FMM Canary in the Coal Mine

“Ring the alarm, another sound is dying (woh-oh, hey!)”~Tenor Saw.

 I don’t remember birds making a particular impact on me in childhood.  Although I remember quite clearly a couple of songs from those days.  One was about a robin in winter (poor thing), another about the exotic Australian kookaburra sitting in the old gum tree (laugh, kookaburra!).  I may not even have appreciated the beauty of birds until my teenage years.  And I can still remember hearing the joke (forgive me if you’ve heard this before) about the Welsh minister who made Jamaica his home, married a Jamaican woman, and lived in Trelawny for many years.  In one of his sermons he referred to a popular Jamaican folk song, a call and response type of work song that listed many of the birds indigenous to Jamaica.  The chorus went: “Chi-chi bud-oh! (Some a dem a holla some a bawl)” referring to the sounds the different birds made, ‘hollering’ or ‘bawling’.  Unfortunately, using his translation from the patois he enunciated: “Some of them are hollow, some are bald”!

But over the years birds of the world have held my fascination.  Whether they are slightly ghostly, like the varieties of owls that swoop down in the nighttime, or daringly breathtaking, like the hovering jewel colored hummingbirds dipping their curved beaks into the narrow slips of flowers, their movements pull the eye.  I have been spoilt by spending most of my life in warmer climes, but I have also seen the diversion the birds provide for those who live in the north.  The return of the birds in spring; the visitors that pass through on their way to their winter retreats; the family that adopts one house, nesting and reproducing nearby.  I have noticed the difference between English birds and American birds.  The tiny round red-breasted robin in England looks nothing like its American equivalent.  If you have the time, and visit a relative who has a bird feeder in their garden, you can lose hours just sitting and watching the many colored creatures that pass through, and take endless shots hoping to get the perfect one.

It didn’t occur to me until I heard it from my friend public radio, that birds measure the health of the environment.  The wildlife photographer explained that the presence of birds indicates the viability of the area to sustain life.  In years gone by, in the absence of google maps and other instant answers, people would judge an area by the presence of birds, and know that humans could also survive there. In fact another expert who records nature sounds, (soundscape ecology) noted the drastic drop in the amount and variety of nature sounds when recording in California after the severe drought they had experienced.  Nature not only sustains us, but gives us advance warning, if we but listen.

I remember a trip to Newcastle, not the one with the coal, but an army barracks built in the hills of the Blue Mountains, Jamaica, a place chosen for its cool air.  The English soldiers created it as a retreat from the onslaught of tropical fevers in the 19th century.  We stayed in one of the houses there (stone walls, big fireplace) and walked the forest paths of St. Catherine’s peak (spelled the right way, as my mother would insist, since it was her name also!).  As we walked we paused at the sound of the myriad bird calls, an occasional rat-a-tat of a woodpecker, or watched a ground dove skirt the path ahead of us.  Wildflowers abounded with their tiny yellow, pink and purple blooms.  Even the grass was exotic and different from what is found at lower levels.  It was a restorative weekend spent away from all distractions.  There were no electronic devices to tether us to the everyday world.  These were the days before the constant connectedness of the cell phone.

In my new home I am finding myself fascinated by the visitors to our bird feeder.  We have varieties of doves, blue-jays, sparrows, finches, blackbirds, nightingales and mocking birds.  Next door the huge tree provides cover for a host of parrots, their yellow feathers camouflaged perfectly by the matching leaves.  Of course along with the sounds and sights come the not so pleasant gifts – splashed down from the branches onto my car parked below!  For now it appears my neighborhood is still viable and friendly.  But perhaps longer residents would feel that the numbers have dwindled in comparison to earlier years.

Those of us who have come to appreciate nature more and more as we age should do well to heed the signs.  Just as the coalminers used a canary to indicate the presence of deadly gas in the mines, we need to not just read the signs, but to act.  As another old-time Jamaican song warns: “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think!” Followed by another stern warning popular with Jamaican parents: “Those who don’t hear will feel!”

If we don’t pay attention to the cries of Mother Nature, we may have to devise more and more manmade solutions to sustainability.  You may be surprised to know that there are truckloads of bees that have to be transported from Louisiana to California to ensure that crops are fertilized, so that we can have vegetables on our tables.  Yes, those stinging bees are another measure of the health of our environment.

This Friday morning as I think of the sounds of my childhood (‘some a kling-kling’), as I remember the variety of flowers and fruits of a tropical homeland, I hope you also are paying attention to the warning signs and responding to them.  In much the same way as we notice aches and pains and crying out joints, and recognize the need to take better care of our bodies, we need to take care of Mother Earth and all of the living things that have so generously looked out for us all these centuries.

May nature provide you with a healing and soothing view this weekend, but may you also think about your footprint, your impact on the planet that your grandchildren are inheriting from you.  Have a wonderful weekend Family!

One Love!


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