May 25, 2016

What Keeps You Going?

Around 6:00 PM on May 14, the Wicked Meadow Loons were standing on a stone jetty on Delaware Bay watching a storm moving in from the west. We were also watching a couple of Purple Sandpipers hunkering down doing their best impression of the surrounding rocks as well as the only Ruddy Turnstone we would encounter that day. It turned out to be a pivotal moment. As the lightning struck and then the rain, even some hail, started to come down, it was obvious that some time would be lost in our 24-hour birding marathon known as the 33rd annual World Series of Birding. 

For the better part of the next hour, the best we could muster was standing in a beachside shelter hoping for a bird we had yet to record to fly by. But all was not lost. While we didn’t add any species to our list during that vigil, we did a few important things. First, we took a bit of the sting out of the situation by reminding ourselves that we were on a level playing field; it was indeed raining on all the other teams as well. Second, we did the most important thing, we resolved to carry on. It is in those moments we chose not to throw in the towel that we learn the most about ourselves, about what truly matters to us. Third, we made a plan, quickly calculating which species we had scouted where and how much time we had until darkness changed which birds we could identify, we laid out what turned out to be a winning strategy. When we submitted our list at midnight after the King Rail refused to call (which he did at 12:15) the total was 190 species, a dozen species more than the team that came in second.

There is strength to be found in adversity. Two decades of chasing victory in the World Series of Birding, narrowly missing first place the last two times I competed, made me want it enough to dig deep. A harsh reality of an annual competition is that if you make a mistake you have to wait 365 days to correct it. Deciding in that moment in the storm that we would double down instead of giving up was not only the right decision; it also was the empowering one. Choosing to go for it, ignoring exhaustion and discomfort, was invigorating.  We found the stamina to carry on to the finish, and then some.

It is one thing to choose to make lemonade when life hands you lemons. It is indeed smart to make the most of a bad situation. But what if you dug a little deeper and realized that with all this lemonade you could open a stand and make some money as well? I truly believe that that sort of attitude is available to us when we turn to God in our distress. When we cry out for divine help God sends the Holy Spirit, which seems all soft, and quiet, and innocent as a dove, but remember that it was this Spirit that blew out the locked doors the disciples were hiding behind, literally got them fired up, and gave them the power to go out and change the world forever. That power is no less available to us today, if only we dare ask.

May 08, 2016

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Let's face it, some sports just don't seem that exciting. Personally, I agree with Mark Twain that golf is a good walk ruined. To be fair, I've never tried the real thing, but the kind with windmills and water fountains, is relatively interesting because of the windmills and water fountains...and the promise of ice cream after the 18th hole. And the very idea of watching it on TV just seems absurd to me. Oh, I get it, if you are into it then it can become exciting because you can understand what it going on. Well, I participate in a sport whose very name sounds like an oxymoron: competitive birding. And I can absolutely assure you that it is the most boring spectator sport in the universe. If the sport were broadcast and you were to watch a team in the field, you would see a car going faster than it probably should on a back road in some secluded location, come to a quick stop, see the team members jump out of the car and stand silently, scanning the surroundings poised to raise their binoculars if needed, but for the most part simply listening. Oh, it might get really intense and they may cup their hands

around their ears to increase the chance of hearing a distant song. Then one of two things happen. If they are successful, someone points in the direction of some quiet, tiny sound and says “there!” If the team members are are alert and good birders they will nod and say “got it,” leading to a rush to get back into the car, which will peel out and be gone in an instant. If they are not so lucky, one or more of team mates has to admit that they didn't hear it and the waiting is extended. Even worse, sometimes the vigil yields nothing, the target bird remains silent as the seconds tick by. As the time approaches two minutes, someone is likely to mutter “this is killing us,” or “we are dying here.” Then someone takes the reins and declares that the team doesn't have time to spare and must go. The re-entry tends to go a bit slower, not only from the deflated energy of missing the bird, but in the bedrock unfounded optimism that the bird will call in the very last moment.

Scintillating, huh? I did my best to make it sound interesting, but I am well aware that unless you are a skilled participant in the sport of Big Day Birding (that's what we birders call the a day when the idea is to list as many species as possible) then you wouldn't have even enough knowledge to appreciate what the birders are doing and the boredom of being a spectator could only be broken by the humor of the knowledge that these otherwise intelligent individuals are acting in an absolutely insane manner. Who in their right mind would spend a week of sleep deprived bird watching in order to gather information precise enough to schedule 24 hours of 2 minute stops in order to be the team at midnight with the highest number of total species based totally on the honor system in order to win the prize of...wait for it...their name on a trophy?!?! Well, me for one. In less than 24 hours I'm leaving for New Jersey to compete in my 21st World Series of Birding hoping that this is the year my
name goes on the first place trophy having finished 3rd, 2nd, and 2nd the last three times I competed.

I share all of that to make one simple, but vital point about bird watching. That is that it involves a lot more listening than it does watching. Particularly in the spring, birds not only love to sing, but they cannot not sing. That's right, they are hardwired to sing. And fortunate for those of us chasing them that when their hormone levels rise in the spring as they anticipate breeding it causes them to sing. So it is not arriving on territory that triggers the behavior, it starts before they get there, so we are blessed with springs filled with music in the air, and the opportunity to find the singers.

When you hear it, you may think it is more babble than symphony, but regardless it is clearly the work of multiple voices together at once. For the most part, each species has its own unique songs and calls that it uses both to attract and repel. As humans, we can relate to birds singing to attract the attention of potential suitors, isn't that the reason behind so many of our love songs? We have less connection with the use of song as a way of defending territory. Birds stake their claim to an area by singing and often some visual displays. Their practice is overwhelmingly non-violent. If only we humans were to learn from them and settle our disputes with a battle of the bands instead of a clash of armies. 

Another thing we could stand to learn is that even if it doesn't always sound perfectly orchestrated to our ears, multiple voices are always better than unison. We don't all have to sound the same. The ancient tale of the Tower of Babel is meant to teach us that lesson. All of humanity was attempting to unite in an effort to establish a single identity. It was symbolized in the tower that would be higher than anything that had come before, a monument to human achievement. But it would have come at the expense of diversity. That is the point made by the scattering of the people and confusing of their language. The message is that God likes diversity, that the multiple voices are preferred even if they sound more like babble than symphony. 

The story of Pentecost is often preached as the answer to Babel. That is, the scattering and diversity is brought back together in unity. Granted, the birth of the church is a celebration of unity out of diversity, but that unity does not come at the cost of diversity. This is not a great homogenization of differences. Think about it as ice cream. Unless you are lactose intolerant, it is likely that you would agree that ice cream is good. You may not like all the many flavors, but you likely have a favorite or two. Your favorite is definitely not the favorite of everyone. Variety is a real positive when it comes to ice cream flavors. I think we can all agree that if the goal of ice cream unity were to be achieved by mixing all the flavors together it would result in ruining a good thing. When it comes to ice cream, diversity is a gift. Why should it be any less true when speaking about people and their gifts? Notice that in the Pentecost story the miracle is not that everyone suddenly understands the Aramaic that the Apostles are speaking, but rather that the diversity-loving Holy Spirit empowers the Apostles to speak a variety of languages.

Trying to identify birds from their songs is an opportunity to learn this Pentecost lesson. We have to learn to listen. We have to pay attention to, and value differences. We have to associate the unknown with something known so that we can learn what amounts to a new language. In doing so, we make connections across the divide, even the divide between species. With practice and patience, we can not only learn what the birds are saying, but in some cases we can even enter the conversation. Most birds will respond to an imitation of their song. Wouldn't it be fun to be Doctor Doolittle? While you may not talk to the animals, learn their languages, you most certainly can talk to your neighbor, who even if they speak English, may speak a different “language” than yours. The big story of scripture, from Babel to Pentecost, and creation itself, points us in the direction of valuing diversity. All you need to do is stop your own babble long enough to hear the symphony that is going on around you. And in that quiet you begin to make the connections that the Wild Goose of God's Spirit that you have been chasing, wants you to make. Let those who have ears to hear, listen.

May 03, 2016

Preposition Proposition: Habitat

Habitat is one key to making a proper identification. If you are in the middle of the woods, it is highly unlikely that you will find Meadowlarks and Bobolinks and in the middle of a grassland a Pileated Woodpecker or Northern Goshawk will only be passing through. Habitat typically only helps to focus attention on likely species, but one trick that those who bird by ear use is to check the habitat when distinguishing between those species whose song is just a trill. If you are at a wetlands, it is likely a Swamp Sparrow, if you are looking at a stand of conifers, it is likely a Pine Warbler, and if it is a suburban lawn, it is likely a Chipping Sparrow.

When I was on sabbatical a few years ago, one of my greatest expectations was seeing species of birds that I had not seen before because I was going to be traveling west to new areas and new habitats. My first stop was Omaha, not quite west, but certainly not east, the very epitome of Midwest. I was so excited about adding to my life list that I took a taxi to a bird walk. When I got into the woods it started to feel familiar, a riparian forest. I knew what to expect in riparian forest habitat in the east, but what would I discover here? What I quickly discovered was that from an avian perspective, I was still in the east. I didn't add a single lifer that trip. In fact, I had to really struggle to find a Western Meadowlark in Omaha, in part because they are so similar to Eastern Meadowlarks, but also because I was still not quite far enough west to be in their normal range. I fixed that with a trip one day to the sand hills of central Nebraska, where I started picking up some species new to me.
Later in my trek, when I got to Arizona, the lifers started adding up. This was due in part to the geography and in part to the habitat. I saw hummingbirds, orioles, and woodpeckers just like I do here in the east, but they were Magnificent Humminbirds, Scott's Orioles, and Acorn Woodpeckers. I also saw birds that were unique to the desert habitat like Greater Roadrunners, Cactus Wrens, and Elegant Trogons.

Knowing your place is a vital practice if you are concerned about identification. That applies both to predicting what you will discover around you, like what I do when I go birding in a new location, and to self-identification as well. Knowing yourself involves knowing your place. Let's take a look at those two things in order. First, knowing the world around you.

The great disorder that plagues Western Civilization is disconnection from place. We used to be people who understood the natural world, primarily because if we didn't understand it, it would kill us. I'm sure I don't have to repeat stories about children not having any idea that milk comes from cows before it comes from the store or quote statistics about how little time children today spend outside to convince you of the problem. Surely you've seen it in your own experience. Personally, I can't get enough time in nature. I find it endlessly fascinating. You know the old expression, “a bad day birdwatching is better than a good day at work.” OK, so maybe it is more popularly associated with fishing, but you get my point. Even with my extensive knowledge and familiarity with birds, there is not a birding trip when I don't experience something new, or at least ask a question I've never asked before. Sometimes the literal wild goose chase that I'm on has that metaphorical impact as well, leading me to explore new things that I hadn't previously consider. Often that is a plant, sometimes an animal, or a sound. Frankly, I can't understand why everyone doesn't find the natural world endlessly fascinating. Now, I understand that I'm a bit of an odd duck here. Take for example, my total disinterest in gardening. For many people, their yards and gardens are the ways that they get into nature. But I have no interest in trying to bend nature to my bidding. I would much rather be surprised by Columbine, Trout Lily, and Lady's Slipper while I'm walking in the woods, than to fertilize, weed, and water just so a tulip, rose, or hydrangea will bloom right outside my door. Believe it or not, I'm also not a fan of bird feeders. To me, feeding the birds is a bit like trying to domesticate them. It certainly is an attempt to entice them to come to us. I find more pleasure in going to them, experiencing them doing whatever they choose and being themselves. But these are just tame examples of a philosophy that can be very dangerous. In fact, it is more theology than philosophy, and it has to do with the translation of a single preposition in the book of Genesis.

In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible we read that God tells humans to subdue the earth and to have dominion over the animals. With a mandate like that coupled with a belief that we are the crown of creation (seeing as we are the last beings created) and a little lower than the angels (something we told ourselves in the Psalms) there is nothing to stop us from doing what we want to creation. Sadly, that is precisely what has happened. We have indeed done as we pleased with the natural resources of the planet and when we are faced with the natural consequences of our exploitation, we have scripture and doctrine to fall back on to justify our behavior and continue on a destructive path. But what if we have been reading the story wrong all along?

We read that at the end of creating, God hands over the keys to humanity. We read that we are to subdue the earth and have dominion over its inhabitants. Or so it seems. Granted, the verb used to describe what we are to do to the land is the same as the one used to describe subjecting a conquered people to your control. And the common translation of the next verb and preposition is to have dominion over. But that pairing could also (perhaps more reasonably) be read as rule with. And even if the intent is to hear that we free rein to do as we want with all of creation, taking total control, recall that this is a story that comes from an ancient people who surely felt subjected to the land and the power of nature. Surely the whole idea of having dominion over creation was only a dream, perhaps heard as a promise from the Creator.

In our day, we have the ability to subdue and dominate, and we have tended to do so in extreme ways. We look at it as progress, but it has come at a very high cost. Not only are we finding that we are quickly running out of space and resources, but we have made disconnection from creation seem normal. We have made the natural unnatural. We have come to the conclusion that we are apart from nature, not a part of nature.

It is only after you have relearned your place in the grand scheme of creation that you can get to know your true self. As creatures, we are created to have our place in creation, not simply literally a physical place, but metaphorically we have our place, which is our sweet spot. We have that thing that makes our heart sing, that which makes us feel most fully alive. It has been said that there are two important days in your life, the day you were born and the day you discover why you were born. Our faith story suggests that that second day is the day that you are born again, or born anew from above. When you experience that day (or days, as the journey continues to unfold) you re-join the human family in a new way. As Christians, we call this way the Body of Christ.

As we read in 1Corinthians 12, this body, like all bodies is made up of many parts. No body can exist as only one part, we need each other. Remember that you are incapable of truly living, knowing your full intended life, apart from others. I would argue that those others include the whole of creation. But equally remember that those others, including the whole of creation, are counting on you. And what are they counting on you to do? They are counting on you to be you! That understanding may come in a dramatic Aha! moment, just don't forget that that moment is a door that opens up new possibilities, which surely will include more Aha! moments as you find your place in the living, breathing, always changing, always fascinating world that you were born, and born anew, into.