AN OPTIMISM OF BIRD MIGRATION
Friend Eric in Mérida sent a link to a New York Times article from last month
bearing the title "Bird Watchers Help Science Fill Gaps in the Migratory Story."
The heart of the article is an animated map created at Cornell University. On the map,
each moving dot represents the flight of a different bird group during spring migration,
mostly from the American tropics to summer breeding grounds in North America.
To create the map, researchers used data from more than a million observations made by
amateur bird watchers and uploaded to the eBird website, an online, citizen science
project. You can read the story and see the flow of birds northward -- many passing
through the Yucatan before launching across the Gulf of Mexico onto US shores -- here.
When you visualize birds actually making the heroic journey -- remember their nervous
excitement building during the days before leaving, recall the old and infirm ones left
behind looking so disconsolate, and the utterly exhausted ones dropping onto the beach
after crossing the Gulf -- you think that the fluid motion of those dots moving northward
is graceful as a ballet dancer portraying a swan, as beautiful as a newborn child
awakening and looking around.
The map is even more significant when it really sinks in that each moment of each dot
on the map represents data points that were achieved artfully, and by people with clear
minds and generous intent.
For, each of the millions of observations was made by people who had practiced birding
enough to recognize a species when they saw it; each observer at the moment of
identification -- in the field and often under difficult circumstances -- was focusing
through life's usual distractions and fog of clutter to the point that a moment in the
field could be transformed into information online at the eBird site, and; each birder was
generous enough in spirit to do all this without thought of payment, in fact usually at
some expense to themselves. They did it just for the pleasure of sharing a moment, an
insight, a new piece of information with others. A million times real facts such as a
little brown sparrow among cattails on an obscure, mosquito-infested mud bank were
crystallized into moments of a dot stuttering northward on that map.
Beyond the obvious prettiness of all this done exceedingly well, the map with its
moving dots encourages a kind of transcendent optimism.
For, if something good and inspiring has crystallized in the context of so many of the
bird groups represented on the map suffering drastic population decline, and in the face
of other news from all over the globe of things and events that are anything but artful,
clear minded, and generous in intent, then we have something encouraging.
In fact, maybe there's a Universal Law of Nature that when a kind or class or species
of sentient being reaches an evolutionary threshold at which all members of that kind,
class or species can share diverse thoughts -- as humans now can via cell phones and the
Internet -- maybe something good happens. Maybe at first there's clutter and confusion,
such as we see in the Internet's content now, but then comes consensus of insight as
manifested by this map, and then, one hopes, enlightened action.
It seems to me, though, that just as likely is that there may be another Universal Law
of Nature assuring that whenever some kind of sentient being reaches such an evolutionary
threshold, it's unable to overcome the primal aggressions and insensitivities to other
living things that enabled it to gain dominance over them... and extinguishes itself --
through war, inaction, or the workings out of mass psychoses.
For my part, whether or not such Universal Laws exist, I'm proceeding as if I believed
that the bird map with its elegantly flowing data points is itself a tiny data-point on
the Middle Path to universal enlightenment.