Learning What the Wild Spirits Know

Sermon preached October 14, 2018 – Creation V
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Gen 1: 20-23
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Kenneth White, Late August on the Coast
Luke 12: 22-31

Learning What the Wild Spirits Know

I’ve been listening for the geese overhead, the music of our autumn, but so far they are mostly sticking around, congregating in the fields near Toots and Twin Brooks. Maybe it’s not time yet, what would I know about migrating south for the winter? (Clearly not enough!) But the geese know.

As Celtic poet Kenneth White wrote in our second lesson this morning:¹

there you go
through the wind, rain, the snow
wild spirits
knowing what they know.

It is the fifth day of Creation and today the skies and the seas fill with multitudes of living creatures. Today God creates in droves. Today everything is moving, flashing, darting, swooping. Today is animated, with creatures dancing through air and water, gracefully, creature-ly. Today is noisy, boisterous: the air is filled with the swarming masses, jostling for their flight position. Today is probably messy too: water sloshing all over the place, as the fish and water creatures crest and dive.

Creation is becoming truly alive, vibrant and kinetic. Today is all about water and air and movement, and being in the midst of so many others, all kinds of others: creatures great and small, though not humans. Not yet. We are not yet on the scene. And yet there is so much going on, all happening without us. We are not necessary for them to live or become, which is good to keep in mind. Too often we think we are the center of the universe. Today, we are reminded, life thrives and teems, as wild birds and fish and other creatures know what they know, completely independent of us.

Often, it’s our existence that puts theirs in peril. We seem to live beyond ourselves, beyond our needs, if you will, spilling into theirs. The season of Creation highlights our responsibility to recognize the ways in which we might be better stewards. There are so many ways – but a few affect the swimming and swarming creatures significantly. An obvious start is eliminating single use plastics, to keep our oceans from drowning in plastic waste.

But we’ve come to take for granted the long-standing protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. This year as the Audubon Society honors that with the Year of the Bird, they are also rushing to defend the act from being undermined by the current administration and Congress. Originally enacted in 1918, the act explicitly protects more than 1,000 species of native birds from being hunted without a permit. The act also provides a critical incentive for industries, whose activities may pose a hazard to birds, to take actions that reduce those risks. Bringing industry and conservationists to the table to find creative solutions: like suspending nets over open waste evaporation ponds, making the lights on communication towers blink, or changing them from red to white – making them less disorienting to birds; or stringing balls along power lines to make lines more visible.²

When the migratory bird treaty act was enacted, its impact was clear. Almost immediately many species returned to the coast of Maine, like the herring and black backed gulls. With time, snowy egrets, sandhill cranes, and wood ducks – once near complete extinction – were restored. With the help of conservationists, populations of eagles, falcons and osprey returned. In the 1970s Dr. Stephen Kress wondered if he could reintroduce puffins to the far most islands of coastal Maine, which used to be inhabited by thousands of migratory birds. He began introducing puffin chicks to Eastern Egg Rock Island 45 years ago in the hopes of re-establishing a sustainable nesting colony there.

This summer I went on a puffin cruise from New Harbor out to Eastern Egg Rock. Our trip happened to be led by Dr. Stephen Kress, so we got to hear a lot about Project Puffin, which was fascinating. Apparently the real issue in establishing a nesting colony is convincing the parent birds to return to the site year after year. The birds create this mental map of where they are and then return to their birthplace 3-5 years after their birth. Scientists still don’t know how they do it, but it’s clear they do – “wild spirits knowing what they know.”

Dr. Kress talked about being out on Egg Rock for four years, raising puffin chicks and watching them fledge without returning before it dawned on him that maybe, they were coming back but were afraid to land on the island. He realized that he should try setting up puffin decoys so the puffins would see another puffin already there. Seems puffins don’t venture into the unknown alone. There’s safety in numbers; they stay in groups as much as possible. As soon as he set up two decoys, a real puffin appeared, and another. They had been nearby, waiting for it to be safe. Their internal mapping had worked, they knew the way “home,” but it wasn’t safe to be there until they saw the “other puffins” there as well.

Success! But it would still be 8 years before any of the returning birds would stay and nest on Egg Rock. He began transplanting chicks to Eastern Egg rock in 1973; the first transplanted puffins returned in 1977; and the first four pairs of birds nested in burrows on Egg Rock in 1981. There are now more than 150 pairs of puffins who nest each year on Eastern Egg Rock, and more than 1,000 pairs on the 5 coastal Maine Islands of Project Puffin.³ Using the same formula of introducing chicks and then employing decoys and mirrors, called the social attraction method, Dr. Kress and his team have re-established other seabirds – bringing terns, guillemots, and razorbills to the islands as well.

Which means that on our puffin cruise we got to see an awful lot of amazing seabirds. We watched for puffins – out in the water they are easier to see in these groups of twos and threes. (There’s safety in numbers.) We saw a few soaring toward the island – fish in their mouths, improbable bodies gliding through the air propelled by those short but powerful wings, flapping in short, rapid strokes. They are less agile on land; they waddle, penguin-like over the rocks and boulders to deliver their fish to waiting chicks in the burrows under the rocks. At some point in the late summer, each of these tiny pufflings knows it is time to leave the island. They venture forth in the middle of the night, and take their first real flight, heading to the ocean for the next 3-5 years before they hopefully return to the nesting ground. Each one just knows when it’s time, something just tells it – “you’re ready.” Again, wild spirits knowing what they know.

This year there were real concerns about whether the hatched chicks would gain enough weight to survive out in the open ocean. By the end of July those monitoring the feedings and weighing the tiny birds in the burrows were concerned. The time between feedings was unnaturally long, the quantity and quality of fish poorer than usual.⁴  Dr. Kress reflected that higher ocean temperatures were forcing the parent birds to have to fish further and further out into the deep ocean. He described the fish being brought to the chicks as more like junk food. Less nutritious, and in the case of butter fish, harder for the chicks to eat – just too big for them to swallow.

In his presentation Puffins, Little Fish and Climate Change, Dr. Kress urged listening to the lessons the puffins and other seabirds are trying to teach us about the changes in the climate and the effects of plastics on our oceans.⁵

Then Dr. Kress pointed out what the arctic terns have to teach us. By banding arctic terns with tiny transponders they can now track the migration of the terns who nest on the coastal Maine islands.

He said:

As we began listening to what the terns had to say, they taught us a very important lesson: how stitched together this world is. (paraphrasing here:) One tern flew some 20,000 miles of migration (to South America and then the Antarctic) to return and lay an egg on the same spot as the year before. Another flew 30,000 miles in a different direction (toward South Africa and the Indian Ocean) to return to the same island and meet up with the first. Our island is not just a coastal Maine Island, it is intricately connected to the world.⁶

What do we learn this Creation Season from these wild spirits for the world? That we are connected to the world through these powerful and yet fragile creatures who need our protection and care. Who need us to pay attention:

To rising sea temperatures, and the ways our lives contribute to that.
To the amount of plastic waste that ends up in the oceans – which is completely our responsibility.
To the ways our individual lives and industry put them at risk – and ways to protect them.
To advocate for them, through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other acts of protection for the creatures of the seas and land and sky.⁷

What do we learn from the wild spirits for ourselves? The puffins would remind us that we are of a group, we are not isolated individuals, but one of many: like a school of fish, a colony of birds. We are meant to be together, we are more whole when we are together. We are members of something greater than ourselves. There is strength and power in being members of a community, there is wisdom and safety there as well, and perspective and grace. Wild spirits, knowing what they know, assure us that being together with those God has created us to be with, is life-giving, sustaining, and consoling.

This week as we celebrate the fifth day of Creation, reach out and connect with those who give you life. When your life feels too heavy to stay aloft, find your flock, and match your flight to those around you. Feel the graceful gliding, made more effortless for you as one of the whole. And in turn, support those in need of support; console those who are lonely; and lift up those who are burdened; be present for them, making the space safe to come home to.

“And God saw that it was good… And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.”

1 Kenneth White, Late August on the Coast, as quoted in J. Philip Newell’s The Book of Creation.
4 Cameras are live during nesting season, with highlights running right now: https://explore.org/livecams/national-audubon-society/puffin-burrow-cam
5 Dr. Stephen Kress: Puffins, Little Fish and Climate Change, presentation at The Lincoln Theater, Damariscotta, Maine, October 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71VIxSVRbgo
6 Dr. Stephen Kress: Puffins, Little Fish and Climate Change.
To get involved in supporting Project Puffin: Adopt Adopting a puffin helps Project Puffin to help puffins and other seabirds. Donate Donate to Project Puffin and make a difference for seabirds worldwide. Shop Shop Online or at the Project Puffin Visitor Center and make your purchases count.
7 Learn more: https://www.audubon.org/news/new-proposals-could-significantly-weaken-endangered-species-act
Most recent Audubon article on MBTA:
And Take Action: https://act.audubon.org/onlineactions/toJop1BDMESQACCpEh4SKQ2?ms=policy-adv-web-website_nas-topmenubar-20180112_mbta_alert