The Birds!

“This kind of spring day, with the beautiful myriads of colorful sprites just arrived from tropical shores, has to be one of the greatest gifts on Earth.”—Kenn Kaufman

Inevitably, people ask me why I moved from Florida back to Massachusetts after only two and a half years. I answer a little differently each time, usually something about missing friends/family and the change of seasons. However, as spring begins to flower in New England, there is one answer that rises to the top: the birds! Meaning the spring bird migration that brings thousands of birds from Central and South America northward through Massachusetts. And right down the street from me to Mt. Auburn Cemetery, which is heaven on Earth for birdwatchers from April to June, especially the first three weeks in May. With the exception of the last two years, this is where I could be found early in the morning to mid-afternoon on most spring days over the past 30 years.

More than anything else, I missed this exciting yearly event.  Even though Florida has incredible birds of its own (herons, egrets, ibises, gallinules, pelicans, parrots, woodpeckers), it was the excitement of seeing warblers, tanagers, orioles, grosbeaks, and thrushes passing through Massachusetts (some nesting here) annually that tugged at my heartstrings and called me home. The thrill of encountering these beautiful songbirds each spring is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Through long snowy winters, northern birders anticipate their arrival.

When the male cardinal begins to rehearse his spring song in late January or early February, even with snow on the ground and freezing temperatures, it is the first hint that indeed spring is not far away. Soon I hear house finches, song sparrows, and mourning doves singing, as the days lengthen and the changing light cues the birds for their seasonal roles. For me, robins turn the tide. Some of them overwinter in Massachusetts, but it is the arrival of flocks of migrating robins in March that lift my heart: I know that spring is right on our doorstep now. The trees and lawns fill up with robins, and they can be heard calling and singing in the mornings and often throughout the day. This is what I missed most in Florida: robins, with their red breasts, bright eyes, and cheery songs. They sing spring into being, and soon all the other amazing migrating birds follow.

Mt. Auburn is a green gem of woodsy wildness in the midst of the busy streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. When I walk through its gates, I step out of the city and into the country, or the closest thing to it in a metropolitan area. Tree elders of all kinds, as well as native plantings, flowers, ponds, hills, and dells, are a striking visual invitation to birds who have flown all night on their thousands-of-miles marathon journey from Central and South America. They drop down out of the sky at dawn into this oasis and begin to replenish their life force by eating the insects that come to the flowering spring trees. And we bird-lovers are there to welcome them.

In April, the first warblers appear: yellow-rumped, palm, pine. Then as May begins, the rest begin to fly in: black-throated blue, black-throated green, black-and-white, yellow, northern parula, magnolia, chestnut-sided, bay-breasted, common yellowthroat, ovenbird, American redstart, and so many others. I especially anticipate seeing the Blackburnian with its fiery orange iridescent throat and the Canada with its delicate black necklace. Each warbler has distinctive markings and color patterns that can evoke audible gasps among birders when the sun lights their feathers and their varied songs fill the air.

Around the same time, Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, flycatchers, vireos, and rose-breasted grosbeaks arrive, and the rainbow of bird colors expands. There is nothing to compare to the sight of flashy orange-and-black orioles swirling through the trees chattering at one another and whistling melodically. The scarlet tanager is another showstopper, brilliant red and black among the green leaves, singing its hoarsely sweet song. Then there are the thrushes, whose songs are ethereal flute-like trills in the quiet woods. The veery and wood thrush, in particular, always fill my heart with joy and my eyes with tears as I listen in silence, motionless. Listening as much as watching is the delight of being with birds.

In its simplicity, birdwatching teaches silent presence as well as immersion in the moment. Within that is also surrender to a powerful invisible life force that flows through the universe and carries humans and birds alike. Great spiritual wisdom is embodied in the lives of these tiny feathered beings and awakened in our own hearts. As Kenn Kaufman writes, “They live the briefest of lives, but they are bound to eternal things.” So many birds, so many wonders that play out each spring in a passing parade of color and sound like no other. We are incredibly blessed to share the Earth with birds, who fly so far to light up our souls with their songs and presence. Living miracles each one of them. Who would want to miss this once-a-year magic show? Not me. And that’s why I moved back to Massachusetts.

Heart Memory

Photograph © 2021 Peggy Kornegger
I once read about an injured hawk that was rescued and taken to a raptor rehabilitation center. The hawk, after recovering from its injuries, was driven back to the location where it had been found, many miles away. At a certain point in the trip, the hawk suddenly became more alert. It lifted its head and looked around sharply; it moved its wings with anticipation. It sensed in the deepest part of its being that its home was near. Such behavior can’t be logically explained by science because it has to do with the things we know without physical evidence to prove it. Awareness beyond the five senses. Author Rupert Sheldrake called it “morphic resonance” in explaining how a dog would know its human companion, a hundred miles away, had started to return home. We living beings, animal or human, feel presence and remember home from great distances. Our heart has an intelligence even deeper and wider than the brain’s.

I have experienced this time and again in my life. It is a powerful connection to the world around me. I can literally feel my awareness extend beyond time and space to people and events at great distances or in the past. Like the hawk, I have recognized “home” in my cells and in my heart. Most recently, on the return flight moving back to Boston from Florida, I visually tracked the plane’s movement up the coast, passing through state after state. I could feel my heart begin to beat faster as we neared New England. When the edge of Massachusetts appeared on the flight map, I looked out the window at the Earth below. I felt the familiarity deep within me. Then, as the plane touched down, tears filled my eyes. Anne, who had lived in the Boston area all her life, was sniffling beside me. We squeezed each other’s hands as the flight attendant’s voice came over the PA: “Welcome Home.” Yes.

A couple of weeks after arriving and settling in to our new apartment, Anne and I drove to the neighborhood where we had lived before moving to Florida. As we passed through the familiar streets and turned down ours, once again I cried. Eleven years of memories flashed through my mind: summer gardens, autumn leaves, winter blizzards, spring awakenings, sunrises and sunsets, full moons, screech owls calling at dusk, mockingbirds singing at dawn, goldfinches feeding, squirrels chasing each other, neighbors bringing banana bread and kindness. It all was alive within me. My heart remembered every moment.

Immediately I thought of the hawk and connected to its experience from within my own. We creatures of Earth are here but a short time; yet each second is imprinted on our consciousness and carried within us. Our souls know the brevity of our stay, which gives us an intensity of experience that continues throughout our lives. The homes we have here are but a reflection of the greater Home that we come from and to which we return beyond lifetimes. Perhaps in remembering our Earth homes with such emotion we are also remembering our heavenly Home. It is a mystery, this life. Still, in moments of deep connection to the present and past as one, we, hawk or human, experience the far-reaching power of the heart’s memory. And of a greater Intelligence that holds us all in its Universal Heart.

Farewell to Florida

Photograph © 2020 Peggy Kornegger
As our last weeks in Florida go by, I find myself looking with fresh eyes at the natural world right outside our door, just like I did when we first arrived here. When you know you are moving (and who knows when you will return), everything takes on a special light, a different vibration. Habit falls away and you see every detail with delight and appreciation. A group of ten white ibises with long curved orange beaks walks slowly past our lanai. A palm warbler on the window ledge looks around curiously, bobbing its tail. A giant swallowtail butterfly, the largest in the U.S., serenely floats by and lands on a bush next to the trail where I am walking. A zebra longwing butterfly flutters in the air nearby. So many amazing creatures so close and clearly visible. None of them native to Massachusetts. These are once-in-a-lifetime moments, I say to myself; savor them.

There are such moments in New England too, of course—birds and butterflies I have missed seeing and look forward to seeing again soon. Yet, now, here, in this present moment, I am appreciating Florida’s tropical uniqueness. The exotic flowers that bloom throughout the year, the palm and cypress trees, the multiplicity of water birds, the spectacular cloud formations and dramatic weather patterns. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t see something I’ve never seen before. What a gift! I’ve known this all along, but today, looking ahead to the leaving, I really know it.

So this is the greater lesson of being here—and, really, of being a human on planet Earth: Don’t take anything for granted. Always look at the world as if for the first, or last, time. Appreciate every moment, every beautiful detail of life and living. You may never pass this way again. You may never see a robin in the spring or a maple tree in the autumn. An orchid or hibiscus in full bloom. You may never see someone you love again. Look in their eyes and see their soul each time you are together. Look in the eyes of your animal companion and see their absolute love and devotion. Your time here on Earth is sacred.

I remember this as I look out the window or take my daily walks these final weeks in Florida. This is my life, every extraordinary unrepeatable second, the sadness as well as the joy. To be human is to be given a cornucopia of daily wonders. If I hold this truth in my heart each day, then I live with love and gratitude, and no moment, no experience, passes that I don’t fully appreciate. This is the gift that Florida has given me: I have been reminded once more to let go of everything that is not essential and see the world, every bit of it, as the blessing it truly is.

Three Pelicans Circling

Photograph © 2020 Peggy Kornegger
Last week, on my morning walk, three brown pelicans flew overhead, high in the sky, as I tilted my head up to watch them. Slowly they turned in perfect unison and began to circle above me, directly above me. They circled three times, large sweeping circles of which I was the epicenter below them. Then they turned back the way they had originally come and flew off into the distance. As I watched them leave, my spirits uplifted by their brief aerial presence, I thought, “Why did they fly here, circle three times, and then return? Was my presence somehow connected to theirs?”

I am inclined to see the synchronicities of the universe, believing that everything is somehow connected in the greater tapestry of life. We are part of an energy dance, we living beings, and we all affect one another. The thread between us seems invisible, but it does exist. Their circling and my seeing happened simultaneously. No visible cause and effect, yet I felt as if my seeing reached out to them and drew them into a circle. Just as their circling reached out to me and drew me into heightened seeing. A bit like what physicists call quantum entanglement.

Humans on this planet are involved in a similar dance of circling and seeing, invisible much of the time but highlighted when synchronicities catch our attention and expand our awareness. A friend and I recently had a conversation about how everyone affects each other in the dramas of daily life. It became a wider discussion of the polarities of light and dark and the evolution of consciousness on Earth. We came to the mutual “conclusion” that every person and event plays a key role in the expansion of our collective consciousness. Nothing is just a disaster or a godsend. No one is just a hero or a villain. We all have bits of each of those extremes within us, and when we can embrace that polarity, we are free to live the nuances of life. Our life purpose is to accept what is challenging as well as what is inspiring, to come into harmony with everything.

It all gets down to something my friend/teacher Panache Desai has shared repeatedly: “Everything is perfect. Everything is God.” I receive that wisdom at deeper levels within me each day I live my life. This past week it filled me completely, permeating my cells like oxygen, like light. It was light. I saw that we are all here to come to that awareness, to embrace that full expression of compassion and love. We are here to embody divine Presence in the world. A Presence in which all polarities come into harmony within us and thus within the world. That is humanity’s role and destiny at this time.

The pelicans demonstrated that greater circling and surrendering to invisible energies that carry us to where we’re meant to be. Each detail of our flight is part of our soul’s journey, which we chose before birth. We are living our lives to align with our soul’s overview and to align with the love that connects all of our hearts—human, bird, animal, star. To live in “loving awareness” (Ram Dass), with kindness and generosity of spirit, is the greatest gift we can give ourselves, each other, and the world. You and I are God meeting God everywhere every day of our lives. And it’s all perfect.

Does Nature Have Rights?

Photograph © 2019 Peggy Kornegger
Do birds have rights? What about bees, flowers, and trees? Or whales and giraffes? Rivers and lakes? These are profound questions that tap into the very nature of life on Earth. Currently, people around the world are focused on climate change: Does it exist, and if so, is it natural or unnatural? Yet, climate change is only one aspect of the larger issue of how human beings relate to the world in general. Do we see Nature as something to be used and then discarded, or do we see it as a living presence that we are part of, the heart and soul of life on Earth?

At the deepest level, it’s a spiritual, as much as a political, question: How do we live in relation to this planet, our “home” in the universe? Throughout the ages, Earth has been seen as a mother figure to the life forms she provides a home for. Mother Earth, or Gaia. Contemporary societies have forgotten this, or they disregard it as foolish fantasy. The corporate/political alliances that rule much of the modern world do not perceive our planet as alive and sentient. To them it is an object that brings them profit, to be used and used until there is nothing left. They don’t notice the invisible living connections that hold the living world together. To reduce everything to an argument about belief or disbelief in climate change is a distraction that keeps all of us from seeing something greater is at stake.

Ultimately, we need to enlarge the discussion to consider whether or not Earth and Nature have the same rights we claim for ourselves. Corporations are now seen as having the rights of a person because they have had the political clout to obtain that legal status. Mother Earth has never lobbied for her rights in the courtrooms and political arenas of this country. Her children, however, are now standing up for her as destruction of the natural world escalates everywhere. There are many grass-roots groups who have begun to work for the “Rights of Nature.”

In Toledo, Ohio, in 2014, the public water supply, sourced in Lake Erie, became so toxic (because of the lake’s high pollution from agricultural runoff and industrial waste) that residents were warned not to drink or even touch it. This crisis sparked a local movement to establish the rights of Lake Erie and the adjacent communities, which are being infringed upon by agribusiness and industries that pollute the lake. Voters passed an ordinance, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which is now being challenged by the state government. Rights-of-Nature groups are popping up in many places, including Pittsburgh (to stop fracking) and Oregon (to stop aerial pesticide spraying). In Southwest Florida, where I live, residents are organizing to establish rights for the Caloosahatchee River, polluted by algae flowing from Lake Okeechobee and contributing to red tide in the Gulf.

There is an awakening occurring across the country, as well as elsewhere in the world, to the essential rights of the natural world and humanity to live a healthy, balanced, unpolluted life on this planet. It’s not only about climate change, which is important but just the tip of the iceberg. Ordinary citizens in rural areas as well as large cities are coming together to say no to the poisoning of their communities by businesses that value money over life itself.* Mother Nature is a living breathing being, which every one of us is part of, and without her, we cannot live ourselves. The “Rights of Nature” movement is an idea whose time has come.
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* See the documentary We the People 2.0 and the dramatic film Dark Waters (based on real events) for the inspiring personal stories of those who are standing up to polluters and state (and federal) governments that back them.