Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Counting Wild Parrots – Counting on Wild Hope

  Pillar Canyon

 Pillar Canyon


Though it’s just now 6 a.m. on November 14, it is already light when Fernando Aldana comes to the door of my temporary home in Antigua.  He greets me with warm enthusiasm and apologizes for his sleeping son, David, in the back seat. We quickly plan our day and then head off to Finca Pillar for some early morning bird watching.  Fernando is a biologist and bird guide and has given his day to showing me birds and then helping to conduct a count of the parrots sleeping at the roost site used by the Yellow-naped Amazons in our study area 15 years ago.  The goal is to see how the population of parrots has changed over the years.


Me leaning fernando
Leaning on Fernando for a Good Bird Sighting


We walk up a canyon trail, bundled up against the cold weather, and stop to identify the many versions of humming birds and warblers around us.  Fernando is a wonderful guide, gracious and welcoming in manner.  A real treat is his son David who has a great eye for noticing objects and animals in the environment. He helped us see many wonders, including himself who was bright, engaging, and fun to watch as he explored the trail sides.  


David and Fernando
Fernando and David in Pillar Canyon


After midday we head down from the highlands to meet Colum Muccio and his wife Silvia Ruiz de Muccio. Colum is the director of ARCAS and Silvia is an artist whose projects and breadth of creations is astounding. Over lunch we began to talk of plans for the parrot projects of the south coast and possible grants to fund these projects.  We then drove around Escuintla and entered the study area that comprised the three fincas, Caobanal, El Trebol, and Ilusiones.  We have permission to enter Ilusiones to count the birds who roost there.

The scene is quite different than when I was here the last time in April 2009. Then the sugar cane was being harvested and loud trucks roared day and night, throwing up dust and fumes to add to the snowing ash of the burning cane fields.  This evening it is quiet as the sugar cane still grows tall  around the roost trees.  We place ourselves in locations so that we can see the birds as they fly in and then sit quietly for over an hour. 


Sylvia and colum
Silvia and Colum Counting Parrots


I began to worry as it is almost dark and there is only one pair of Yellow-naped Amazons in the tree.  Three more pairs fly in for a total of 8 birds. Last year we counted 12.  Fifteen years ago we counted 250.  Though we have only 2 counts so far, I fear that we know enough – the population has crashed. We will conduct a year’s worth of counts in this area to confirm what the preliminary results show.

I admit to having a heavy heart as we drive away in the dark back into the high lands.  Still, I am grateful that I have these biologists and this young man David to witness the loss, and to share in plans of what might yet be done.  I asked David if he had hope and he said, yes, because something could still be done.  This is great wisdom – to go on working because we can. He also added via email a few days later; “There are few animals left in our big world but we have to remember not to lose the HOPE. We are responsible for the animals but (it) is very hard to make all the job so we should remember that God is there for us and in this time he is very important to help us  to conserve parrots  like the  Yellow naped  and other animals.”  His father, Fernando answered similarly. He said that his hope came from God , for what humans destroyed, God will restore. 

During the count at the roost site a lone parrot sat on top of the tall Ceiba tree acting as a sentinel.  Though I was under the sugar cane stalks, I felt as if the bird was looking directly into my soul.  She was like a bright light atop the darkly foliaged tree that once held so many of her kind.  We, the counters, are the holders of the light of love in the darkness.  As Fernando says and I agree, we can save a little bit of it at a time.


Sugar cane
Looking up at Roost Tree Where Lone Parrot Perches


Question to all of us:

How might we save even a little bit in the face of such devastation and darkness? 

Answer to consider:

By loving a little bit at a time: even if we feel like just one lone parrot on top of a tree when there used to be hundreds.  From that beauty and rededicated observation, I believe we must count on ourselves to love ourselves as our neighbors of all species.

Thank you David, Fernando, Colum, and Sylvia for sharing this day and adding hope to our shared work a little bit at a time with every word uttered and parrot counted.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Of the Empire

  Of the Empire

Mary Oliver

We will be known as a culture that feared death and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity for the few and cared little for the penury of the many. We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say that this structure was held together politically, which it was, and they will say also that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days, was small, and hard, and full of meanness. 


  John-lucrecia wedding
John Myers and Lucrecia Masaya Arias (with the wedding party)


Two nights ago I officiated at a wedding in Antigua, Guatemala.  The couple, John Myers (Nature Conservancy) and Lucrecia Masaya Arias (Jaguar specialist), are conservationists whose lives are dedicated to serving the life around them.  The ceremony took place in the circular tower of El Convento de las Capuchinas.  This is the room where the stone block cells of the nuns fed into a central round chamber that in this day and time was open to the sky because the roof had long crumbled.  In those times, as in now, the culture brought much insecurity to the many, and only a few had the power to perceive safety. Yet in the midst of colonialism that ,oh dear heart, please bear this pain, ruined the world were my beloved parrots and people are disappearing, there was also the commitment to build a new world based on love.  In the ruins, we find evidence that the heart is quite large.  It’s just that the last chamber that pumps blood to the body, has constricted and lets little light out to the world.



By candle light the couple marrying one another stood in this ancient chamber as I asked them to look to the sky, to the garden of the earth, and to the friends and family around them.  In their promises to one another, I heard all hearts there come together, letting the roof of their ego-protecting shells crumble for one moment so that we could take in the power of love around us. 

  DSC_6160View from one of the Nun's Cells


In this ruined land of the south coast of Guatemala, industrial production of sugar cane threatens to finish off what colonialism and other forms of agriculture already did to the original inhabitants here.

 May we live today looking to love so that those who come afterwards know that the Empire was not a monolith of fear and corruption, but contained an underground counter insurgency whose ranks fill with those who promise fidelity to jaguars, people, and parrots. 

 Thank you John and Lucrecia for showing all those who gathered how to open the chambers of the heart.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mary Oliver Helps Us Mourn



From This River, When I Was a Child, I Used to Drink


But when I came back I found

That the body of the river was dying.


“Did it speak?”


Yes, it sang out the old songs, but faintly.


“What will you do?


I will grieve of course, but that’s nothing.


“What, precisely, will you grieve for?”


For the river.  For myself, my lost

Joyfulness. For the children who will not

Know what a river can be – a friend, a

Companion, a hint of heaven.


“Isn’t this somewhat overplayed?”


I said: it can be a friend.  Companion.  A hint of heaven.

 Mary Oliver



Here I am back in Guatemala after a 6 month absence. When last here I posted my blogs in the form of tweets. Somehow this seemed appropriate to use a medium of communication that relates to the diminishing bird song.  The calls of Scarlet Macaws are long gone from nearly all of Guatemala, and the Yellow-naped Amazon calls are fainter each time I come.  I mourn.


There was a time when I was unsure of my mourning. It was if I was the only one who knew how abundant the harmony of multiple species of parrot calls here was in the south coast of Guatemala.  People who would see my tears and read my words wondered if I was overplaying the loss. They hadn’t looked into the regretful eyes of older campesinos who tell stories of macaws, amazons, and parakeets all nesting in one giant tree.  Now it’s hard to find even the trees, let alone the birds.


In this poem Mary repeats to the skeptic about her friendship with the river. Perhaps she too has felt isolated with the rivers going with no one on the shores to grieve with her, as if the river song was nothing of importance.  But it is.  Mary, you, and I have company now as the rivers leave us high and dry.

In the book, Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, I read yesterday how psychologists, counselors, therapists, and scientists are increasingly aware of the illness and woundedness of humans who witness ecological devastation and extinction.  Writes Mary Watkins in the chapter, Creating Restorative Ecotherapuetic Practices, “I grasped and acknowledged that the plant and animal worlds were a source of primary attachment, a significant contributor to their (her patients) resilience in the face of great difficulties and disappointments in human life, and a wellspring of faith in beauty and goodness.”  Rivers, trees, birds, mountains, oceans, and flowers all befriend our kind.  So I am glad that it is more mainstream to grieve together as a community of mixed species.  That’s step one and it is hardly nothing.  We must hear and sing death songs, as Mary describes in my blog of two days go.  But what next?




On my part,  I will go in two days to the place we called "Parrot Paradise" where once there were hundreds of parrots and see if any songs remain.  In scientific terms, |will be doing a quarterly count of a parrot roost site so we can document the falling numbers of parrots in this area.  In heart terms mixed with the science, I shall grieve and tell the world about it in journal, conference, presentation, and wail.


What will you do?




Thursday, November 4, 2010

Small Bodies

Wood duck chicks
Wood Duck Hen With Chicks



Small Bodies


It is almost summer. In the pond
the pickerel leap,
and the delicate teal have brought forth
their many charming young,
and the turtle is ravenous.
It is hard sometimes, oh Lord,
to be faithful.
I am more boldly made
than the little ducks, paddling and laughing.
But not so bold
as the turtle
with his greasy mouth.
I know you know everything—
I rely on this.
Still, there are so many small bodies in the world,
for which I am afraid.

- Mary Oliver


Buddhist teachings say we may rely on this, "There is suffering."  Little bodies will get trashed, and even the fierce tortoise with her protective shell, gets  mashed in our roads.  Now, tell me again, how might we rely on this truth?  Perhaps because death and tragedy is reality, and there is much of which to be afraid.  But who wants to go through the day embodying this knowing?

 Instead of living a life based on  the suffering before us, the left hemisphere of our brain gains dominance.  The processes there do not wish to give into the emotions that the right side of our  brain is processing from our fear center - the amygdala in the limbic system.  Instead we tell stories that there "should not be suffering" and do our best to end the suffering, or perhaps more often, end our discomfort over witnessing it.  We might say that it must be someone's fault that baby ducks get eaten by voracious fish and tortured by kids at the city pond.  Or we forget that ducks fear, feel, and know pain and loneliness, and don't recall how hard their lives are in the brutal farms in which we as a species cage them until slaughter. 


Foie Gras Duck Farm


Don't get me wrong.  I make tragic choices all the time that result in suffering - mine and others.  I forget the beauty that gets swept away by the disdainful and painful, or I forget the hurt in favor of beauty.  How can I know everything and hold both poles of this tension?

I don't have an answer, but I do believe that I have a choice; we can lived based on the fear that won't go away, or live based on the beauty and love, that too, won't go away.