Susurrations and shrinking baselines

Dear President Trump,

Susurration is such a wonderful word. If you don’t know what it means, you stable genius you, you might be able to figure it out if you say it aloud because it’s an onomatopoeia. And in case you also don’t know what an onomatopoeia is, it’s a word that was formed from the sound it is associated with. I’ll give you another hint – I thought of the word susurration this morning when a small flock of geese flew low overhead and I could hear the wind whispering through their wing feathers. It was magical. They weren’t honking or carrying on at all so the susurration was the first indication of their presence.

When those geese flew overhead they also reminded me of the WP article I made myself read yesterday. It first appeared Thursday so I didn’t really avoid it for all that long, but it sure felt like it – every one of the two dozen times I scrolled past it I shuddered and quick, found something else to click on. It was the title – so bald and sad that it left no room for pretending things aren’t dire: “North America Has Lost 3 Billion Birds in 50 Years.” Can’t get much clearer than that.

A huge study by scientists from Cornell, Canada’s environmental agency, and the US Geological Survey found that over the past half century there are 29% fewer birds than there were in 1970. The losses are nearly across the board with just a few exceptions. Ducks and geese are apparently the only common species that are doing ok and this is because of changes in hunting practices. Bald eagles and other large birds of prey have also made something of a come back and are doing better now than in the 1970’s because DDT was banned. But the common birds like meadowlarks, chickadees, warblers, thrushes, sparrows, finches and all their cousins are in trouble – not verge-of-extinction trouble, but trouble nonetheless. And this means the entire system is in big trouble all up and down the food chain (to include plants since not as many are being planted by dropped seeds or pollinated by avian pollinators).

A scientist who was not involved in the study was quoted as saying “Birds are not dropping out of the sky” so apparently he didn’t read my letter to you last year about the perfect little dead hummingbird I found on the sidewalk outside our house. I’ve also seen a perfect looking dead crow on a lawn in the past year so I’m afraid birds are dropping out of the sky.

I’m sharing some more text from the article because it introduces a concept I think we (you, me, everyone) all need to wrap our heads and hearts around:

“…. in the case of most dwindling bird species, the problem is not that they are in immediate danger of vanishing. Instead ….. bird populations are shrinking at rates we do not see, and so do not act upon. Conservationists refer to this as “shrinking baseline syndrome”…..”

It’s the idea of shrinking baselines that’s key here and frankly, in lots of places. The article goes on to explain that when the population of birds declines relatively slowly year in and year out and we still see birds around (i.e., they haven’t, poof! vanished) people don’t notice it and younger generations have no idea that the number of birds they encounter is wildly different than the number their grandparents encountered. Thus, the baseline gets reset – over and over in a downward manner.

This is happening to birds and bees and all sorts of other beneficial insects (somehow I think mosquitos and cockroaches are going to do just fine in the new world order). It’s happening to arctic mammals and to fish, octopi, and crustaceans. It’s happening to bats and lizard and to moose and bears. Because most of us aren’t paying much, if any, attention to nature, we’re shielded from seeing how our ways of being are devastating the world, how we are frittering away the worlds real riches in exchange for Big Macs, Chick-fil-a’s, and Hummers.

Kids may be susceptible to the shrinking baseline syndrome, but they are smart, they clearly get that the planet is in trouble and that adults are largely complicit and complacent. They are organizing for the world and for their futures. They are marching and protesting and pulling themselves out of their ordinaries to shake things up, to do things now to increase the chances that their children will someday be able to hear susurrations emanating from flocks of geese flying low overhead.

May we safeguard our planet.
May we humans be willing to figure out how to coexist with the world’s other inhabitants.
May we get that it would be terrific for us if the world’s birds were thriving.
May we make peace with less because it would make space for more abundant life.

Tracy Simpson

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