Carter’s Our Endangered Values

If you saw how many passages I marked for further thought in President Jimmy Carter’s Our Endangered Values, you might assume that I was a born-again-Christian. You’d be wrong, of course, but it does show how much of my liberal philosophy is based on Christian values. Though I’ll have to admit that I did not vote for Carter when he ran a second time, my admiration for him has grown immensely since he left the Presidency. He seems to me, in many ways, to be the ideal Christian, one who lives his faith through his good works. I envy him his faith.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that his diagnosis of the problems currently facing America largely coincide with my diagnosis:

The most important factor is that fundamentalists have become increasingly influential in both religion and government, and have managed to change the nuances and subtleties of historic debate into black-and-white rigidities and the personal derogation of those who dare to disagree. At the same time, these religious and political conservatives have melded their efforts, bridging the formerly respected separation of church and state. This has empowered a group of influential “neoconservatives,” who have been able to implement their long frustrated philosophy in both domestic and foreign policy.

The influence of these various trends poses a threat to many of our nation’s historic customs and moral commitments, both in government and in houses of worship.

Narrowly defined theological beliefs have been adopted as the rigid agenda of a political party. Powerful lobbyists, both inside and outside government, have distorted an admirable American belief in free enterprise into the right of extremely rich citizens to accumulate and retain more and more wealth and pass all of it on to descendants. Profits from stock trading and income from dividends are being given privileged tax status compared to the wages earned by schoolteachers and firemen. To quote a Christian friend, the new economic philosophy in Washington is that a rising tide raises all yachts.
The irresolvable differences of opinion on abortion, homosexuality, and other sensitive social issues have been exacerbated by the insistence of intensely committed hard-liners on imposing their minority views on a more moderate majority.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more succinct summary of the political crisis America currently faces.

I’ll have to admit that I didn’t really understand how this split in America evolved, nor did I realize that there had been a growing split in the Baptist Church until I read:

The new creed was troubling enough, but it was combined with other departures from historic Baptist beliefs, including the melding of religion and politics, domination by all male pastors, the exclusion of traditional Baptists from convention affairs, the subservience of women, encroachments on the autonomy of local churches, and other elements of the new fundamentalism. It became increasingly obvious that our convention leaders were really in conflict with traditional or mainstream Christians. After much prayer and soul searching, Rosalynn and I decided to sever our personal relationships with the Southern Baptist Convention, while retaining our time honored Baptist customs and beliefs within our own local church.

Almost total dominance of Baptist pastors over laypersons has been implemented, based on this statement of a prominent conservative leader, W. A. Criswell: “Lay leadership of the church is unbiblical when it weakens the pastor’s authority as ruler of the church.” This premise violates Jesus’ announcement that he was a servant, that his disciples would be servants, and that the greatest would be servant of all. There was certainly no biblical use of the word “ruler,” but this self promotion of pastors was made official in 1988, and now applies generally throughout the Southern Baptist Convention, most state conventions, and especially the megachurches.

Since I’m not a Baptist, this historical evolution probably might not have interested me if Carter hadn’t related it directly to the effect that it has had on our political system:

This focus on events within my own religious denomination may not be especially interesting to some readers, but it has had a profound impact on every American citizen through similar and related changes being wrought in our nation’s political system. During the last quarter century, there has been a parallel right wing movement within American politics, often directly tied to the attributes of like minded Christian groups. The revolutionary new political principles involve special favors for the powerful at the expense of others, abandonment of social justice, denigration of those who differ, failure to protect the environment, attempts to exclude those who refuse to conform, a tendency toward unilateral diplomatic action and away from international agreements, an excessive inclination toward conflict, and reliance on fear as a means of persuasion.

Although he doesn’t mention the Bush administration or conservative Republicans by name, it’s hard to imagine who else this description might fit. It’s reassuring to know that a born-again Christian sees the changes enveloping our country nearly the same way I do.

Cormorant


Delight, then sorrow
aboard the cormorant
fishing boat.

Basho

I was amazed years ago when I watched a documentary showing Chinese fishermen using cormorants to catch fish. I wondered how anyone could teach a bird to fish for them. Two years ago while eating at a restaurant at the beach I saw a large bird standing atop an old pier pole stretching its wings. I asked those at the table if that was a cormorant. They didn’t know; nor did our waiter. It wasn’t until last year that I finally determined that it was indeed a cormorant, and that they are actually quite common around here. So common that many people viewed them as pests.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that one of my favorite chapters in Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds was one on cormorants because it presented many facts I didn’t know. It corrected some myths I’d learned from others. Most of all, it came much closer to my own view of these birds than most peoples’ views.

When I first started photographing cormorants last year and did an online search I was shocked by the disparaging comments I found. I couldn’t reconcile these attitudes with my own views of these fascinating birds.

Haupt explains that she started studying cormorants because they were local birds and relatively easy to find. She started her study by researching the birds, looking for inspiration:

At the end of it I was inspired, but not at all in the manner I had imagined. As it turned out, no one had anything particularly nice to say about the Double-crested Cormorant.

Instead of being put off by what she read, the opposite happens:

So that was it. My every shred of human sympathy was aroused. No one loved the cormorant. Surely these insensitive, unthinking observers (a group of which I had, until this moment, been a core member) were missing something. I would find out what.

She begins by debunking some common misconceptions, one that I was taught by my favorite bird expert:

This supposed lack of cormorant oil glands was presented somewhat derisively by the instructor of my long-ago ornithology class. Here was a water bird that couldn’t waterproof its wings. The implication was that the cormorant was too primitive a bird, not sufficiently evolved to display the latest in proper avian adaptation. This was all in line with its prehistoric, reptilian appearance.

Despite the prejudice towards the cormorants primitive appearance, it turns out that wettable feathers are a complex adaptation:

So yes, many cormorants hold their wings out to dry, probably to ready their wings for flight, and possibly for thermoregulatory purposes as well. But the fact that cormorants have wettable feathers is not an example of their primitive nature. It is, rather, a complex adaptation to a diving, fishing life, a life that the cormorant has slipped in to with an overt, stylish perfection. And while it is the sort of perfection that may be radically misunderstood, it is not the sort that goes unnoticed.

One must wonder why people are so fond of penguins, which look every bit as different as cormorants, but despise cormorants. After all, both seem to have adapted to their need to spend long periods of time under water.

Haupt points out that part of the hatred probably stems from the fact that humans and cormorants compete for food:

In spite of this long and uniquely harmonious fishing partnership with birds in China, cormorants today are persistently vilified in the United States by people who catch fish commercially or for sport. While the Double-crested Cormorant is an ancient bird with a unique and quirky natural history and secrets to tell, much of the current research has focused on the human-cormorant conflict rather than topics of purely ornithological interest.

In many ways this animosity reflects the same kind of simplistic animosity that fishermen hold for sea lions and otters:

The conflict has many guises, but here in the Northwest it involves the perception that cormorants eat a disproportionate number of salmonid hatchery smolt in coastal estuaries and bays, contributing to dwindling numbers of various species’ runs. Sport and commercial fishermen press wildlife and other government officials for permits to allow harassment or outright killing of cormorants to decrease the perceived impact of the birds, and to reserve consumption of the fish for human purposes.

Of course, such arguments don’t explain why it is that salmon were abundant in the past when these animals were much more numerous until they were nearly hunted into extinction for their furs. Only someone in a state of denial can believe that it isn’t man’s total disregard for the environment that has decimate the salmon runs. To blame indigenous animals for the decline is merely to perpetuate our own ignorance of our effect upon the environment. One more example of man’s ability to scapegoat rather than facing up to personal responsibility.

While I’d already discovered some of these prejudices, I didn’t have the historical background to recognize how deelply prejudice against the cormorant runs:

Writing Paradise Lost in 1667, that John Milton had likely never viewed a cormorant colony, though he may have seen individual birds perched in trees. Still, we have this from his imagined travels of Satan: Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life / The middle tree and highest there that grew /Sat like a Cormorant . . . . The depth of the human response to the bird suggests a source beneath the surface of rationality. Is it the neck that, at certain angles, moves like a snake? The large darkness of the bird, like a shadow, that some unfamiliar part of us cannot help but distrust? It seems that the bird’s simple color may, in part, invoke our suspicion. Crows and ravens, other large, black birds, often invite this same response. The name cormorant combines the Latin corm, crow, with marinus, of the sea.

Perhaps it’s merely my own bias towards ravens and crows that made it impossible to suspect such motives. Of course I knew Poe’s “The Raven? but I never made this connection, though when I first caught sight of a cormorant I wondered if it might not have some connection to the Loch Ness monster since it rides so low in the water that all you usually can see is its head and neck sticking up. While I’d like to believe that such prejudice is unlikely, I suspect that Haupt is right.

I found myself recommending this book to several people, particularly to those who worked at Nisqually. While it probably helps if you live in Washington and you like birds, I don’t think either of those are really necessary to appreciate this book. It’s rare that it’s this much fun learning new facts and ideas.

Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds

I was originally attracted to Lyanda Haupt’s Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds by the cute bird on the cover and the cute title. I would never have discovered it if it hadn’t been on sale at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge store, which I always browse after my weekly walk.

Though generally not fond of non-fiction, this book was written by a Seattle writer about birds I observe regularly here in the PNW. Though I don’t really consider myself a birder, I am interested in knowing more about the birds I often see now that I’m paying attention to such things.

Surprisingly, the book has ended up being a favorite, a delight to read, proving the author’s statement that: “Birds will give you a window, if you allow them. They will show you secrets from another world, fresh vision that, though avian, can accompany you home and alter your life. They will do this for you, even if you don’t know them by name though such knowing is a thoughtful gesture. They will do this for you if you watch them.“

I thought it quite brave of Lyanda to begin her book with an essay on starlings, those “non-native pest species” that most of us have been taught to revile, not admire. Although an agency she worked for her had rules against helping save such birds, she was presented with the dilemma of whether or not to disappoint a child who has brought in a bird to be saved. She decided to save the bird because:

Here, a wider opportunity presents itself, one that transcends ecological or financial realities. Here is a child with an intact respect for life, and a rare opportunity to nurture that respect. Who among us does not still feel, in some small way, the mark made on our own quiet child heart by an injured bird that crossed our path?

She goes on to note that despite our prejudice against starlings that they are quite smart and that Mozart once had one as a pet.

She saves the best argument for respecting starlings for the end of her essay:

E. 0. Wilson wrote in Biophilia, his classic text on the innate human connection with the wider, living earth, “Every species is a magic well,” a window onto all others. As an urban dweller I am forced to come to grips with the idea that I might turn to the starling as easily as any other species for lessons in living with and alongside birds and the natural world. I consider the unique landscape of the Pacific Northwest to be my wider home, but every day I live in an urban cottage, not an ancient forest, a coastal prairie, or a heavenly alpine meadow. Those places surround me, they are my authentic home, inhabited by the lives of astonishing birds. I like to think that in the widest sense we are in the presence of all these birds, always. But today, we start where we are.

It’s far too easy to lose sight of this infinitely wise way of seeing the world. I have an unnatural fear of snakes, but I have no desire to kill them. I’m not fond of the deer who eat the flowers in the front bed as soon as they bloom, but I don’t feel a need to drive them off or hold a grudge against them. I don’t want starlings roosting in my fir tree or nesting in my attic, but they do have a place even in the Pacific Northwest ecosystem and fill that niche amazingly efficiently. Looked at objectively, they are really a rather handsome bird.

Losing

I been
learning to lose
since the day I was born
twenty-three days after that day
which forever lives in infamy.

Mother spent my early days
riveting Boeing bombers,
father spent days and nights
generating ‘nough acetylene
to weld a thousand Kaiser ships,
six thousand B-17’s.
Hardly anyone had time
even to hear me cry.

Lost our home after
big brother’s asthma;
no health insurance to pay the bills.
Spent a year living in an old motel,
dad four hundred miles away
working night and day to pay rent, buy food.

Nearly lost a hand
when it went through the wringer,
left my hand shaped like a cup,
little beggar who couldn’t do for himself.

Hell, feels like I’m still losing.
Sure don’t expect to ever Win.
Probably end up just folding
these cards, slipping away in the dark.