Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Integration and Migration

In a thoughtful comment on the first post for this blog, Fr. Ron Whitmer talked about the importance of addressing the issues we gather under the label of ‘the environment’ in an integrative way, recognizing that all sorts of issues, including cultural and spiritual issues, are part of the discussion. One of the frustrations for some people in thinking about the environment is that it is so difficult to get a handle on what we are talking about. Perhaps this is because “the environment” is not a single issue, but rather a different perspective on everything we human beings do: a holistic perspective that emphasizes the web of connections throughout all of creation. There is no place to draw a line a between environmental issues and other issues.

Integration and interconnections have been on my mind, along with migration. My husband and I have been traveling since a couple of days after the last post. In fact, this particular post for the Nebraska Green Sprouts blog is coming not from Nebraska, but from the island of Kauai in Hawaii. Before that, we spent some time with our son in snowy Syracuse, New York, followed by a couple of days back home contending with ground blizzards and frigid temperatures. I know that when we return at the end of this week, January will be nearly over, and a couple of weeks into February we will start looking and listening for the first signs of the sandhill cranes returning to the Platte Valley on their annual migration, the first sign of spring in south central Nebraska. I’m already looking forward to seeing the cranes again, and I’m thinking about the plans some of us at Saint Stephen’s are making to weave our community celebration of the crane migration into our liturgy on March 22.

Albatrosses and Whales

One of the joys of coming to Kauai this time of year is that people from cold places on the mainland aren’t the only creatures who migrate here in the winter. Humpback whales and Laysan albatrosses are among the winter visitors, and we have seen several of both at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, one of my favorite places on Earth. Standing up on Kilauea Point on Sunday afternoon, we saw humpbacks spouting and occasionally jumping up from the water, and even heard a tail slap on the water. One of the volunteers reminded me that because the ocean is so vast and the whales so far away, they look much smaller than their actual size of 40-50 feet long. (This would explain why the tail slap was so loud!) Similarly, against the big blue sky, the albatrosses that nest on a cliff by the Point don’t appear to have wingspans of six feet across, but they are indeed that big. Both Laysan albatrosses and humpback whales migrate from the northern parts of the Pacific, near Alaska, to give birth in the warmth of this part of the Pacific. The albatross parents take turns tending the young and foraging for food; the parent who is foraging for food sometimes travels back to the waters off of Alaska to find food – mostly squid, but other types of marine life that are found near the ocean’s surface.

Plastic and Us

Unfortunately, marine life isn’t the only thing that looks like food and floats near the ocean’s surface. Something I remembered from a previous visit to Kilauea Point was an exhibit of various plastic objects that had been found in the guts of dead albatrosses. I’ve been reading Thomas M. Kostigen’s book You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet. One of the chapters of this book is about what Kostigen calls the Eastern Garbage Patch, a huge collection of trash in the North Pacific Gyre off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Unexpected items from cargo ships and from people along Pacific coasts are part of this body of trash, but other things get to the sea from places very far from any seacoast. Many environmentalists remind us that when we throw something away, there isn’t really any such place as “away”. Plastic items that aren’t recycled or at least thrown “away” by methods that prevent their being rinsed into or blown into waterways can eventually end up in a big river that empties into the sea. All the oceans are interconnected; eventually, over a very long time, something that ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, can find its way to the Eastern Garbage Patch. The Monterey Bay Aquarium reports that around the world, up to one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from eating plastic.

Just after sunrise yesterday morning we went for a long walk along Poipu Beach. As we walked, we saw scores of jellyfish that had been washed up by the tide. The jellyfish themselves looked like bits of plastic, but they were still pulsing with life. I wondered why there were so many of them. I saw a Hawaiian man walking along the beach with a small net in his hand, and starting walking over to see if could tell me about the jellyfish. By the time I came along, he was about to tell a couple of other visitors the legend of the beach naupaka flower, a charming story. When he finished the story, he held up his net and pulled out a plastic pop bottle. His net was full of litter that had washed up on the beach! He told us where plastic bottles can be recycled near Poipu Beach, and encouraged us to recycle or reuse plastic when we got home to the mainland, and to encourage others to do so. And so I will! (The jellyfish, he told me, are found abundantly during a certain point of the lunar cycle because of the effect on the tides.)

Aloha and Agape

There is great excitement today in Hawaii as Barack Obama, the first Hawaiian President, is inaugurated. Much is being made, and rightly so, of his being the first African-American President. Racial integration is about removing artificial divisions among people and realizing how interconnected we all are, a cultural piece of the environmental puzzle. But in Hawaii there is also hope in the perspective a spirit of aloha might bring to our national political life. Aloha is love, openness to others. I saw a sign on a church on Kauai that said agape love is aloha. Being a Nebraskan, not a Hawaiian, I don’t know if that is an accurate take on ‘aloha’, but I know that agape love for one another, an unselfish concern for others, is something essential that Christians can -- and should -- bring to discussions about all the interconnected issues we face as a nation. It is a key spiritual element in caring for our environment, including one another.