Next month I’m celebrating the 2-year anniversary of my heart attack or, in medical parlance, my acute myocardial infarction. Having survived it at all, and especially having recognized my bizarrely mild symptoms in time so the damage was limited, makes me exceptionally lucky. Having the medical insurance to get superior care during the emergency and lots of follow-up support with cardiac rehab involved a different kind of luck, one not subject to the vagaries of human existence but to the whims of politicians and corporations. So I’m doubly lucky.
2016 was a year of loss for many of us Americans, in many ways. Ironically, it was also one of the best years of my life, starting on the very first day of the year, when an Ivory Gull turned up in Duluth. I've never before had a lifer on New Years Day. A few days later, I got a call about a dead Ivory Gull in Superior, which I retrieved to send to the Field Museum of Natural History. Fortunately, the one at Canal Park was still alive.
It was the first year I came anywhere close to seeing, much less topping, 1,000 species in a single year, plus I brought my life list to over 2,000. Those are just numbers—it was the experiences behind those numbers that took my breath away. Birding with Minnesota friends in southern California; teaching classes off the coast of Maine; and then birding in Peru, Cuba, and Uganda! In Peru I saw Marvelous Spatuletails, Andean Cock-of-the-rocks, and Emerald-bellied Pufflegs.
In Cuba I finally saw Cuban Todies along with Bee Hummingbirds and American Flamingos.
In Uganda I was thrilled to see several kinds of bee-eaters, hornbills, turacos, and sunbirds, to say nothing of lions, giraffes, elephants, hippos, chimpanzees, and mountain gorillas, all in the wild.
I never dreamed that I could see all these things in my lifetime, much less during the year after a heart attack. I’m also still basking in the joy of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in my life, and then hearing a Boreal Owl in my own backyard an hour or so after the triumphant final win.
At midnight on New Years Day, Russ and I started our 2017 smoking a Cuban cigar from my trip. Our resolution was to quit smoking, which won't be hard since we barely got started.
Looking ahead to the rest of the year, many of my friends in the sciences and science education are petrified about the future of their very livelihoods. Many of my fellow self-employed writers are panicking about whether they'll be able to afford healthcare. All my friends who hunt, fish, bird, or in any other way enjoy nature are terrified that the public lands so critical to wildlife will lose important protections or even be sold off to the highest bidders.
All of us who have studied the scientific evidence for climate change along with projections of storm and fire activity, higher ocean levels, and temperature fluctuations are despairing about grim inevitabilities as we come to the sad realization that politicians won't do anything to help forestall the worst of it, even though every way we can possibly help reduce the effects of climate change would also be good for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the wildlife we love. On top of everything else, the social fabric upon which our nation has fashioned its democracy has been frayed so badly that it’s hard to see how it can be sewn back together or patched, at least while so many politicians and citizens are lighting matches rather than picking up thread and needles. Our very culture, based on both shared and different experiences among our richly diverse population, seems to be collapsing around us.
But hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. I’ve seen a few memes on Facebook about one quiet person in a fearful group. When asked how she envisions 2017, she says it’ll be filled with flowers. How could that be? She answers, “I’ve been planting seeds.” We all have the power to plant seeds, at least some which may sprout to give us a brighter future, even as overpowering events swirl around us.
So I cling to that hope with a heartfelt prayer, as Terry Tempest Williams does in her exquisite book Refuge:
I pray to the birds. I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.