Canaries of the climate change coal mine, Part 1

By guest blogger, Alan Watson Featherstone.

Over a hundred years ago, when coal mining in the UK was producing the fossil fuels that first drove the industrial revolution, canaries were used as early warning signals of danger. One of the hazards faced by miners then was the release of toxic gases, particularly carbon monoxide, to which canaries were more sensitive than humans. The birds were kept in cages at the coal seam face and if they showed symptoms of sickness the miners knew it was time to evacuate before they too succumbed to poisoning.

There is a potent and poignant symbolism to that for us in the world today. The mining of coal was, and still is, one of the major contributors to human-caused global warming. Whilst, collectively, we are finally waking up to the dangers of climate change, birds are already being seriously impacted by the effects of our use of fossil fuels. A comprehensive report issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2013 found that between a quarter and half of all bird species in the world are highly vulnerable to climate change. In 2015, the US-based bird conservation organisation, the Audubon Society, released detailed studies that identified 314 species – nearly half of all North American birds – as being severely threatened by global warming. In January 2017, an article in the Guardian newspaper entitled, The 10 Species Most at Risk from Climate Change, featured three groups of birds on their list – Hawaiian honeycreepers, Baird’s sandpiper and the Adelie penguin.

These are very sobering reports that touch me, and I suspect many others, very deeply. Birds are an integral and special link in the inter-connected web of life on our planet. Their many collective ecological attributes include: the longest migration of any species (the Arctic tern, which travels each year from the Artic to the Antarctic and back again, experiencing near-perpetual summer as a result) and the only terrestrial species that overwinters in Antarctica (the emperor penguin). They also perform vital ecological functions such as the pollination of many plants and the dispersal of seeds.

In addition, birds are very important to us for what they symbolise. They are masters of two elements – earth and air – which represent matter and spirit respectively. Indeed, some birds, such as ducks and geese, are at home in three elements – earth, air and water. I’ve sometimes thought if I had the opportunity to live on Earth as another species I’d choose to be a duck, because of its ability to experience, and thrive in, those three different habitats!

Left:   Female mallard & ducklings, Cairngorms National Park.
Right:   Cormorant on the branch of an aspen tree in Glen Affric.

The two defining and special features of birds (or at least most birds) are flight and song. Although many insects and some mammals such as bats are able to fly, it is birds that we most associate with the mastery of flight. Their soaring in the air has become symbolic of spirit and the upliftment and freedom we experience when we are each in tune with our innermost self and positive energy is flowing in our lives. The singing of birds represents self-expression and creativity, and is a source of inspiration to anyone who takes the time to listen to the dawn chorus or the song of a lark in flight. Because many birds appear to sing for the sheer joy of it, they represent the joyous feeling each of us experiences when our hearts are open and we express our individual passion and inspiration in words or deeds. Birds also represent some of the other positive qualities that people aspire to in life – the dove, for example, is a widely used symbol for peace. The inspiration for Eileen Caddy’s autobiography, ‘Flight into Freedom’, was also derived from the symbolism of birds.

Each autumn and spring I marvel at, and am deeply touched by, the daily arrival of large numbers of pink-footed geese at Findhorn Bay, a few hundred metres from my house. They come in skeins, often several hundred strong, to stop over for the night during their twice-yearly migrations from North to South and back again. Their calling to each other as they fly, and their constantly changing aerial configurations that optimise the effects of slipstreaming with one another, are an ongoing source of joy and wonder for me.

Skeins of pink-footed geese on the way to their overnight resting site at Findhorn Bay.

In recent years I’ve been connecting more and more deeply with birds, not only because of their presence where I live and in the ecosystems I visit, but also, I believe, because they, like all life, are calling out for help at this time. During a recent visit to the Araucaria (Monkey Puzzle tree) forests of Chile, I had the experience of birds seemingly coming to meet me whenever I entered their habitat. On many days, when I walked into one of the forest areas, birds would either fly and land close to me, or call out from nearby, drawing my attention to their presence when I hadn’t seen them. It was as though they wanted to connect with me, to show themselves to me, as beautiful representatives of the diversity of life on our planet, so that I could be touched and then act to help protect them.

I’ve had similar experiences during my work with Trees for Life to help restore the Caledonian Forest in Scotland and wrote a blog about a remarkable encounter I had with a cormorant in Glen Affric one day. I spent almost two hours getting close to the bird, eventually watching it at eye level from less than 10 metres away, where it was perched on the branch of an aspen tree at the peak of its autumn colours. It was one of those magical meetings with another species that affirmed and strengthened my inner connection with Nature, and is a memorable gift that I will treasure for the rest of my life.

The potential loss of birds in our world therefore has serious spiritual consequences, both on a personal level for someone such as myself and for humanity as a whole. This is in addition to the severe ecological impacts that their disappearance would entail. Climate change is just the most visible and well-publicised of the devastating effects that humans are having on all other life on the planet. Those effects, which range from massive soil degradation and tropical deforestation to overfishing and ubiquitous plastic pollution, are, like climate change, direct consequences of the all-encompassing illusion that our present day culture operates under – that we are separate from Nature, and that what we do does not affect the world around us.

It is the tacit acceptance of that illusion in all aspects of our culture that enables and empowers our destructive impacts to continue unchecked. By contrast, the vast majority of indigenous cultures, where people live in close relationship with Nature, have the interconnectedness of all life as central to their values and belief systems. The essential oneness of all life is also one of the core themes of the Deva messages that Dorothy Maclean received in her meditations in the early days of the Findhorn Community.

To be continued in the next blog post….

2 thoughts on “Canaries of the climate change coal mine, Part 1

  1. I am profoundly touched by this article. I live in northern Maine in the US where birds of all sorts live and thrive. I am always in awe when I see the unique phenomenon or formation when they are in flight especially the geese. This article enriched my appreciation of birds and intend to join the local Audobon Society. Thank you for sharing your insights about the spiritual connections.


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