Nature and Environment Archive

The Thirsty Bird Drinks

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

He was alive. He was living in Jamespur. Knowing that was enough.

It had been years since I’d heard from Girindra, the Bengali boatman who had opened his handmade home, his large loving family, and the world’s largest tiger reserve and mangrove forest to me. Finally, four years after our faithful correspondence of 15 years abruptly stopped, I got word from a friend based in Calcutta that he was alive and well.

Always a generous host, Girindra often offered me a young coconut to drink while we explored Sundarbans’ channels on his handmade boat, Mabisaka. Photo credit Eleanor Briggs.

My new year opened with this wonderful news. But why had he not written me? Had I hurt his feelings? Angered him? Let him down in some way I could not fathom? Even if I never got another letter, I told myself, I would be forever grateful just to know that my strong, brave friend had survived the Sundarbans’ man-eating tigers, its crocodiles, sharks and venomous snakes, its increasingly frequent and dangerous climate-change-driven cyclones.

Still, I wrote another letter to him January 5. I counted the days hoping for a response.

It usually took two weeks for my letters to reach Girindra in Jamespur, the village where he lived on the Bay of Bengal; Mr. Mondol, the school teacher would translate them the day they arrived, and I could usually expect a letter back after a month.

The second week of February, I found in my mailbox at the Hancock post office, an airmail letter from India. My heart leapt!

Uncharacteristically, there was no return address. I opened the envelope with shaking hands–to find, to my great surprise, a letter not from Girindra, but from Rathin Banerjee, dated January 31.

Rathin had been Assistant Field Director of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve while I was working on SPELL OF THE TIGER, and played a crucial role in the book. Forceful, handsome, and charismatic, with excellent English skills, Rathin been the one to ferry me and my first photographer, Dianne, to the Indian side of the great tiger swamp of Sundarbans for the first time. He had continued to help me with my book throughout my subsequent expeditions to this muddy, watery world, sharing his many tiger stories, translating Bengali texts, and arranging for two wonderful young translators to help me, Debashish “Raja” Nandy and Shankar Prasad Mukherjee. Rathin was a favorite of the National Geographic crew; for his dramatic storytelling and strong screen presence he was rewarded with a cameo role in the documentary.

But Rathin had been disappointed with my book. Hearing that had hurt my feelings terribly. The reason, I later learned, was that I had hurt his feelings, when I wrote that his alertness was like that of a mongoose. “You said I look like a mongoose!” he told me accusingly. Any resemblance he shared with this attractive, sharp-witted creature was meant as a compliment, but he misunderstood. Yet, after the filming, Rathin had kindly sent me a card for my 40th birthday. That had been more than 10 years ago; I had not heard from him since. I read his letter eagerly:

“My intent to write this letter is because I firmly believe that Sundarbans occupies a place in your heart,” he began. Then he told me of his work since he had retired from the Forest Department in 2009: he’d worked as a consultant for the World Bank in Sundarbans. His project required he travel to the huge mangrove swamp’s remotest villages, where, he wrote me, “you will find that very few things have changed.” He wrote hopefully that it seemed to him that at least some of the men he worked with understood that “Sundarbans and all forms of life attached to it, including humans, are destined to perish unless they show respect for nature and adopt a sustainable way of lifestyle.” He enclosed his snappy new business card, with a sketch of the estuarine crocodile in the upper right corner. I remember how he had told me that he held the egg of these highly endangered reptiles while it was hatching long ago; the baby had bitten him while the eggshell still clung to his newborn body. The teeth, Rathin said, were like tiny needles.

I was delighted to hear from Rathin. But what about Girindra? That Rathin didn’t mention him was no surprise. Rathin was high-caste; Girindra was not. Though Rathin sometimes generously translated the stories of Sundarbans’ fisherfolk for me, it was clear he didn’t hold their stories in high regard. “He is getting it all wrong!” he told me as he was translating a fisherman’s traditional story about the forest goddess and the tiger god. “He hasn’t even read the story in a book!”

Rathin Banerjee (center, in cap) charts a course for his Forestry Department boat Monorama in Sundarbans. Girindra is at right. Photo credit Eleanor Briggs.

February melted away with no letter from Girindra. So did March. And then, on the day of a spring snow, came another letter from India. The return address read From: G. Mridha.

It was typewritten (when had Girindra or his schoolteacher friend, Mr. Mondol, acquired a typewriter, I wondered?) and dated February 23. “I am very Happy to have your note after so many years that has just been reached. Thank God,” he wrote, “He is Merciful to us both For our reunion. I didn’t have any news from you so long and thought – ‘I am out of your memory.’” But, Girindra wrote, he had not forgotten me: “I, my family, Mr. Mondol and his family are well and we often think and talk about you. I always carry your memory with me. Always remember that your news and note is most precious and inspiring to us…”

What had happened that we lost touch? “Two long years is gone to over a Tremendous devastating cyclone (Ayla) hit us on Sundarban which had never face before in my life,” he wrote. “The god saved our life but only we have been deprived from all havings (Houses, Garden, Paddy land) that was washed away. God has left the lives of my family members only. This was general village condition…”

I had known of that cyclone, and several others. I had worried terribly that Girindra and his family’s neat mud compound and his handmade boat named after his mother, Mabisaka, could have been destroyed. Even if he had his family had escaped, surely my letters (he had kept all of mine, as I had his) had been washed away, along with my address.

But what about all the letters I had sent since then? Had they reached him? And more importantly, what were his living conditions now? Had he rebuilt his home? A new boat? Did his cows survive the cyclone? Was he still fishing for a living? How were his two married daughters–and his grandchildren?

This he didn’t say. But the next paragraph was surprising. “Now let us memorize the practical life,” he wrote. “You must send your phone number, fax number and email address in the next note.”

My email address? When I was last in Sundarbans, there was no electricity in the village, never mind a telephone—or a computer! Was Girindra on the net?

In SPELL OF THE TIGER, I wrote of how Girindra showed me wonders everywhere we went. Troops of pink-faced monkeys materialized from trees; dainty chital deer tiptoed around he spiked upward-growing roots of the mangroves; a 20-foot crocodile heaved her armored bulk from the mud bank and, like a soul leaving a body, slid into watery weightlessness; night-time fogs dissolved the moon.

Wonders never cease.

moonbear Sy Montgomery is the author of Spell of the Tiger, among many other books.


Monday, April 4th, 2011

Here in southern New Hampshire, our April this year begins with predictions of 6 to 12 inches of snow. But no matter: last week I saw my first large group of returning robins, over by the Dowse’s yard, clothing the red maples with wings and song. “Remember one long winter in the country when it seemed spring would never come,” wrote ornithologist and author Florence Merriam in 1898. “At last one day the call of a robin rang out. When they come back, what good cheer they bring with them!”

Such good cheer, indeed, that many field guides report that the robin is caroling these words:

“Cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily!” But wait—is this really what the robins are saying?

Grace Archibald of Winchester, Massachusetts, reports robins are sounding a warning:

“Captain Gillet! Captain Gillet! Get your skillet! Get your skillet! It’s going to ra-in!”

And my mother’s dear friend Betty Treiber, down in Alexandria, Virginia, says that her robins are instead shouting out (doubtless with a southern accent) other news:

“The cherries are ripe! The cherries are ripe! The cherries are ripe!”

The respected author and ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush found the words to the robin’s “well-known carol” were far more ominous. In his 1925 classic, A Natural History of American Birds,
Forbush insisted the robin’s words were more like “Kill ‘em, cure ‘em, give ‘em physic!”

Even though the robin’s song begins within days of their reappearance each spring, even though it lasts from dawn to dusk, even though the males sing all summer long, and even though human beings have been listening to robin song for at least 10,000 years (as long as North America has been inhabited by humans)—we still aren’t agreed on the lyrics.

The most extensive translation was offered in 1923 by Leroy Titus Weeks. He claimed the robin was clearly saying:

“Pillywink, pollywog, poodle, poodle,
Pollywog, poodle, pillywink, pillywink,
Poodle, poodle, pillywink, pollywog,
Poodle, poodle.”

The argument over the robin’s song is not the only clue we don’t know these “familiar” birds very well.

First migrants of spring? Maybe not. Even up in New Hampshire, some lucky folks get glimpses of robins all winter. A few hardy souls stay up here all winter long. America’s most beloved bird? Maybe up in these parts. But down south, in many areas, they’re despised as winter pests since, in winter, they may congregate in flocks up to 50,000 and switch their diet to fruit. A century ago, orchardists felt justified in shooting them by the thousands. (And people ate them. “They are fat and juicy and afford excellent eating,” reported no less an authority than John James Audubon, who frequently dined on his study subjects.)

Even the robin’s name is a case of mistaken identity. British settlers called our native redbreast by the same name as their European robin—who looks like a bluebird. Ours is more closely related to the European blackbird—who, like our robin, is a thrush.

Why call it a robin at all? Because, like the European original, the male American robin’s devotion and ardor reminded the settlers of love-struck teenagers, who were called robins in medieval England. And even that turns out to be wrong.

“Robins are landowners first and lovers only second,” asserts animal behaviorist Len Eiserer. In the lovely book, The American Robin, the author explains that the male is more attached to his territory than his spouse. Only one in eight robins takes up with a mate of past years, while more than half of all robins return to the same neighborhood as the previous year.

That our beliefs about the robin redbreast can be so off-base absolutely delights me—like birds always do. The “best-known” bird in America—the one bird every child can identify without fail—still holds wondrous surprises for us. And that’s the joy of birding, no matter how common the bird. Each individual, each species, is forever a source of wildness and wonder. Welcome, spring!

moonbear Sy Montgomery is the author of Search for the Golden Moon Bear, among many other books.

The BP Oil Disaster: Sorrow and Resolve

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

A food supply poisoned. Thousands of miles of U.S. territory laid waste. Ecological devastation, livelihoods lost, and the effects to last for decades.

If it had been a terrorist act, or the work of an enemy empire, our troops and missiles would have been on their way immediately to punish the aggressors. But no. When API Well No. 60-817-44169 exploded on April 20, destroying the rig, killing 11 men, condemning to death millions of wild creatures and robbing countless families of food, land and jobs for who knows how many years, the destruction was in some ways worse than 9-11; poisonous oil is still spewing to this day, and even once it stops, the oil will continue to kill for years. But this was not the work of a terrorist or an enemy. For BP’s hideous oil disaster, the worst ecological disaster American history and one of the worst in history of the world, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Everywhere I’ve gone on my book tour for Birdology, speaking of the wonder and awe of birds, I’m plagued by the images of those poor oil-soaked pelicans. I feel sad, angry, helpless. What to do?

An oil-soaked pelican.

Some of my friends have trained with Emergency Animal Rescue Service, and will be trying to scrub oil off the relatively lucky birds and animals who haven’t already been killed by it out at sea. My family and many friends are donating to humane causes and environmental groups to fund the cleanup—as if it can really be called a cleanup. A friend and fellow author, Brenda Peterson, recently wrote in the Huffington Post that we should try to mentally warn creatures away from the spill. We can do all these things. And we can pray.

And that’s a start. But it’s not enough. Because this can happen again.

The Obama administration has handled the emergency as best it can. The president declared a moratorium on offshore drilling for the time being. But it won’t be long before the cry “Drill, Baby, Drill!” is heard again from the Sarah Palins of the world. (I wish BP would drop a cap on her mouth.) If we cave to that cry, we will be courting disaster again.

It’s not the famously evil foreign oil that is poisoning our coasts. It’s our own. And it was drilled with our government’s full permission by a company that, by petroleum industry standards, is one of the relatively good guys.

Better drilling regulations aren’t the answer. It’s true that oil company regulations became increasingly poor and corrupt under the Bush-Cheney administration. It’s also true that BP cut corners. (the Wall Street Journal’s excellent probe reveals that Halliburton, the cementing contractor, had warned BP days before the explosion that it would have “a SEVERE gas flow problem” which ultimately caused the explosion.) But the rig exploded because of human error and technology failure. No regulations exist to prevent THAT from happening again.

What we need to do is get the hell off oil.

Impossible? That’s what people said about whale oil. Whale oil was the electricity of its time. Whale oil was light for lamps and candles. It lubricated machinery. It was essential for making varnish, soap, cosmetics. Surely we couldn’t live without it. Except we ran out whales. And suddenly, we found we could do without quite nicely, thank you.

The same argument was once made against abolishing human slavery. The southern economy—arguably much of the whole nation’s economy—was based on slave labor. But our leaders saw that slavery was too evil, too dirty, too corrosive, too dangerous to abide.

Lo and behold, our economy not only survived the demise of the whaling industry. It survived the end of slavery. In fact, our nation throve as never before. America became a world leader, largely because of our ability to change.

We can do that again. We should be leading the world in alternative energy innovations.

We could, in fact, be 30 years ahead of ourselves right now. The oil crisis that began in 1979 should have been an opportunity—but it was an opportunity we threw away. The Carter administration had instigated many conservation and alternative energy measures. Imagine how far ahead of the whole world we would now be if we had followed his lead! But then Ronald Reagan pronounced it was “Morning in America” and led us all to believe that our national addiction to this poison we call oil was just fine.

Nobody disagrees our nation is addicted to oil. It’s an addiction just as evil, dirty, corrosive and dangerous in its way as slavery or whaling.

The message we give our leaders now must be clear: no more drilling. Let’s stop feeding our addiction to oil and kick the habit forever. It’s time America led the world again—to a cleaner, greener tomorrow.

Photo: International Bird Rescue Research Center, Wikimedia Commons