Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Enduring Mystery of Bird Migration

The lakes of Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh, about 20 miles from the capital city of Dhaka, are a haven for migratory birds during winter. Over 60 species of birds arrive from the cold Himalayan regions, and from even as far away as Siberia, to spend the winter in the temperate, food-rich lakes, canals and wetlands of Bangladesh, before flying off to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and China. They include several species of ducks, lesser and greater whistling teals, cotton geese, pochards, darters, pintail ducks and herons.

In recent years, however, the number and species of birds migrating to Bangladesh has sharply declined. Ornithologists blame global warming for the decline. The snowy Himalayan regions are not as inhospitably cold as before. Even Siberia is experiencing milder and shorter winters. Add to that local over-fishing, poaching and pesticide-laden runoffs, and it is clear why the lakes of Jahangirnagar University are not as alive with the chirping and the whoosh of the ‘guest birds’ as it was only a few years ago.

Still, the sight of migratory birds, fewer though they may be, is stunning. One minute they are resting gracefully on sandbars, surrounded by bright water lilies, and suddenly, inexplicably, they take to the wings, flying in a synchronized, parabolic arc until they spiral onto the sandbars, each bird returning (so it would seem) to the same spot. Striking in their dimpled reflections, the ducks and their cousins look purposefully to the right or left, waiting perhaps for that mysterious signal, flowing in from somewhere, to lift off into the misty, morning air again.

Across the lake, amid marsh grass, walk the great blue herons, looking for prey, as if also in prayer, patience personified.
Bird migration is one of the enduring mysteries of nature. We may keep adding to our knowledge of how birds steer themselves by starlight and how their internal magnets interact with the earth’s magnetic field but after their long-distance flights are exactly mapped and the science of migration is understood to the last detail, the intangible wonder of it will continue to fascinate us for as long as we share this planet with our avian friends. 

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

A 2014 Resolution

The irony of our time is that we have tuned out the real world by surrendering our mind and  heart to the virtual world.

I see the signs everywhere: in parks overflowing with birdsong, visitors wearing ear buds and headphones to keep nature at bay; at street corners, in malls, movies, restaurants, board rooms and even at funerals, digital diehards creating selfies, talking to their smartphones, checking email, posting on social media and sending out the obligatory tweet.

The digital revolution is irreversible. Its benefits are innumerable. There is no returning to the pastoral gentility of yesteryear, which we gave up anyway during the Industrial revolution over three centuries ago.

No, the real issue is one of balance. Will we constantly be in the thrall of our always-on devices, or will we also set aside time for what makes us human - family, friends, community, memory, beauty, secrets, hope, love, longing?

Our gadgets are increasingly taking over our lives, shaping us more than our designers are able to shape them. They do everything for us, except those things we really need to do, such as visiting a sick relative in the hospital or looking at people when they are talking to us, instead of reading incoming texts. Immersed in our customized cocoons, we discard our manners and trample on the sensibilities of others as if they did not exist.

Given that the tablets, smartphones and iPods (coming soon to a store near you: wearable computers in watches and glasses) will only get smarter, how do we keep them from turning our lives into one giant mobile app?

It’s not going to be easy. It will require a certain discipline of the mind that many of us may already have given up on, what with the need to constantly check email or be lulled by the insidious charm of the Facebook “Like.”

But it can be done.

People who were addicted to the virtual world, with all its frivolities and inanities, gradually weaned themselves off their self-absorption and narcissism by not plugging in at certain times of day, as when they were with family and loved ones. They recognized their digital dependence as an addiction because that’s what it was, and so treated it as such. Some simply unplugged their devices during weekends, and although resisting the temptation to take “just a peek” proved painful, they were able to conquer their demons. It’s not as if they turned into Luddites. Far from it. They continue to use their devices but with moderation, knowing that a time-sink can swallow them (as it has so many) if they are not careful. These “recovering digital addicts” speak with reverence of the freedom that is now theirs and the urgency of time, and of the fleeting life, that animates their waking moments.

Another way to overcome the ceaseless siren song of the virtual world is to renew one’s acquaintance with nature.

“The world is too much with us,” lamented Wordsworth, and that was at the dawn of the 19th Century when the poet felt people had lost their connection to the natural world because of their abnormal attachment to materialism! “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/Little we see in nature that is ours/…/For this, for everything, we are out of tune.”

It’s time to tune in to what matters, what gives life its beauty and its mystery. Next time we go for a walk in the woods or a stroll by the shore, let’s make sure we have left behind our electronic devices and the flickering screens. Let’s open our eyes and ears to take in the sights and sounds of the singing sparrow or the sonorous surf, the graceful arc of a falling leaf or the hypnotic ebb and flow of tides.

George Mallory climbed Mount Everest because it was there. We browse the Internet because it is everywhere. But while the formidable challenge of the Himalayas remains undiminished, accessing the Internet gets easier by the minute. We will soon probably connect to the Cloud with a blink or a wink.

But that’s no reason why we should let technology strip us of our sense of wonder and all the emotions that make us human.

So here’s a New Year’s Resolution to consider: “I will use technology but I will not allow technology to use me. I will not let the digital deluge drown me. Instead, I will strive for a life of balance and purpose, seek renewal from nature, and be content with what I have and not covet what I don’t.”