“Talking to Birds” by Jolie Olivetti – May 28, 2017
From the preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks… devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Excerpts from “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang
The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe.
But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?
We’re a non-human species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?
The universe is so vast that intelligent life must surely have arisen many times. The universe is also so old that even one technological species would have had time to expand and fill the galaxy. Yet there is no sign of life anywhere except on Earth. Humans call this the Fermi paradox.
One proposed solution to the Fermi paradox is that intelligent species actively try to conceal their presence, to avoid being targeted by hostile invaders.
Speaking as a member of a species that has been driven nearly to extinction by humans, I can attest that this is a wise strategy.
It makes sense to remain quiet and avoid attracting attention.
The Fermi paradox is sometimes known as the Great Silence. The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it’s disconcertingly quiet.
Some humans theorize that intelligent species go extinct before they can expand into outer space. If they’re correct, then the hush of the night sky is the silence of a graveyard.
Hundreds of years ago, my kind was so plentiful that the Rio Abajo forest resounded with our voices. Now we’re almost gone. Soon this rainforest may be as silent as the rest of the universe.
There was an African Grey Parrot named Alex. He was famous for his cognitive abilities. Famous among humans, that is.
A human researcher named Irene Pepperberg spent thirty years studying Alex. She found that not only did Alex know the words for shapes and colors, he actually understood the concepts of shape and color.
Many scientists were skeptical that a bird could grasp abstract concepts. Humans like to think they’re unique. But eventually Pepperberg convinced them that Alex wasn’t just repeating words, that he understood what he was saying.
Out of all my cousins, Alex was the one who came closest to being taken seriously as a communication partner by humans.
Alex died suddenly, when he was still relatively young. The evening before he died, Alex said to Pepperberg, “You be good. I love you.”
If humans are looking for a connection with a non-human intelligence, what more can they ask for than that?
Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, but I don’t blame them for it. They didn’t do it maliciously. They just weren’t paying attention.
And humans create such beautiful myths; what imaginations they have. Perhaps that’s why their aspirations are so immense. Look at Arecibo. Any species who can build such a thing must have greatness within it.
My species probably won’t be here for much longer; it’s likely that we’ll die before our time and join the Great Silence. But before we go, we are sending a message to humanity. We just hope the telescope at Arecibo will enable them to hear it.
The message is this:
You be good. I love you.
SERMON “Talking to Birds” by Jolie Olivetti
My dad and I like to go bird-watching in the area at least once a year. He goes more often than that, I just don’t always get it together to join him. My eyes and ears scan the treetops, I soak in my surroundings, I try to distinguish one birdcall from another and note the slightest movement.
I’m not particularly good at spotting and identifying birds, but I do completely lose myself in this activity. Though I have no idea what this kid will be like, or perhaps this kid will just think anything that mom is into is dopey; all the same, I hope to instill in my child the same love of nature that my parents instilled in me. It’s also what I learned growing up as a Unitarian Universalist – our seventh principle to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.
I came across an article in UU World that describes the genesis of our seventh principle. At the 1984 General Assembly in Ohio, UU’s gathered to adopt our statement of principles. According to the author of this article, James Ford, the discussion was winding to a close and they were coming to a vote.
Ford describes the events that followed with great drama:
Then the Rev. Paul L’Herrou made his way to the microphones. People who remember the scene say he was lanky and bearded and that he stood at the microphone with the ease of an experienced pulpit minister. He looked around, briefly stroked his beard, and then addressed the proposed Seventh Principle, which was a call for “respect for the Earth and the interdependence of its living systems.” In my mind’s eye, as Paul stood there, the hall fell to a hushed silence. … Out of the silence Paul pointed out how that wording fell far short of what it could be.
Paul proposed new wording for the Seventh Principle: a call to respect “the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.” I’m pretty sure, although I have to admit there’s no hard record of it, that with those words the roof blew off the convention center and a host of angels, devas, and other celestial beings from all the world’s religions—past, present, and future—descended from the heavens, some playing instruments of astonishing beauty, while others sang a Gloria that reached out to the farthest corners of the universe.
Why all the spiritual hyperbole here? Because this is a revelation. We are called not just to respect the Earth, but also to understand ourselves as one of its creatures. We are called not just to marvel at the cosmos, but also to find our place in the cosmos.
I’d like to tell you a story, one that I have already told you. I’m hoping it’s ok, because you might not remember it, considering I told it during the first sermon I preached here, in October 2015.
So anyway maybe it’s fitting to come full circle and end with the same story I started with.
I was in Ecuador, studying tropical ecology, and our professor told study abroad class that the only hope for species conservation was to fence people off of the land, creating different sizes of habitat preserves. I raised my hand to ask, is that the only option, we’re just choosing between creating corridors of lots of little human-free zones, or fewer large human-free zones? Isn’t there some model that acknowledges that us humans are also part of the landscape? He said no, we’d long since passed that point, the only influence people have on ecosystems is a destructive one. However realistic that perspective may have been, it bummed me out and seemed to doom conservation ecology to an antisocial corner of the sciences, forever pitting “nature” against “humans.” It also seemed to violate our seventh principle we are a part of the interdependent web.
We had to conduct different experiments in different habitats during that semester in Ecuador. For one of my experiments when we were living in the rainforest, I sat on a rickety old dock for hours at a time, watching russet-backed oropendolas weave their amazing hanging nests – which look like enormous macramé teardrops. I do not remember what my scientific question was – maybe I was asking, aren’t these nests cool? Or maybe it was, can you believe the sound these birds make? My best description is “electronic water droplet.”
Or there was the project when a classmate and I went on walks at twilight, following the paths that lead out from the research station, to look at spider webs. Again, what exactly were we trying to determine? I have no clue. But the webs we saw were utterly breathtaking. Intricate and perfect, stretching across multiple plants, with the sentinel spiders awaiting their prey, the jungle all around us raucous with the sounds of frogs and bugs and howler monkeys who sound like dinosaurs or monsters when they roar. I’m still not sure how we were not eaten by a jaguar while we were staring at spiderwebs. One final experiment I’ll describe to you folks is when we were living on the coast, and I sat high on a cliff along the Pacific Ocean for hours at dawn and at dusk, watching pelicans eat fish. This time I do remember my question: are young pelicans good at catching fish? The answer is, nope, they’re still learning. Not a terribly significant scientific discovery. But the birds and spiders of and all the proliferous life of Ecuador had a very important message for me: it called me to pay attention, to soak in all this beauty, to feel small but still held by this big and wild world. I felt immersed in this abundant life, baptized by it. I felt part of it.
Writer Annie Dillard agrees that listening and noticing are good for the human soul and for the soul of creation. She wrote:
We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.
There’s a difference between thinking our seventh principle is a good idea in theory, and truly experiencing it. Western culture has drawn a bright line between humans and nature, so it can be difficult to take this notion seriously, that we are part of an interdependent web of all existence. When we still our minds and open ourselves to the wonder all around us, the truth of our place in this web can be revealed to us. We don’t have to go to Ecuador and listen to electronic water droplet birds to fall in love with sitting quietly and letting nature flood our senses. We can do it in the park right down the street.
Have you ever gone very quiet down on the banks of the Charles? Have you felt the indescribable wonderment of being entirely surrounded by teeming and pulsing life? In such moments it bowls me over, the bewildering fact that we are here at all. The parrot applauds the radio observatory at Arecibo because it demonstrates our grand aspirations, the incredible lengths we will go to, to get a sense of our place in the universe. The parrot points out that, thanks to Arecibo, we have glimpsed the connection that is the very fabric of universe: the voice of creation that calls to us. Astrophysicists have dubbed the leftover hum from the Big Bang the “cosmic microwave background.” This energy from the Big Bang is always buzzing through the entire cosmos, a phenomenon elegantly reminiscent of “the reverberations of that original “Om” that created the universe according to Hindu understandings. But the parrot challenges us not just to listen across the universe to the sounds of the Big Bang, but to listen to and notice what’s right around us as well.
When we don’t pay attention, when we fail to heed the possibility of communicating with parrots, we miss out on key messages, like that we are just as much of the Earth as all the other beings on it. There is sadness in the story we heard – our narrator parrot contemplates the extinction of its species, that they will soon join the Great Silence, not because of humans’ maliciousness but because we haven’t been paying attention. We’ve forgotten our place in the interdependent web.
My memories of the Ecuadorian rainforest are bittersweet. Being the realist that he was, our ecology professor explained to us that the Amazon we were visiting was less pristine than the one that any previous group of students had visited, and that any subsequent students would be visiting an even further diminished Amazon. One night we stood up in the 200-foot tower above the tree canopy and saw a flame way in the distance – burning off excess gas from the oil extraction operation dozens of miles away. Chevron has been drilling for oil in this region of Ecuador for over 50 years. The Waorani, Kichwa, Secoya, Siona, and Cofán people of the Ecuadorian Amazon sued Chevron for poisoning their water supply, and won – Chevron was ordered to pay millions in damages and clean up the pollution their operation has caused. Predictably enough, Chevron countersued, and the suit has been tied up in court for years. The people continue fighting for clean water. Our narrator parrot explains that humans, perhaps not out of maliciousness but rather out of carelessness, and I would add greed and ambition, pillage these tropical – and indeed all – landscapes. So really, I would not argue against habitat preserves, rather, it appears we need them and we need to reintegrate ourselves with the Earth. We need to follow the lead of indigenous water protectors like the ones in Ecuador, at Standing Rock, and all over the world. We need to heed our seventh principle, because we need to drink water, and eat food, and live on this planet like the creatures that we are.
These are the lessons I take from this parrot: though we may not always remember it, we are indeed part of this Earth and we would do well to walk more gently on its soils. Since this is my final sermon, I’ll take the liberty to draw one last lesson from this story: we ought to say a good goodbye, like Alex the famous parrot’s last words to his researcher. Mark loaned me a book to use in a small group ministry I led here, and it includes a section on “blessings.” Here is what the authors of this book have to say about goodbye:
The most common blessing which we all participate in (often unknowingly) is the English “good-bye,” which is a contraction of “God be with you,” a reminder that we are held in mystery throughout our lives… There is something so especially fraught about partings that our language-molding forebears felt the need to give blessings, and we feel a need to keep saying them, even if we are usually unconscious of their full meaning.
So, just as we may be unconscious of our part in the interdependent web of all existence, we don’t usually think of “good bye” as the miniature prayer that it is. Indeed, it is the blessing of being part of the interdependent web, the blessing of our connections, that beg us to relish our time together, and say a good goodbye when we must. Let us mean it as a blessing when we say goodbye. I for one really like that parrot’s last words: “You be good, I love you.”
CLOSING WORDS “Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver
Under the orange
sticks of the sun
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands
of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
And if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
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