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When Songbirds Fell from the Sky

July 26, 2021

This is the summer when the songbirds fell from the sky. No one is quite sure yet why it has happened. A mysterious illness has afflicted songbirds in Pennsylvania and nine other states, leading to crusty eyes, neurological damage, death, and, quite literally, falls from the sky.

I have been trying to imagine a world without birds, thinking about this apart from the great sadness that I would feel with the loss of their songs and beauty. Birds eat pests and insects, and help pollinate to produce more plants - our food. They scavenge among and eat dead wildlife and provide food for other animals. They are essential elements in our ecosystem. The songbirds silenced. That hurts.

This is the summer when we are learning more about the silencing of the factual history of many peoples who have been marginalized by White cultures. We are hearing stories about Indigenous children taken from homes and placed in boarding schools, established by our government and often operated by churches. We are watching as graves of hundreds and hundreds of Indigenous children from these schools are uncovered, children who died of neglect, disease, and abuse. A particularly telling feature of this removal of children from their families and homes, apart from the high number of deaths, is the prohibition against speaking in their native language. Speaking in their native tongue led to severe punishment, as well as the gradual near extinction of hundreds of different languages and related complex perspectives of the world. Silenced. That hurts. But with the discovery and uncovering of the graves and stories, the silence is ending.

This is the summer when we are hearing debates about what "history" should be presented to our children. Some folks believe that children will be harmed by learning of the atrocities, inhumanity, cruelty, and loss of life experienced by Black enslaved people - and by Black citizens to this day. Also said by some - they should not have to hear about the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that effectively banned immigration from China, following years of discrimination and violence against Chinese immigrants in the Western US. This act was just one of many banning immigration from cultures and nations deemed "undesirable" by the dominant culture. Such acts legitimized discrimination and maltreatment. Nor should our children have to learn about the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II, through which they lost their homes, livelihoods, and freedom even while many Japanese American citizens served in the armed forces defending the US. There are forces among our citizens that are seeking to silence these factual stories - the stories tell uncomfortable truths and we do not want our children to feel uncomfortable!

BUT - ironically, as long as people are so vocal in their attempts to ban the stories - the silence ends and the stories live on and grow.

I was disappointed when stories about the songbirds dying and falling from the sky did not get much news time, given the significant role that birds play in our endangered ecosystem. And I have been saddened and angered when news about the trips of White billionaire men to the edge of outer space drown out the stories about the Indigenous children and the ongoing discrimination and violence against so many marginalized people. Saddened and angered because of the grave injustices and because the lives, cultures, and stories of these people who actually make up the global majority hold seeds of wisdom that may save our lives. Silence hurts.

This is the summer when Earth has NOT been silent. Earth speaks to us through fires, droughts, declining air and water quality, hurricanes and other storms, extreme heat, and floods. Earth has spoken to us through disease and pandemics, more likely to occur when animal habitats are shrunken due to human acts. These are natural phenomena that have always existed, but the strength and intensity and longevity of the events are not "normal" - they far exceed climate scientists' predictions, and are greatly exacerbated by human behavior. They constitute a climate emergency, a threat to the future of humans and all of life.

What might we learn when we listen to the birdsong, to Earth, and to the languages and stories of people who are part of the global majority? Hear the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer, enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and author of many works including Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants ...

“We Americans are reluctant to learn a foreign language of our own species, let alone another species. But imagine the possibilities. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us. We don’t have to figure out everything by ourselves: there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us. Imagine how much less lonely the world would be.”

May we listen to songs, languages, and stories of Earth and all living beings with open hearts and minds, and see all humans and the rest of nature as kin.


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