Friday, April 24, 2009

A Bird's Eye View on Earth Day


                        Challo flying parents

  Scarlet Macaw Parents Flying During Chick Exam (photo by Marcial Alvarez, WCS)


I arrive back to the USA on Earth Day, a fitting point of reflection to capture my month in Guatemala.  I recall an editorial in the Prensa Libre on April 21 about “Día de la Tierra.”  The author said that the earth like our body can regenerate and that it has mechanisms to break out of the ashes of a crushed forest, but only to a certain point. I wonder if we are getting close that point as I recall my month of fire and ashes in a country that loses more trees per year than Brazil, losing about 1% of its natural resources every year. When asked who is responsible for this I heard such anger, shame, and remorse come from the hearts and mouth of Guatemaltecos. Blame was placed on themselves, other biologists and conservationists, the narcotraficantes, the government, the wealthy, the indigenous people, the land invaders, and internationals.  One conservationist described people as porquería (garbage) and others said that their hope for the future comes from the possibility that the human species to go extinct.  It was rare that I heard praises sung of our kind.  If we cannot have faith in humankind’s good, I wonder if we might turn to the birds to see what they see in us and what they might say…..


               You ask me what I see in you when I look down on you from a high.  I see such caring and compassion.  You are spending so much effort and resources to save my kind from annihilation.  There is kindness in your voice when you speak to my chicks below during your exams and when one of our chicks is sick I can feel your heart carry the concern with you as you walk from my home to yours.  And still you find a way to laugh, play, and care for one another in your conservation projects.  We share so much – we too care, protect, and prudently care for others and ourselves.


                 Challo up tree exam


            I worry though about how you see yourselves.  There is blame in your voice and disgust of your own species.  We don’t experience this as parrots.  Perhaps it is because you don’t have the over view vista that we have.  Blame isn’t even in our behavioral repertoire.  What we see is that we all are beings interacting in complex ways trying to meet our individual and collective needs.  There is no bad or good, just the process of ecology.


               This doesn’t mean that I don’t get angry with you.  You’ve heard my voice call out when you take my chicks’ temporarily from the nest. It is hard to trust your kind in general for from up here I see my forest burning, my food trees being cut down, and those who do not replace my chicks once they are roughly taken from by beloved nest cavity.




               Even still I wish your kind no harm. I wish you well for my heart aches for you.  There is such addiction in you, for I’m guessing you wish to still the pain.  If only you could see what I see and know in my being.  We are all inextricably interrelated, we are one.  If I could give you anything it would be this knowing that I have; that happiness isn’t what life is about.  The best that we can is to rise in love and in awareness of beauty out of the ashes of death.


               We have a legend of our kind that we share with you – the Phoenix Bird as some call her.  From her far up view as she circles the earth she can spot the fires over Guatemala and her heart breaks as she sees life disappear and suffer. 



Guatemalan Fires 2005


But from that view she sees too the beauty of the whole, so she flies on and on, tail dipping in ashes and feathers burning with fiery loss.  Though sometimes she falls to the earth under the burden of awareness, always she rises again with lightness in her heart. There is no other path for her. To hold the love and light she must also hold the darkness and the despair.  As the witness for mother earth she holds us all in love, compassion, and kindness, no matter the harm we experience or cause.  Hers is not an easy path, nor is yours, or ours.  But we are not alone.




We travel together, helping each other fly above the mess of our daily lives to see the long perspective – that we are here to love another, love the earth, and love ourselves.  Even though there is pain, there is always love.  Love may not be enough to quench the fire of human desire, in this moment, in this decade, but I see it rising in you ever stronger throughout the years. 


I want so desperately for my chicks to grow up and fly free.  This too I wish for you and all your kind that your hearts soar like the Phoenix.   May we all fly free together, forever.


Vuele juntos y vuele libre, para siempre!



             Wearing the "Fly Free" wristbands during a chick exam    

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bearing Fire in Love

For the last 5 days we have been at several areas climbing nests, El Peru, El
Burral, and La Corona.  These are the
same three areas that the Prensa Libre newspaper states on April 14th
have out-of-control forest fires threatening. 
Indeed air around the nests is getting increasingly hazy and one cannot
escape the smell of smoke in the air.  
There are biological stations (rustic camp sites) at all three areas
which serve as staging points for biologists, the army, CONAP (those in charge
of protected areas in Guatemala), and us.


(El Peru Station)

La Corona is the farthest, a 6-hour drive from Flores. 
It is also possibly my favorite because it seems that the deeper we go
into the forest, we enter not the heart of darkness, but the heart of light and
love.  Flora and fauna abound, and this
permeates into our own beings.  With
every gut wrenching jolt in the road it seems clearer and clearer to me that I
am not separate from jaguar, macaw, tree, monkey, and ape (that would be we

If I am one both with forest and fire
starter, then it seems that I too am on fire, and am killing what I love.  This is not an easy truth to hold but the
beauty and tragedy call to my soul to be a chalice that can hold fire and
light, and forest and darkness together. 
Every tree climbed may show us sick or dying chicks, nests emptied from
predators both human and nonhuman, or bright rainbow splashes of bird being that
are displayed as the chicks grow into their feathers for their first flight.


Challo Chick

 (Scarlet Macaw chick in nest - photo by Marcial Cordova Alvarez, WCS)

We never know what the news will be, or
what each day will hold for us.  On
Saturday, April 18 we got up at 3:30 a.m. to leave at  5 a.m. for El Burral, a
two-hour drive into the forest with 4 macaw nests along the way.  We don’t get very far before the air changes
with a sense of warmth too early for the sun’s position, and then around the
next curve, fire erupts along the side of the road.  We get out to calm the flames down and ride
on, only to find the fire and burned areas becoming increasingly more abundant
on both sides of the road.  We grow
concerned because the fire is close to macaw nest trees. 


 Soon we find the road blocked with burning
trees, but we are four with two machetes and we clear the way.  With us this day are Melvin Merida
(veterinarian WCS), Alejandro Morales (veterinarian ARCAS) and Kender -tut Rodriguez, climber
and tortilla maker par excellence. 
Further on there are more downed trees and if we can’t cut up the trees
and pass on the road, we make a path through the forest and go around. 

Kender Fire Fight
(Kender fighting forest fire with machete)

Atop a hill we find telephone reception and
call WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) headquarters to let them know of the
threat and they send their biologists to the field for the next several days to
clear out brush around the nest trees so they won’t burn.  Over the weekend it seems that WCS personnel
are alone in fighting the fire and saving what life they can.  There is a tremendous shortage of resources,
and perhaps coordination and will as well. 
We leave the last nest unclimbed because it would mean we would be
driving at night and this could be dangerous if we encounter more fires and
blocks in the road, which we in fact do. It’s a long drive out from the fire
area as every kilometer or so we disembark with machetes to find a way forward.


Burral tree blocking road

 (Burning tree blocking road)


(Melvin and Kender glad to get truck around block in road)

What is the way forward?  How do we look at a dying bird and see a
smile shining through it, feel the glory? (see previous post "Preying and Praying for Life") How do we
determine what is killing our planet and what is ours to do?  

Dead Tityra

(A female Masked Tityra found on side of road as we come out of the fire. She has just died and we cannot fathom why)

How do we have faith that our attempts will
be enough?  That love is enough?  How do we go on knowing that our work or our
love may never be enough to build the world we wish to live in?

Melvin Fire

(Melvin fighting fire with our drinking water)

I leave these questions unanswered for now
for I leave tonight for Guatemala City on an overnight bus, to catch a flight
on Tuesday, April 21.  Suggestions for
which bus to take are abundant, and part of this discussion includes which ones
are most likely to get robbed.  This is
mentioned as casually as the other considerations such as likelihood that the
air conditioner will work, that the bus will be late, and that I will be able
to get any sleep. I experience confusion as well as gratitude that I have
privileges and can afford safe transportation, when others ride in terror.  Since January 1, 2009, 43 drivers and driver
assistants have been murdered in Guatemala. 
This happens during robberies and when a particular driver refuses to
pay the extortion fees to the gangs that roam the streets. It is perplexing to
me that we live in a world where violence and harm are taken for granted, where
we allow forests to burn with little intervention and people to be murdered in
the streets. 


Not everyone is passive. Every week in the
paper there are reports of towns that hunt down those committing violence or
robbery, and hang them, burn them, or both. 
My path does not lie in that direction, of using more violence to end
violence.  The world and my heart have
experienced enough of that.  Instead I
look to the work of WCS and ARCAS.  They
yield machetes, hammers, syringes, binoculars, cameras, and computers as they
fight, sweat, and toil for what they love, with their love.  Their hearts lead the way through the
darkness as shing chalices of hope.  In
the forest my eyes burn from the smoke, my tears mix with the ashes of the
beloved forest, and I lend what moisture I can to a world on fire as my heart
fills with joy for knowing these people and their land.


 (ARCAS Veterinarians Fernandez Martinez and Alejandro Morales, WCS Volunteer Merlina Barnes, and me at ARCAS)

Around the year 500 CE “Fire is Born” came
from Tenochuacan (current Mexico City) conquering Mayan cities, including
Tikal.  The first evidence of him
entering the Mundo Maya (the Mayan World) is on a stella in El Peru, where I
spend my last night in the forest.

El Peru Stella 

(Stella at El Peru)

I go
to sleep, my dreams dancing with moon and stars and wonder what shall be born
from this experience of fire.  My dear people,
what sparks in you that we might turn to one another with the hope of love, and
a prayer of forgiveness and peace in our hearts?

Flag PC 2 

(Flag placed atop hill of town Paso Caballos right outside the Mayan Biosphere Reserve.  It indicates that today is dangerous to use fire to clear land)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sounds Along the Ages

Copy of DSC_1611

 Slaty Tailed Trogon

 (Listen to some
bird songs in the early morning)


We are back in Flores for one night before
heading off to other nest areas in the opposite direction of where we were
yesterday.  Entering the Mayan Biosphere
Reserve is as if we were suddenly transported to a place where animals
magically appear for us to view.  There
is a cheerfulness in the arriving.  When
we leave the reserve, we don’t see or hear nearly as many beings in the midst
of smoke and ash, and there is a sense of loss. 
It is as if we go forward in time when we enter the world of devastation
when the world is more and more like this every day, and it is as if we go
backwards in time when we enter the forest, and hear the sounds along the ages.

Howler Web

(Listen to Howler Monkeys in the Reserve)

Macaw flying web

(Listen to a Scarlet Macaw parent call during our examination of his or her chick - Dr. Melvin Merida presiding)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ruined for Life

I’d been in the field for nine days and we
come out with a car full of people to return to the city of Flores and to the
other cities nearby where the biologists live.



While staying in Flores I learn the history
of this island, once known as Tayasal. It was the last stronghold of the Mayan
people before being entirely conquered by the Spanish with their military and
missionary tactics.  We too retreat to it
as a stronghold of conservationists, for it is the home of the Wildlife
Conservation Society, Guatemala and ARCAS (Asociación de Rescate y Conservación
de Vida Silvestre – Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Association).  They both have toiled for over 15 years to
keep birds free in their natural homes, and to liberate those imprisoned,
including the human heart.



 (Captive raised Scarlet Macaws getting ready to produce the second generation - ARCAS)

It is Semana Santa (Holy
Week) and a time when the country basically stops for vacation, going to the
playa (beach), eating fish, and watching the processiones. (parades).  Each day here and in towns
all around the country people walk around their cities carrying large platforms
of carved characters that play out the Easter story according to Christianity.



Here we see vestiges of more ancient rites
as the streets are adorned with artwork (alfombras) made up of painted sawdust, fruits and
vegetables, and plant material.  When
asked, one Mayan woman told me her art was an offering of gratitude to
God.  These are walked over by parade
participants, ruined perhaps as a sign of the transitory nature of life and an
offering of God’s gift of life in the presence of so much death and decay.



 (Before the parade - photo by Merlina Barnes, WCS Volunteer)


(Same art after the parade)

I spend my Easter morning traveling out to
the Yaxhá Mayan Ruins.  I am seeing parrots
everywhere, in symbol if not in reality for one guide tells us that the parrot
chicks are stolen from the nests here. 
The symbol of the park is Mayan art of a macaw and we spend time
puzzling over the Stela de Pájaros, a huge stone monolith with carvings of
birds all over it. I ask our guide what this means and what birds meant to the
Mayans, and he cannot say.



 (Bird Stela)

As we scramble up and down pyramids, I
cannot help but wonder how the Mayans loved over the millennia and if their
lives had joy and meaning, and how they translated this into their treatment of
each other and the mundo (world) around them. 
We see evidence of the rise, fall, and rise again of these people who
built city states in the forest, warred with one another, and over populated
their environment beyond sustainability. 
This doesn’t seem so far removed from the reality today with the drug cartel strongholds sprinkled throughout the forest which is reported to be 50% to 80% desparacidos (disappeared) depending on with whom you talk.





We have rested up during our four days here,
considered alternative strategies, and return today to my last week here where
I hope we can climb as many Scarlet Macaw nests as possible in a relative small
area where they have retreated. Still it will take us hours to get to some
nests and the weather promises to be over 100 throughout the week. 

I wonder if some time in the future those
who inherit the ever hotter winds of this forest will walk along paths of our
ruins, marveling at conservation stations, artificial nest boxes, and engraved
signs with scarlet macaws on them.  What
stella do we leave behind for others to puzzle over what birds and bosque
(forest) meant to us and why we warred so much only to lose what was most
precious to us?  Will they find evidence
of how we loved and discover a pattern of how we connected our values to our
treatment of all species, especially the ones that are the hardest to love,
those of our own species?

Let this part of the Reserve not be the
last of its kind, but a flowering that gives seed to the birth not of nations,
competing drug cartels, or fortressed family homes, but of a home for all
beings.  May our desires fall like ruins about our feet, for the sake of all life.



(I’ll be gone to the field, so catch
updates on the nest climbing on Twitter – you can sign up here on this site)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Preying and Praying for Life


(Riding up to the nests with journalists from National Geographic, family members, volunteers, and biologists - all eager to see beauty)

We come to our last nest of the second week
of macaw chick observation here with a near fiesta atmosphere.  Our ailing chicks from last week that we
treated are improved, and the one failing chick has food in his crop this
morning.  His hunger cries do not disturb
our mornings, though the calls of his aggrieved circling parents haunt my soul,
as do those ghosts of all birds I have known and lost.  There is something primal, emotionally deep
and so very real in their voices that speak of threat and unanswerable
pain.  Indeed there will be losses this

The very last nest we climb that contained
two relatively healthy chicks last week is now empty, their rainbow visions now
only for cameras, never to soar over this earth. 


(Beloved chicks captured forever on film and in hearts - photo by Merlina Barnes, WCS Volunteer)

Evidence points to the nest being predated by
a Collared Forest Falcon, who in feeding its own must kill another’s.  It seems a final statement on all the
tragedies of a country beset by poverty, violence, and genocide.  Human beings must harm
to survive, but desmasiado (too much).


We walk back from the nest through Mayan
ruins and we hear above us a Forest Falcon calling.  It’s voice taunting us from above echoes
through the forest and in our hearts. 
Melvin climbs over covered ruins in pursuit of a closer view and picture
of this wondrous predator.  Now he is the
one stalking beauty that beats within the same breast as does tragedy and
death.  If we forgive the falcon in a
matter of minutes, might we learn somehow to forgive our own species?

I recall a quote from the movie, The Thin Red Line.  The hero caught up in the destruction of
World War II in the Pacific looks down and sees a parrot chick struggling in
ashes, bombed out of it’s nest from the shelling on the enemy line. The soldier
muses, “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but
unanswerable pain.   Another man sees
that same bird and feels the glory – feels something smiling through it.” 

In my return to parrot conservation in
Guatemala I recall the pain of loss and death, for it is with me always, but I
also cannot, and will not be separated from the beauty of falcon, forest, and
fires, for they are in me too.  We humans
come out of the ashes of dead stars, out of earth, out of Africa, and to ashes
and dust we return.  Our foot prints on
this world need not mark our days with thoughts of only harm, for in the
history and evolution of our past is the story of wholeness, and though this
web of life catches us with messy interconnection, I pray we can answer the
ravaging ways of our kind with love and with forgiveness.  Kindness and earth first, for there is never
a second chance for this moment again, no matter what it brings.


 Praying Together With Life

(baby Howler Monkey at ARCAS Rescue Center near Flores, Peten, Guatemala)

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Work of Love


If you have this world a place for sleep,

Burn it! and pass what merely seems;

You can’t deceive the Truth with sleepy

Let fear persuade you, and the fire is lit;

Burn your bed now if you would rise from

Farid Ud-Din Attar (Conference of the
– A Sufi Text)


My first morning at El Estacion comes
before sunrise, like all the other days to come, and we head east on a road
deeper into the forest over an hour on a 4-wheel drive road.  Calling it bumpy would be to under
describe  it. We can drive up and park
the truck, and then it is a short walk up to each nest, about a kilometer or so
at the maximum.  We have five nests to
climb before Friday at noon, and we’re learning that for our own sake and the
birds’ you better be done long before the day reaches that level of heat.


 (Climber up a Macaw Nest Tree - A Cantemo Tree)

My veterinary role here is clear. I am to
consult with and train the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS Guatemala) ) veterinarian, Melvin Merida, as well as any
other workers on the climbing teams.  It
has been nearly 14 years since I did this work and it’s as if not a day has
passed.  I know this work, I love it; it
was a gift to me then to be able to do it and it is now a gift I can offer



They seem deeply appreciative and our
climbs are full of awe and wonder, as well as worry and concern as we find some
chicks shining with their rainbow colors in undeniable health, while others are
thin with mites and fly strike, and one is in poor condition and I think it
will not survive.




I also have a few other sombreros I wear
here as well, including that of conducting a pilot ethno-ornithological study
(this is great fun for me try to pronounce this in Spanish, let alone explain
it).  I ask a lot of questions as we
ride, hike, and share meals together. 
One question stands out in particular because I am surprised with the
consistency of the answer.  What do you
make of your work and of the Scarlet Macaw conservation effort, including our
work this year with the parrot chicks?  Across
the board at all levels, from technician to administrator, I hear something
like this;  I work with the birds because
I love them, or I am encantado (charmed, delighted, bewitched).   I ask
where does the love come from and they say it is because they work with them.
Through their work comes their love as they grow in understanding of the lives
of these birds over the long, hard years of front line conservation.  For others the love comes instantly as one
tells me that he had always been a reptile and amphibian man, and then he
climbed his first Scarlet Macaw nest and in the moment when he saw the chicks
in the nest he had a conversion experience. 
It was love that he says grows stronger every day.   

A number of them also answer they have a
love of the birds because it supplies a paying job, and this is important to
them and their families.   Some move
their hands in a sign eating food while they tell me this.  Indeed, I wonder how one can love anything
when one is in the position of having to destroy it to merely eat each day. 

An ever bigger unknown that I hear
throughout the ranks here is why are people who are in the position of abundant
wealth destroying the bosque (forest)?   One biologist told me that the survival of the
bosque depends entirely on how much private land owners love the birds and
another said it is difficult for them to save their land from burning it when
they do not live on their ranches and have not grown to love it, to work with
it and the people day in and day out.  So
many of these land owners manage from afar, it being too dangerous or too
difficult to live where you work. 

It is difficult here, but there is also
glory and joy.


(Melvin getting a climbing lesson)

Some find a way to love what also through their hands has
set this place on fire with human desire. 
These desires though are not just for survival or wealth, but for
beauty, awe, wonder, love, and the chance for meaningful work.  I see this in Melvin and young Sandra, a Mayan young
girl from the neighboring village of Paso Caballos as she scrambles around the
station barefoot with her three younger siblings. 



Shyly she finally comes up to me and we talk
as the sun sets into the smoky haze, made worse this day because a fire from a
milpa in her village has gotten out of control and threatens the reserve.  I ask her what she wants to do when she grows
up and she looks confused (there are three languages at work here – English,
Spanish, and her Mayan dialect).  So I
rephrase it, “What do you like to do most in the world?”  She answers, “I like to walk in the monte (country).”

I fear though that by the time she is my
age there will not be enough country for her children to walk in.  For a variety of reasons too many of we
humans have become strangers on this planet and are destroying what we
love.  We have made our bed and now must
sleep in it.  What though if we don’t
sleep in it? We wake instead from our dreams and greet each day with the wisdom
of reality and then get to work with the birds, with the forest, with the
oceans, and with each other.  Then love
may come and this nightmare may end.


(Hazy sunrise from fires nearby)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Quest for Fire



Gymnostinops montezuma. Melvin Mérida WCS1

(Monteczuma Orependala)

The fire surrounds you, and with every breath

The scorching flames reach out and threaten death;

But they are quenched when we achieve our goal,

And look – there waits asylum for your soul.

                                   Farid Ud-Din Attar (Conference of the Birds – A Sufi Poem)

   In order to look, to see, to witness, I continue my journey north to Isla de Flores (Flower Island) on Sunday night, March 30 and I notice what everyone notices when they get off the plane from Guatemala, it’s hot.  Of course, I don’t know what hot is until several days later when we hit about 105 or so degrees at the Estacion Biologico Guacamaya (Macaw Biology Station) in the Laguna Tigre National Park.  There we only get electricity from about 6 p.m. – 9 p.m., and no air conditioning.  The amenities there are quite lovely though.  Mot-mot birds come to bathe me in beauty as I sweat over a pre-sunrise bowl of cereal, howler monkeys constantly gracing the trees above with their pure demonstrations of nature’s power and triumph, and Red-lored Amazons tittering excitedly about the thrills of forest life and the mysteries of darkly shadowed nest cavities.




Another thing I notice in Flores and later at the Station is what exists everywhere in Guatemala, or near abouts; the smell of smoke.  Except here it seems stronger, which is hard to believe after breathing in the destruction of the south coast with the fires of sugar cane.  The front page of the paper, the Prensa Libre, in fact speaks to the fires that are threatening the national parks of Guatemala and the Reserva Biosfera Maya (Maya Biosphere Reserve). 


These fires rise up for many reasons, the major one of which are the invasores (invaders) that come to the Reserve to set up infrastructure for the narcotraficantes (drug traffickers).  The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) office this Monday morning is all a buzz with the article because it highlights the areas they study and protect.  In fact, it shows pictures of a clandestine airstrip near where we will be working and the threatened river San Pedro over which the Station perches. 



The publicity is working because the army arrives in the Reserve promptly to protect this bountiful forest.  In other ways, the publicity is not working because the WCS conservationists are concerned that names were included in the article, making these people a target for assessinations and kidnapping.  A couple of years ago some WCS personnel were kidnapped and help for ransom and Yiri Melini, a conservationist mentioned in this article, received death threats in the past, as has the WCS office, and Melini was fired upon.  The forest too is fired upon; smokes colors up each sunset that rises from the burning of milpas, cattle grasslands, African Palm farms, air strips, and illegal fincas (ranches). 


(Out of control fire from burning milpas that threatens the forest near the Station where we are staying - photo by Melvin Merida, WCS)

There is so much going against the birds and beings of this treasured forest, but I am to learn that a treasure buried deep in the realm of humanity colors the struggle against extinction, and that is the hearts, hopes, passion, and commitment of the conservationists working for a different future than the one the Prensa Libre forecasts.  It is with these people that I am to spend the next three weeks, and who bless this world with their vision of the beloved community of all species.  They risk their lives for the sake of love.

So many errors throng the world – they why

Should we not risk this quest?  To suffer blame

For love is better than a life of shame.

            Farid Un-Din Attar