This Is Water

Speeches can be a lot of things. Funny, terrifying, boring, inspiring. A combination of these. Only one have I heard which always makes me think, “if everyone listened to this, we’d live in a kinder, saner society.” That speech is called ‘This is Water’ and was presented at a graduation/ commencement ceremony by author David Foster Wallace.

I’ll admit that I have shared this speech with at least three people and, though I know I could be wrong, I didn’t get the impression that it meant very much to any of them. Wallace’s speech probably won’t mean much to you, either. But, especially if you are feeling hopelessly frustrated, it could mean a lot. It could mean seeing what so far has been missed, and that could be very important. So, I thought that I’d share.

You’ve found a marked bird. Now what?

This summer, I was lucky enough to get to spend some time at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Ohio. It is a beautiful place that I’d hightly recommend as a destination for anyone who appreciates wildlife.

During one of my visits, I noticed that an adult Trumpeter Swan caring for cygnets looked like it had something around its neck. Not sure what it was, I had a closer look with my binoculars. This is what I saw:

Neck-collared Trumpeter Swan at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.

Because I’ve banded hundreds of birds (put tiny metal rings around their feet), I knew when I saw this neck collar that a researcher had put it there to improve our knowledge of this species. By reporting where marked birds are detected, we can learn about how long their species live and where they go. So, I noted the collar number and then went to this website. From there, I reported the number I read on the collar, which identified the bird. I also reported when and where my observation occurred. Doing so only took a couple minutes, but provided information that could help to better understand, and so protect, this amazing species.

Marked Trumpeter Swan with cygnets.

I thought I’d share this experience in case you didn’t know that you can help out birds by reporting the numbers on bands, neck collars, or other markings on birds that you observe.

Not only will you help to conserve birds by reporting such observations, but you’ll also get a certificate from the US Geological Survey which includes information about when and where the bird was marked. Another Trumpeter Swan I saw this summer was marked as a cygnet 16 years ago!! I sighted that bird about 6.5 miles from where it was marked.

I just submitted the collar number of the marked swan that I shared pictures of in this post. I can’t wait to find out when and where it was marked!

Lights Out Tonight! For the birds.

Hundreds of millions of birds will be migrating over many of us in North America tonight! Like a biological flood, they flow in pulses that are pronounced this time of year. Billions of individuals will migrate this fall, as hundreds of bird species head south. Here is a great site for seeing nightly migration forecasts:

It is, however, a perilous journey – especially due to lights at night which can disorient, attract to suboptimal habitat, and likely will kill perhaps hundreds of millions of birds this year. The good news? Each one of us, especially those in urban areas, can do our part to help make sure that this awe-inspiring flood of life isn’t reduced to a trickle. Just turn off your lights between 11:00 pm and 6:00 am, and spread the word. Check out this site for more information:

By the way, if you want to experience the migration you can head outside on a night with clear skies and a bright moon. Pull out your binoculars and look at the moon. You just might see migrating birds or other animals flying between you and the moon. You also might hear their high-pitched calls as flocks fly overhead.

Finding Northern Indiana’s Lost Marsh

An article that I wrote about the Grand Kankakee Marsh and efforts to bring it back was recently published by Earth Island Journal, so I thought I’d share the link. The marsh was once the largest inland wetland in the U.S., but growing up in northern Indiana I mainly just saw agricultural fields where it had been.

Here is a map of the vicinity where the marsh occurred, and where it could be brought back:

Estimated former extent of the Grand Kankakee Marsh. The Century Atlas Company, 1897. Copyright: Jim Sweeney, 2016.

Fox Snake Swimming in Marsh

While I was completing a marsh habitat survey where a King Rail that I’ve been tracking had been hanging out, I noticed a large snake swimming across the water nearby. It was easy to catch up to. I identified the snake as an Eastern Fox Snake (herpetologists, feel free to correct me!). Regardless of what it is called, I think the snake and the way it moved through the water is beautiful. So, I thought I’d share. Here is the video:

Don’t Litter! Save a Life

While driving to get groceries, my mother noticed something strange at the very edge of the road. So, she pulled over and investigated. Only inches from where traffic sped by, she saw this (she took the picture):

Was it a raccoon? Or a opossom? Whatever it was, she could see that it was shaking, she tells me. So, despite being worried that she might get bit, my mom took a brave step forward and pulled off the bag. And what did she see?!? This:

What a relief it must’ve been for the little cat to be freed from the greasy darkness! It ran away, and luckily didn’t get hit by a car while doing so. A life saved. Good job, mom!

If anyone needs convincing why not to litter (or knows someone who needs to be convinced), I thought that these pictures could help. Individuals of many species could be similarly imperiled by people who litter, or by people who don’t pick up trash when they can, and none of them deserve the fear and further suffering which can result.

Domesticated outdoor cats, I have to point out, can cause great environmental harm. Because they tend to be fed by humans, their instinctive killing is especially hard on their prey (e.g., song birds). Unlike in a natural predator-prey relationship, domesticated cat populations don’t decrease after the populations of their prey decrease. And so the relentless killing by outdoor cats can consequently drive their prey to local extirpation, or even extinction.

Hopefully this cat that my mom’s kindness saved ran home to a relieved human friend, who will keep it inside. Maybe after its ‘cat in the bag’ experience, this particular feline won’t want to go outside again!

Singing For Prisoners

Johnny Cash (1932-2003) has been one of my favorite musicians for most of my years. His distinctive voice, acoustic guitar melodies, and authentic lyrical stories are what have kept me re-listening to and discovering his music for my entire adult life. Only recently, though, have I given much thought to what is perhaps the most remarkable thing about him as far as I’m concerned. Which is that he sang for prisoners.

He performed at prisons for prisoners several times, with perhaps his most famous performance being at Folsom Prison in 1968 when he recorded the ‘Live at Folsom Prison‘ album. The way he talks to the audience mid-song, I think, is special, as are lyrics of songs like ‘The Wall.’ Though I don’t know Cash’s reasons for performing at Folsom or other prisons, and am sure that he was trying to help his own career, I also get the definite impression that he was trying to do something kind for the prisoners. To make them feel better.

Many people, I think, would sneer or scoff at attempts to make prisoners who may have murdered or raped other people feel better. The term ‘deserves to rot in prison’ comes to mind. So, why might have Cash, in some instances at least, disagreed and thought prisoners deserved kindness?

Maybe his song ‘Man in Black,’ in which he describes why he wears black, answers that question: “I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, but is there because he’s a victim of the time.”

Cash’s actions and words exemplify his understanding of a really hard thing to admit, which I remember adamantly denying. Namely, that people are foremost products of their environment. For good or for bad. Like a fire or a flood (or a rainbow), people don’t create themselves. Similar to non-human natural phenomena, people sometimes do need to be contained or avoided to maintain safety. I admit that.

However, I think that it is important to see that spending the energy to hate a person (like a prisoner who ‘deserves to rot’) is as fruitless as spending energy hating a flood. It does no good. That bad has happened and we have to move forward. Like the energy that could be spent creating a wetland to stop floods, singing to prisoners could create a glow in them that also might keep them from burning the world at their first opportunity. I think Johnny knew that. He also seemed to see that there are prisoners everywhere, few behind bars. So, upon seeing that too, let’s sing however we can.

A song: ‘Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou’

I made it my goal for today to write a song about doing a better job of conserving our natural heritage. The song that I came up with is called ‘Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou.’ The lyrics are below the link to me playing the song, so that you can read along (or read only) if you’d like.

Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou

Paul wakes up and makes his eggs,

he says: ‘here we go again.’

The old engine fires, moves his tires

to the place that hollows his years.

By the forest-bordered river he drives

where there’s so many memories

that for a moment he forgets

the radio’s conspiracies.

 

With hair done and makeup on,

Winona walks through the park.

The girls will be indignant today,

the news never disappoints.

But, for a moment, the gossip-world erodes.

As a young fox pounces on a leaf,

Winona feels a warm glow

that she hasn’t felt in weeks.

 

But Evelyn the politician says:

Pauls shouldn’t trust Winonas,

because donkeys and elephants don’t mix.

And demonizing and dividing she knows,

gets herself far more votes.

And people become so dizzied that they

fail to see the beauty that she sells to

get profiteers to give her money.

 

The Evelyns of the world will do whatever they can

to change the image that in the mirror they see

But they’re just reflections of Paul, Winona, you, and me.

And their charisma is often meant just to deceive.

Don’t listen when they say to disagree, without thinking.

 

So, let’s prove the politicians wrong.

Let’s tell them loud and clear

that there’s something about which we all agree.

Whether we’re ‘R’s’ ‘D’s,’ or ‘L’s’,

We won’t sleep under your spell.

We demand our natural heritage to be protected,

Or you won’t be elected

Or you won’t be re-elected

Or you won’t be elected.