Sunday, August 30, 2020

Soul Purpose

You do not have to be religious, nor even spiritual, perhaps, to recognize that there is a part of your being that is completely independent of everything tangible and external that others perceive about you. If you are of a theological persuasion, then please take time to reflect on whether that internal identity squares with your chosen denomination. Then, act accordingly.

Do you know what is not white, black, brown, red, yellow, male, female, or non-binary, gay, straight, queer, or other, young or old, rich or poor, democrat, republican, independent, libertarian or anarchist? Your soul. That’s right, your soul is none of these things, and that is not an exhaustive list. Those external qualities are immaterial to your central persona. Your soul can only be corrupted if you allow it to be, if your mind and body do not fuse with your purpose, your innate sense of peace, justice, equality, and connection to all other species.

There is no shortage of influences that can conflict with our soul. We are biological entities, and that immediately entails a mind that can be bent, a body that can be compromised. We are inherently social animals, and vulnerable to coercion, brainwashing, and other tactics designed to benefit others at the expense of ourselves. We fall for distractions from the more important concerns of the day, losing ourselves in entertainment and “coping” mechanisms like alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, and other vices.

Civilization has erected economies with the sole purpose of aspiring to, and attaining, gratuitous material wealth at the expense of whole classes of the citizenry. Economics dictates what is acceptable as an avocation based again on external characters of race and sex. We demand that women bear children because the economy needs more consumers, whether or not those children ever amount to anything “productive.” After all, we outsource and automate the production side. Women are also considered servants of men. We expect black people to serve us through entertainment professions: athletes, musicians, actors, and comedians.

While the private, business sector has made clear its rules of social order for the benefit of overly-privileged straight, white males, the public sector of government has largely agreed with, and reinforced, those parameters. We have yet to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women. Laws and legislation continue to ignore the poverty, mass incarceration, environmental injustice, voter suppression, unemployment and underemployment, and crime that plague entire communities of people of color (not an exhaustive list of woes). In many instances, laws are passed that make matters worse.

Religion should be a savior, or at least a voice of reason, insisting that all of “God’s children” are created equal, but too often the church is mute when it comes to demanding reform. The Bible, like the Constitution and economic theory, is now revealed to be insufficient for a more complex age where the meek are finally asserting their God-given rights. Of course we are going to adhere to outdated rhetoric if it continues to preserve conditions that allow us, personally, to prosper in terms of financial and social rank.

Are police going to stop killing black people? Are we going to stop believing this is “justifiable” use of force? Only when we start seeing through to our souls. When we stop assuming anything based on perceptions of exterior presentation, and preconceived expectations of what is “permissible,” we will begin to advance. We have to start by looking at ourselves that way. A mirror reflects only the body, our occupation merely reflects our current economic role.

Our mind is the closest thing to our soul, and we must free it from undo influence. That may well require economic sacrifice, even hardship, to honor what our soul insists upon. Your life purpose may have nothing to do with your career. In fact, that is probably the case for everyone if our “soul purpose” is to architect a more fair, sustainable life for every human being, and for all species. If that is not your personal answer to your life’s purpose, let’s hear your rebuttal. Our collective dialogue must begin to transcend everything we have come to believe defines our very existence because right now we are denying the existence of others.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Those Who You Thought You Knew


There has been an unspoken understanding in the community of birders and other naturalists that one’s belief that other species matter automatically assumes the same sentiments are extended to all members of our own species. If the last four years have taught us anything, it is that we do not know each other at all. How we reconcile that, or whether we even choose to acknowledge that condition, will steer the future of the entire planet.

What began as simple disbelief that the United States had elected the current occupant of the White House has since become an outrage. Every step of the way it evolved and crystalized into clear recognition that the President has zero empathy for all other human beings, unless they are in a position to improve his personal economic and social status. Initially, we forgave our friends who voted for this person. We could empathize with their desire for change, for someone outside the establishment politics that rule our national government. We sought understanding, but maybe gave up eventually and returned to a relationship with those friends that had nothing to do with politics.

The expectation is that among those who espouse an all species matter philosophy, every other belief aligns

Then came the “me, too” movement, and after that the global pandemic, and in the midst of that the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis policemen. The same friends who had voted for our President were eerily silent through all of that. We were appalled already because they were quiet when borderland policy was incarcerating refugees and immigrants in conditions we would not tolerate for violent felons in prison, and separating parents from children. The rise of Black Lives Matter finally appears to have made things….excuse the analogy….black and white.

The conversations on social media finally exposed the depth and pervasiveness of hatred, even by people we had formerly respected. It was, and still is, jarring to our core. Birding communities that had been divided over etiquette in “chasing,” listing, and observing birds are now divided between racists and inclusivists. The expectation is that among those who espouse an all species matter philosophy, every other belief aligns, including impartial justice, equal rights (not special rights, whatever those are), and acceptance, not mere tolerance, of non-binary identities, and the full spectrum of sexual orientation, including asexual persuasions.

Other animals must change physically to cope….Us? We have only to change our minds in order to adapt.

We begin re-evaluating all our personal relationships, from childhood friends to the person who we trust to fix our computer when it breaks down or behaves strangely. More devastatingly, we question ourselves, and whether we can truly trust anyone to be sincere in their sentiments, and embracing of equality.

”Wait until they come for your heroes,” we are told, as statues fall and monuments are defaced. They already have “come after” John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and others I once revered, but I appreciate the enlightenment and have no fear that the accomplishments of such people will be eroded. Learning the full story, warts and all, is called education, and it has long been overdue.

The success of every species is its ability to adapt to change, but Homo sapiens has the hardest time with that. Other animals must change physically to cope with our ever-widening urban and agricultural landscapes, alter their food selection, and learn to take advantage of human mistakes and neglect. Us? We have only to change our minds in order to adapt. Politics, religion, and economics are the enemies of human adaptation. They cling more fiercely to the past than any other social institutions because those past rules and assumptions serve them in their rise to greater and greater power.

In the end, the inescapable conclusion we reach about those we thought were our friends is that they do not truly care about what is truly important. They fail to understand that only by elevating the status of less privileged people will we ever achieve the sustainability and prosperity that enables other species to thrive alongside of us. The time has come for sacrifice, not continued exclusion. Material gain, or even comfort, can no longer be tolerated when it means oppression of others. A different lifestyle or identity in no way diminishes your own. The only threats to your white, middle-class life are the stereotypes and fears your have manufactured. Get over it, or get out of my life.

Note: This may be my last post unless Blogger retains the "legacy" option as an alternative to its "new," abominable interface. I tried doing this post on the new interface and it was essentially impossible.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Book Review: A Season on the Wind

Kenn Kaufman does something ingenious in A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). He compares and contrasts the way migratory birds harness the wind to propel them northward versus the bumbling attempts of our own species to capture the wind to meet our energy needs. He and his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, live in a unique location where these powerful phenomena clash head on, quite literally. To his credit, Kaufman exercises remarkable restraint in addressing the downside of renewable wind energy, while exhorting the miracle that is spring migration at Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio, U.S.A.

The book is a brilliant and colorful chronology of the history of tracking bird migration in the Americas, and northwest Ohio specifically. While many birders recoil at the notion that anything good can come from hunting, the author reminds us that the first major strides in bird conservation came about as a result of preservation of wetlands by waterfowl hunters. The organization of hunters into a cohesive unit of persuasion and legislation is something birders should take note of and emulate to achieve more widespread measures to preserve and protect our avian fauna.

From the almost primitive practice of bird banding, to next generation radar, citizen science initiatives, and birding festivals like the Biggest Week in American Birding right there at Magee Marsh, we are constantly improving our collective and individual understanding of spring migration. Kaufman deftly walks the line between what is often seemingly dispassionate formal scientific research and the nearly anthropomorphic appreciation of birds by non-scientists. The book, like the author himself, delivers fact, humor, emotion, and honesty in its appraisal of our constantly-changing, nearly schizophrenic relationship to the natural world, with birds at the center.

It would be easy to write effusively about the spectacle of bird migration as if it exists in a vacuum, a historical constant, a changeless exercise that goes on relentlessly regardless of our own existence. Most writers would simply paint a rosy picture that serves to recruit new birders and birdwatchers, and entertain readers without ever hinting at the negative impacts our species can have on migrant fauna.

Likewise, it would be easy to write a downer of a narrative that focuses solely on the perils birds face during their aerial journey north. There is certainly enough material for one to take a full manuscript in either direction. Balancing the joys with the sorrows, anger, and frustration is no easy task, but that is clearly what Kaufman set out to do, and he executes it flawlessly. When you think you cannot recover from the devastation of the previous chapter, the next one renews your enthusiasm and optimism.

One of the most significant points illustrated in A Season on the Wind is the growth of birding as a social activity. Thanks to advances in communication, formerly isolated naturalists and leisure birders can connect with each other to any degree they wish. Some still prefer “alone time” communing with the nature, but that no longer has to be the default setting. The speed of learning about birds has increased by several orders of magnitude, and the diversity of the birding community has the potential to explode as well.

Kaufman, his wife, and their contemporaries in the ornithological community are as relentless in their pursuit of justice for birds and birders as the birds are committed to their instinctive drive to move seasonally. The birds must navigate both the constant starlit sky above and the radically shifting landscape below. Climate change is a force we are attempting to mitigate for ourselves and other species, yet it is also the driving force behind wind turbine technologies that are cutting birds out of the sky.

This conundrum forces us to confront problems of scale. Bird migration is not a stream of birds like a river in the sky. The birds are widely dispersed and the grand scale of migration guarantees that migrants will confront lethal obstacles wherever they exist. The scale of wind farms, in both height and breadth, is the problem. Bird-safe technologies exist, but offer little profit for utility companies, so they remain neglected. By now we should have reciprocal power grids, mostly localized, where individual households and businesses can feed a centralized source with surplus energy in sunny, breezy times and draw from it on cooler, calmer days.

I am already anxious for a sequel to A Season on the Wind, as the emerging discipline of aeroecology recognizes the complex web of organisms that exists overhead, and seeks to unravel those aerial interactions. Meanwhile, you will find this current book a thoughtful, stimulating, and optimistic read.