consume food with sugar from Guatemala, the 3rd
largest producer of sugar in the world? 
I leave the field with ashes from the burned Ceiba smeared on my
forehead in this season of Lent, reminding me of the sacrifice of the land for
our human desires and how if not hope, then love may be resurrected.  In fact, it never leaves us though the birds
and trees do.  This is the cross we all
carry, loss and dolor (pain) which shines the mirror of our heart to reflect
ever more the beauty within and without.


We drive down the dusty road in silence,
with beauty behind us, before us, above us, and below us. In us.  Amen.


Friday, March 27, 2009

A Seed in the Ashes

If feathers and birds are a sign of love, what then of fire and ashes?



I leave Mariana Aviaries in the good company of Olmeo Duarte Sagastume, once famous Guatemalan soccer player and brother of my good friend and colleague Juan Pablo Duarte Sagastume.  We detour up the road, La Reforma, to get an overview of the sugar cane and to see if I can see if any of the amazon roost trees are still standing in Finca Las Ilusiones.  We are blocked from driving because of a fallen tree.  It fell because the burning of land to plant sugar cane got out of hand and hit the trunk of this elder tree. 




Instead we take a detour into the burning fields, adorned by Turkey Vultures eating what lies dead in the fields.  We hear a pair of amazons with their fierce territorial calls in a nearby field, shouting in protest perhaps at so much destruction around them, perhaps even their own nest or food trees now gone. 



The next morning we visit ARCAS (ASOCIACION DE RESCATE Y CONSERVACION DE VIDA SILVESTRE) headquarters in Guatemala City guests of Colum Muccio, Director.  This group is doing an amazing number of projects with a variety of species in many parts of Guatemala.  Together we talk of the loss of habitat and the difficulty of the work, and here too I see hope in their work over the years and how much they have contributed to conservation in Guatemala.  I knew them when they were but a few people and a few cages of birds in El Peten.  Now they have hundreds of volunteers working with them every year and have taken on collaboration to save the Scarlet Macaw, a project I will join in 3 days.  Colum says that no matter the situation, we continue to look through “rose-colored” glasses so that we can sustain the work.  We talk of many ways Lafeber Conservation might aid their efforts in the future, and in reality, it is ARCAS that supports me and others with their courageous persistence over the years.



Olmeo outside ARCAS

Our next stop is lunch with Dr. Dennis Guerra Centeno, faculty in wildlife management and veterinary medicine at San Carlos University. 




We talk with animation of many possible projects together and of what excites them and gives them hope.  Multidisciplinary approaches get all our hearts beating fuller and with more joy, the secret that somehow we didn’t realize a few decades back is that it is in the collaboration of all, all beings and all ways of knowing that we might sustain one another and perhaps this beloved planet.  One wonderful development is their  new program of offering a Masters in wildlife management.  We visit their veterinary hospital and the donated birds they use for teaching. 



It’s been a full day for us investigating the world of nonhuman animals, and it’s been a full day for the world of humans too in Guatemala.  In the capital city, there were attacks on several buses in the capital city placing the city in a panic, for several people died, including a 2 month old baby caught in the fire as the robbers killed the bus driver.  Retired General Rios, son of Ex-president Rios Montt who was responsible for much of terror during the years of genocide, was arrested for corruption.  The wife of an attorney for the Procuraduria de los Derechos Humanos (PDH), a Human Rights Commission) was kidnapped and tortured, only 11 hours after the commission published a report on how the National Police committed atrocities during the armed conflict of the previous two decades.  Other members of this Commission have received death threats.  The  mayor of El Asintal was assassinated.  

I go to bed thinking of the rose colored glasses that Colum mentioned, and if it’s a lie to seek joy, and work as if it mattered in the midst of so much tragedy and suffering.  For me the way through is with love. I do not know if love is enough, but it is all that there is when it comes to burning fields, screeching parrots, and crying parents of murdered babies.  A song rises up over the din, and I fall asleep thinking of how love is like a flower, and we are its only seeds

Feathers Fall from Heaven

This morning Scott and Leno from Mariana Aviaries came to pick me up in Antigua.  I worked with them both when I was the veterinarian at Mariana and have known them for 20 years; we haven’t seen each other for over 13 years.  The years have left the marks on all our faces and hearts, though the attachment I feel for them has not wavered. It’s great to see them and to have them host me for a day seeing the site where they will move Mariana Aviaries over the next few years. 




Scott and I walk over the land where the birds will be one day, up through the deforested area as we see brown, fires, and haze everywhere. 






I ask him if he has hopes for the birds as we have been speaking of the encroachment of sugar cane in the Costa Sur (South Coast), and the difficulty of conservation efforts given the socio-economic-political environment here.  He feels that the hope is in “controlled areas,” such as in private areas where birds and forests can be “managed.”  Free flying parrots without extensive management may be a hope not to be realized in many parts of Guatemala. 


Yet I see hope here, in these two, and what they dream for and what they have built along with Nini de Berger, owner and sustainer of this project and so many others.  Leno spoke of this hope as we drive through field after field of sugar cane, that I once knew as fields with giant ceibas towering over them, homes to Yellow-naped Amazons and Caracaras.  I asked him if he had hope for the birds and he said not really for even without poaching what would they eat with all the sugar cane?  I then asked him, “Why work for bird conservation then?”  He said it is in the very work that the hope lies.  We can protect some areas that are left.  He used the word “nosotros,” we, and not “yo,” I.  There it is then, together we can protect and nourish life.



I am reminded of the sensibility that states:   I may not be able to save it all, but who am I to desist from the work where we might even save one, and I add, ourselves in the process?  And it is not the single “I” that saves or even the human “we,” but the we of interdependence that flies, crawls, and photosynthesizes. 



Before leaving the aviaries I spend time with my old friend, Moses, a Yellow-naped Amazon whose parents had abandoned him as an egg in Finca Trebol.  So many poachers were climbing the tree to pluck the chicks as soon as they hatched that the parents finally gave up.  So we took the eggs into our laboratory, assuming they were dead after three days abandonment, and lo and behold, one chick was still alive, hatched, and grew from egg to adult and lived in my home.   




He is tall and slender for his species, a quiet bird, and watches me intently.  He, like the feather near the women’s begging cup, is asking me, what does it mean to be human in communities of mixed species and what are you going to do about it?!


In the Sufi tradition, there is a central text called the Conference of the Birds which I am rereading on this trip.  In the beginning it speaks of how a feather has been dropped from God as a sign of the power of love to transform us into accepting the unity of existence.  In each of us is a feather’s counterpart, calling us to wholeness and to love. 

These feathers, this Moses, these birds are a sign of love. What then are we going to do about it?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Feather Asks

     From the plane I see some fires in the hills leading north from Guatemala City and a color spectrum of brown.  It’s the dry season and hasn’t rained for 5 months in most places.  It is the time of fires in this land, and perhaps too in hearts.  The sufis use fire to symbolize the burning away of the ego through love.  If not in this land of volcanoes and violence (two gunned the  night before last in Antigua where I am staying) where else might I embrace the love that reaches out to embrace me and burn away my sense of independence from a beauty that hurts? If not now, when?


            Yesterday I walked around Antigua and it is a strange mix of Western and Mayan civilizations.  There are so many tourists here and so many adorned in traditional Mayan dress with faces sculpted from the years populating this land as their ancestors moved south from the Bering Ice Bridge.  One Mayan woman, curled up on the sidewalk, had a begging tin cup placed in front of her, and she in front of a colonial church in ruins.






     I could not tell if she was blind, for she looked down and away from the crowds passing her by.  Her cup was empty and my pockets were full of carefully guarded dollars, quetzales, recent purchases, and my passport.  Somewhere in that depth of attachments I found a handful of coins to give to her and then I noted the white/brown feather placed beside her cup.  Besides identifying it as a secondary wing feather from a red domestic rock dove I wondered what the feather was doing there?  Did the woman place it there as a sign of beauty to draw in doners?  Did some bird chance to fly over and drop it there, a seemingly random gift offering only available to those with eyes to see?  Or did some one passing by offer beauty to this withdrawn and life-beaten woman, and to those of us curled up into our own affairs, spiraling in search of control as we beat out a path of meaning to the senseless tragedy around us? 


            The feather asks, what does the world mean to you and what does it expect of you? 




Sunday, March 22, 2009

Gone to Guatemala





I leave tomorrow to be with a beauty that hurts - the land, people, and birds of Guatemala.  I’ll be gone for a month and will attempt to blog here when we come in from the field.  Most of my time will be spent working out of Flores, El Peten with the Scarlet Macaw Conservation Project – offering what I can to ARCAS, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and to a country that for many years I called my home.  My prayer is that my return there will be a time of welcoming:


I add my breath to their breath, that our days may be long on this earth.

That the days of all beings may belong.


I will also visit the terrain of the Guatemala Psittacine Project, FUNDAVES, and Mariana Aviaries – the first two conservation projects I directed, and with all three I served as veterinarian. This time I go too as a healer, spreading my wings to heal human hearts as well (including most definitely my own).  Weaving throughout this trip I am setting up contacts and asking questions about how as minister, veterinarian, and Director of Lafeber Conservation I can support the birds and people of Guatemala.  Part of this includes an ethno-ornithology research project with ties to the University of Florida Department, Religion and Nature.  Ultimately it all comes down to these basic questions:


            What does it mean to be human in our communities of mixed species?

            What is our response to being human?


With deep thanks for this opportunity and for the equipment and supplies I celebrate the gifts from the following: 


  • Dr. Juan Pablo Sagastume – in-country organizing

  • Scott McKnight (Mariana Aviarios) – in-country organizing

  • Roan McNab, Rony Garcia, Gabriela Ponce Santizo, Merlina Barnes (Wildlife Conservation Society) - in-country organizing and conservation support

  • Dr. Ted Lafeber (Lafeber Company) – heart and financial support

  • Carol Gamble – financial support

  • Joyce Shayne Gad – financial support

  • Dr. Dave McRuer (Wildlife Center of Virginia) - veterinary medical supplies

  • Rev. Dr. Meredith Garmon (Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville) – fulfilling my responsibilities of minister while I am gone

  • Members Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville – for supporting me spiritually and with my coministry leave


In hopes of liberation of all beings,




Sunday, March 15, 2009

Birds Count


(Birders at Our Congregation)


In January our congregation started doing weekly bird counts on Sunday mornings.  Our efforts are greatly aided by bird ecologist and congregational member, Caleb Gordon, as well as other members who brave the cold and the early morning hours.  When I participate I have found wholeness and a sense of tranquility that comes over me.  It’s as if with every bird that is identified we are saying, “Birds count!”  We embody our faith that we are a people who offer sanctuary to all of life, for we respect the interdependent web of which we are a part.  In these early mornings we tune our attention away from our daily ego concerns to the “other” who completes us if we would just not reject that difference is wrong and accept that we all belong on this planet.  In birding my goal is scientific, yes, and also community outreach to serve the communities of mixed species.  But even deeper is the way birding gives me a chance to offer my prayer to the world:


May no one be turned away in my heart and may we together find a way to put into practice this understanding as we build the beloved community of all beings.


Birding for me then is a chance to grow in joy and awareness, a spiritual practice where we get to rest in the peace of wild things, and wild hope.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Liberating Bird Story

Please join me in writing this bird story.  Write the next segment, send it to me on twitter or through my email, and I'll choose among those sent in.  The guidelines are:  write in Haiku (5-7-5 syllable pattern) and speak to the beauty, tragedy, and the liberating possibilities of connecting our hearts to birds and one another (or just have fun and be creative and let's see what we can do together!)



A Liberating Bird Story

    Once upon a time, yellow-rumped warbler flew north. Barred Owl became sad.

    He did not know why. He only knew lost beauty. His hoot became faint

    The pine warblers pined - where did their wise friend go to? He never left them

    He became silent. The forest filled with delight. The buntings were back!

    Owl perched above them, thinking of life and of death. Beauty never leaves.

    Beauty comes and goes, as do buntings and warblers, as does life and death

    Enlightened owl, flew off to the riverside, to perch in cypress.

    Waiting for sturgeon, to jump and break the water. Just "this" and no more.

    "Flashes of insight, come to fishers of all kinds," said Owl to Osprey

    “What do you wait for?" Osprey quizzed the Strigiform. "The sturgeon’s too big!"

    “It’s not the sturgeon, that’s too big to catch today,” prompted Barred Owl.

    A boater came by. The birds drew their feathers in, and fumes filled the air.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Perfection of Sunshine










In the late 80’s I was the veterinarian of a large avian breeding facility in Florida.  Among our projects were new hand-raising techniques for the Palm Cockatoo.  As with many bird species in captivity, the cockatoo had proved difficult to raise.  Many of them were ill, had stunted growth, and did not survive their first year.  One of the healthiest chicks we had was Sunshine.  He was such a bright spot of hope, for his problem-free robust health indicated to us that our hand-raising techniques were nearing perfection.



Then one morning, Dreama, the nursery manager, called.  "I think something is wrong with Sunshine - I may have burned his crop."  The young birds were fed a heated liquid diet, sometimes too hot.  Burns to a bird's crop were sadly common.  Dreama's competence kept such accidetns rare, but examination revealed that Sunshine did indeed suffer a burned crop. We did everything we could to avoid surgery, but there was no way around it.  I would have to go in and take out the ruined tissue and put the crop back together again.


I invited Dreama into the surgery room with Sharon, the head veterinary technologist, and me.  Everything was going well as I cut away the extensive damaged tissues. When it came time to sew the crop back together again, I had a hard time finding anything to sew.  It was probably clear to Dreama and Sharon that I was stressed.  I kept poking around and lifting up likely flaps of tissue, wondering if they were of crop or not.  Between the burn and the surgery it was a mess.  The needle holders slipped from my hand and fell to the floor.  For a moment I stood there, collecting myself.  Asked Dreama, “So, do they teach you how to do crop burn surgery in veterinary school?”


 I mumbled a response, got new needle holders, and did find a way to stitch the bird back together again.  Afterwards Dreama sat on the floor stroking the dark black bird with rosy check patches as Sunshine awoke from anesthesia.  He recovered with no complications and grew into a large dark beauty, with perhaps a smaller crop than usual.  Despite his accident and surgery, Sunshine to us was a perfect bird from start to finish.   It was not his imperfection we suspected, but our own when we looked at Sunshine’s scars.  Our doubts often kept us from seeing how perfection touched all of us at this breeding ranch – it lived around us and in us. Perhaps if we could have seen this we would not have needed to capture such beauty and could kiss the joy as it flew.


Where do your own need and sense of imperfection haunt you?

How might you feel as good about yourself and other humans as you feel about seeing an exciting and beautiful bird?