Posted by: cctracker | June 18, 2012

Least Tern, Great Karma

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Global warming and rising carbon emissions make it clear that we are a long way from the global cooperation we’ll need to tackle the world’s biggest problems. Saving the planet, at least in an ecological sense, won’t happen without national and international policies with real teeth.

Meanwhile though, we have to grab all the good karma we can from things people are doing in their own backyards–or in this case on their own little home-made islands.

This piece in the Post Dispatch was such a little package of good karma for me. Not only because it was a positive story on the environment, but because it captured something of the “spiritual” energy I believe it will take to actually save the planet… and to further ourselves as a species.

Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, the Interior Least Tern, the Pallid Sturgeon and the Piping Plover are all protected. That means we’re required to protect their habitat right here in River City. The story in the Post gives us a glimpse of the work the Army Corps of Engineers–and one particular Corps biologist– are doing to save the Least Tern.

Least Terns are incredibly agile fliers, marvels of nature’s avionics. But they’re vulnerable. About the size of robins, they feed on small fish and lay their eggs on beaches. People on the river disturb breeding and destroy nests. Raccoons, possums, rodents and larger birds eat their young. But the greatest threat they face by far is the approach we still take to managing our great rivers at the dawn of the 21st century: damming, channelization river bank industrialization and gambling casinos.

So the Corps are building little floating islands for them.

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They lash old pontoon barges together, cover them with a few inches of sand, plant some driftwood and decoys and  hope it looks like home. Ben McGuire, a wildlife biologist with the  Corps, waits for the birds to make nests and lay eggs, then watches for predators like Blue Herons on remote cameras. He hopes to band chicks when they hatch before they leave the nest. He’d like to find out how many of them return to nest here again.

I was moved by this story and took a few days to think about why.

Part of it, certainly, is the very fact that this a Corps of Engineers Project. One of the organizations most responsible for our disastrous approach to river management is on the other side of the equation in this case.

But even more it was the simple idea that someone was out there on a summer day doing this improvised, no doubt rather tedious work, on behalf of a few birds. There is a whole school of Buddhist practice built around the idea that attending to a simple task with focal awareness carries spiritual power.

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How much more grace comes from work that sends more Terns into the air to wheel and dart and dive, skimming silver minnows from the muscular surface of the greatest river on the continent?

I have no idea what McGuire thinks of his job or what he would say about the meaning of his work, but I’ve found that people doing careful, steady work like this often have a kind of peace and strength that seems more and more real to me the older I get.

The Endangered Species Act takes a lot of abuse these days. So many see it as an attack on individual livelihoods, a threat to a region’s economic future. We’re all held hostage by “big government” they say and for what? A few ultimately meaningless species whose fragile hold on existence is at odds with the practical need for progress and growth. Plenty of critters do just fine living with us on our terms. And there will always be National Parks and nature reserves for most of the rest.

You may or may not like the politics of the act, but it is a direct challenge to that kind of thinking. The world is no theme park. It won’t be managed one manicured, faux-wild patch at a time while the rest of the environment is regarded as a commodity. The act rests on a simple, but overwhelmingly important truth: all things are connected. When one species teeters on the brink, it is statement about millions of filaments tying it to everything around it. Cultivate attentiveness to one species–and take action to save it–and you do something far deeper and more powerful than we can appreciate for the web that surrounds it, and ourselves. Not a bad concrete way of thinking about karma.


According to the story in the Post, The Interior Least Tern population is now about 15,000, double what it was in 1995.  But it might yet disappear. It’s the fourth year of this five-year island experiment. Who knows whether it will work? Maybe McGuire will have moved to another project by next year. Maybe the Mississippi and many of America’s other great rivers, despite hopeful signs, are still dying. Maybe Greenland will melt. But I feel the responsibility to hope that these things are not inevitable. And to channel all the good karma I can find into my own humble labors.

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