The snow drifts, rises, falls, settles, swirls, and becomes one peninsula of birds on Summer Lake Wildlife Area in south central Oregon. White feathers. Millions. The journey north of snow geese from a winter in California’s Central Valley to breed on the Arctic tundra is both magnificent and cautionary.
Imagine yourself carried on the winds by white wings tipped in black and almost touching. Be spirited away by the high-pitched frenzy of honking. Witness breathtaking abundance. These are a few of the gifts of being in the presence of migrating snow geese.
Heading south just across the border into California to Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, once again we spotted the distant white gleam across the waters and the sifting of wings as if shook in a snow globe. Coming closer on a windy day of impending storm, we immersed in the company of geese, of bald eagles on the hunt, and surrounded by thousands of ruddy ducks, shovelers, coots, green-winged teal, pintails, and even white pelicans. Northern harriers hovered and flew low over the wind-rustled marshes.
Surely, there’s hope in our broken world within this cacophony of birds. Yet, before we set out on the wildlife drive on dike dirt roads along the open waters, we’d hiked up a rimrock trail behind the refuge headquarters to a rustic rock overlook and read the faded sign and seen the photos. This fabulous Tule Lake is just 15 percent of its former grandeur–all that farmland stretching for miles around the valley used to be the lake, before the diking, draining, and taking. Not even a hundred years ago, the lake filled the valley and the waterfowl? Amplified. Crescendoed. So much more. And not so long ago, the people who have lived here since time immemorial paddled their canoes through marshes and upon vast open waters.
Yet, I will not despair. Remember the effect of Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. She sounded the alarm of birds going silent, even our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle, was spiraling fast toward extinction, because of the pesticide DDT. People rose up. The Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972, and recovery began, a long hard journey for birds of prey and for so many people who never gave up.
On this late March day on Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, bald eagles plucked ruddy ducks from the water. The eagles soared, tussled, and chittered from perches. We saw perhaps 50 altogether. This predator-prey relationship is part of nature, even if a bit hard to watch for ducks that seek safety in numbers.
But what is not alright is all the taking we have done, from the genocide of the indigenous peoples to the taking of the giving waters of the Klamath Basin. And now? The taking of our very climate and life in an era of mass extinction. Still I hold out for hope. What better place to find it then on our national wildlife refuges, and even here in the Klamath Basin, the scene of bitter water wars?
In late November, the sealing of a historic deal promises to lead to the removal of four of the six dams on the Klamath River by 2024. Salmon, trout, and eels can once again swim up 400 miles of freed river, and barely in time to prevent extinction. For the Yurok Tribe, the return of salmon and a healthy river is pivotal to their culture. Read more here.
For the snow geese and all the waterfowl and shorebirds that depend on shallows and mudflats, their perilous journey is only possible if they can rest and refuel on lakes, marshes, and mudflats dotting the Pacific Flyway. So many have been drained, depleted and polluted.
Yet, there’s hope here, too, in the form of one of my favorite innovations I’ve ever read about for bird habitat. Pop-up wetlands are vital to more than 60 species of shorebirds, some that we also saw on our spring break bird extravaganza, including Greater Yellowlegs and Black-necked Stilts. A few brilliant folks in The Nature Conservancy came up with this idea: if you can’t afford to buy habitat, why not rent it? They did. The rice farmers benefit from the money TNC pays them, and the shorebirds are gathering in shallow flooded fields. Here’s how it works. Using the power of citizen science through birders recording shorebirds on EBird, biologists know when to tell the rice farmers to release water into their fields just when the birds need it, a result that is good for farming and good for shorebirds. Read more here.
Here’s to the innovators, the think-outside-the boxers, and to the best of who we are as people when we act in ways that are thoughtful and kind to all species. We cannot keep destroying and overpopulating our planet. We see it in rising seas, drought, more wildfires, hurricanes, and all the consequences of our addiction to fossil fuel, to consumption, and to immediate gratification. Let’s be better than this. Let’s embrace true clean energy, electric cars, and environmental justice. Let us imagine what it is to be like snow geese in flight, their wings so close they touch but don’t touch, brush but don’t brush, and know each other’s presence always. They fly in a communion.
Let us learn from the wild snow geese. What can my black wingtips inscribe in ink to make a difference? Perhaps it’s to keep telling the stories from the wild that remind us to be humble and to take cues from natural systems that have long evolved with such complexity we are only beginning to grasp.
As my North Carolina conservationist friend Jack Spruill said to me over the phone just yesterday, “You can’t plant biodiversity.” He’s one of the many good people standing up to save the Carolina coastal forests from massive clearcutting that’s destroying complex forests for wood pellets, then shipped elsewhere to be claimed as “green energy.” See this excellent story in Politico. We must do better. We must speak up.
Honor all that’s still intact and wild and far smarter than we are. For the rice fields in California–yes, be creative in the ways of pop-up wetlands. Where we see habitat destruction, look for creative nature-based solutions to undo, bring back, and renew. Time is short. What we choose to do as individuals each day matters. How can we simplify our lives and find gratification not in stuff to buy, but in the unfolding of spring flowers and migrating birds?
In my morning journal, I write aphorisms and questions. Turning to a page from last week, my offering was this:
“When we witness a snippet of earth’s former abundance, we can take that piece of rare cloth and begin to weave, reweave, and rewild.”