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Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules:  Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season

By Lillian Vallee

30. Tethering the White Stork

After living in the Central Valley, winter resting grounds for migratory geese, ducks and cranes using the Pacific Flyway, it is wonderful to be in a place from which Central European migratory wildfowl head south, to the African continent. My husband and I are spending the autumn in a tiny Polish village near the Polish-Lithuanian border. The village is losing its small farming population to old age and, in the case of young people, to travel, work and educational opportunities provided by Poland’s membership in the European Union. The brain drain in Poland and Lithuania is quite real and lamented by those who remain behind—those who had hoped their children would take up their farms, staff the hospitals, or teach the next generation.

A Lithuanian sculptor, Saulius Lampickas, has tried to express this loss in a striking tableau of figures sculpted in oak: the figures of a young man and woman are astride a white stork ready to fly off. Two old people — parents? grandparents? — are trying to tether the stork to the ground with a wooden ring and rope to prevent the flight. The stork, instead of delivering children, is bearing them off to distant countries.

The sculpture was so haunting that I began to think about how it was that the European White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) became associated with delivering children. There are hundreds of empty stork nests everywhere this time of year, and they are hard to miss: made of sticks, straw, fur, newspapers, rags and rope, some nests weigh over a ton and have green grass or even flowers growing out of them. Even more interesting is the fact that stork partners are faithful to the nest, not to the partner. If the partner is late getting there from Africa, another takes his or her place.


Historically the white stork favored thatched roofs of human domiciles almost exclusively (in contrast with the Black Stork, Ciconia nigra, who chooses isolated, flooded forests far from people), but the replacement of thatch with wooden shingles and metal tiles has made the storks look for other sites. People welcome storks here, setting up special poles on their land to encourage nesting, and that may explain why Poland hosts 40,000 nesting storks out of a world population of 160,000. In his charming book about Polish birds, Andrzej Kruszewicz writes that “every fourth stork is a Pole.”

We, however, have not seen a single one; the storks have been long gone since mid-August, when they left with their young for a leisurely migration, while the winds were still warm, over the European continent through the Straits of Bosphorus to Africa. Their western European counterparts travel to Africa via Gibraltar. The European White Stork is a glider who needs currents of warm air rising from rock and land masses, so the bird avoids flying over the Mediterranean.

Most storks return to Poland in mid-March to early April, but there are a few risk-takers who come back at the end of February. They become a sensation as their appearance is generally regarded as an augury of spring and good luck. The advantage of this early return is having the pick of nesting sites; the drawback is the possibility that cold weather, including snow, could return and endanger the incubation (33-34 days). Parents feed the chicks in the nest for 60 days and two to three weeks beyond the nest. In spite of the popular belief that they are frog eaters, white storks eat mainly rodents and insects, and, in Africa, locusts. They are not fussy, however, and will also gobble up earthworms, baby birds, lizards, fish, carrion and even a few plants. The young have a high mortality rate when learning to fly as they easily entangle themselves in wires.

Ancient Slavs believed that when people died, their souls were transformed into storks, and a person could bring bad luck to the household by bothering the adults or their offspring. There was a very strong taboo against eating them though this doesn’t stop the occasional hunter today: one stork showed up at a nesting site with an arrow in its body. Objects of affection in endless fairy tales, stories and proverbs, storks are very old symbols of good fortune and even caring for elderly parents (in ancient Rome). But what about the babies?

Kruszewicz explains the association in the following way. At one time village life was hard and people worked incessantly to keep up with a seasonal rhythm. Young people, according to Kruszewicz, were so occupied with household chores they rarely met except for in church, at weddings or market. At harvest time (June/ July/August) people helped one another bring in crops in exchange for a symbolic bowl of soup: they worked hard all day and into dusk, spent nights in the fields, and drank spirits to maintain good cheer. Exactly nine months later, in March/April/May, along with the appearance of the storks, infants appeared under the thatched roofs. Kruszewicz claims that this is how parents explained the “surprise” children to their siblings.

In Lampickas’s sculpture, the young girl is sticking out her tongue at the sad old people trying to tether the stork, as if it were a cow or horse. Do the elders know the price the young will pay for their aspirations? Do they want the youngsters to stay because they love them or because they need someone to care for them in old age?

The stork tableau embodies a tension at least as old as the belief that human souls become birds or trees: the urge for adventure and new ways of seeing pulls against the restraints of tradition, family, and identity. In the new order of things, in the perception of the artist, the painted wooden bird one can buy in every souvenir shop suddenly becomes the emblem of a slightly more ambivalent new life, shadowed by collective loss and dislocation.

Source: Andrzej Kruszewicz, Ptaki Polski [Birds of Poland].

A dying planet revisited


A recent issue of Connections had a wonderful report from the World Watch Institute concerning our Dying Planet. The major points survey the continuing degradation of our ecosystem with references to many of the well-understood causes. Of course, we recognize some linkages to these causes with global warming. For many, it appears to be uppermost in all the dilemmas facing us. Others, specialists of all kinds, find other topics worthy of even more concern.

Committees of the United Nations reported on more than thirty major areas that require our attention on more than climate change. Consequently, the UN commissioned experts in many fields to simplify the array of problem areas and report on them. This group’s report has been called the Copenhagen Consensus . The details of these studies may be found at www.copenhagenconsensus.com

In this report, the measures promoted to combat global warming, namely the Kyoto Protocol, optimal carbon tax, and value-at-risk carbon tax, surprisingly are listed near the bottom of do-able endeavors.

Eight researchers, including three Nobel laureates, closely examined challenges to the world’s well being and ranked those which might well be solved at the cost of $ 50 billion per year. The Consensus ranked the following activities as having the greatest contribution to global well-being, for a given account of resources. The activities are thus ranked from very good to poor uses of money and resources.

Copenhagen Consensus rankings:

Very Good: Control of HIV/AIDS. Providing dietary microconstituents. Trade liberalization. Control of malaria.

Good: Development of new agricultural technologies. Small-scale water technology for livelihoods. Community managed water and sanitation. Water productivity in food production. Lowering costs of starting new businesses.

Fair: Lowering barriers for skilled worker migration. Improving infant and child nutrition. Lowering low birthweight prevalence. Scaled-up basic health services.

Poor: Guest worker programs for the unskilled. Optimal carbon tax. The Kyoto Protocol. Value-at-Risk carbon tax.

It is surprising that the efforts to combat global warming were seen as poor uses of time and resources. The low priority to combat global warming is due, in part, to two things — Global warming as a fact is hardly debatable anymore, but its causes are more obscure. Indeed it is multi-causal: escaping carbon dioxide and methane from melting ice and tundra, forest fires, jet exhaust, etc. Also, many experts have put a hefty price tag of 150 billion dollars per year on this project and using a cost-benefit analysis it is less likely to advance global welfare, when the complex science of it is still not well understood.

Most experts have placed exponential Population Growth as the number one threat to the planet. Many readers might conclude that most of the projects that the Copenhagen Consensus supports would further lead to exploding populations with the expected environmental degradation. All the well-intentioned efforts by humanitarians and scientists would be wiped out by unrelenting population growth. Yet, we find, as in most developed countries, that population growth actually declines when living conditions are improved.

No one knows yet if we will have the drastic climate change that some predict. If we do it is a way off. In the meantime, the projects selected by the Copenhagen Consensus need further looking into, and broader discussion.

To quote Winston Churchill, “It isn’t as if we don’t have enough experts to tell us what to do, we just don’t do what we know needs to be done NOW!”

The author is professor emeritus of physics at Modesto Junior College.


Young men dream dreams, old men see visions


Recently the author spent 5 days at a hermitage on the coast south of Big Sur. Sometimes, amid the splendors of nature, wonder awakens the imagination.

I woke to the full moon brightening the western sky. It cast a wide swath of silver white light on the shimmering sea. The morning was still. The orchestra of crickets that last night sounded so rambunctious now played more like the lyrical, rhythmic breathing of someone contentedly at rest, basking blessedly in the moon’s gift of light.

Instead of staying after the monks’ early morning Vigils to meditate, I returned to my trailer cabin, yearning to enjoy the marvel of this luminescent morning. The moon had turned an orange yellow and was large, like a harvest moon in early evening. For thirty minutes I beheld the quiet drama of its falling below the strip of clouds on the horizon. Like life itself, I wanted that beauty to last but knew it wouldn’t. With none of the intensely colorful fanfare of the sun in its setting, it obeyed its course and disappeared.

Meanwhile in the east the contour of the rugged Santa Lucia mountains was growing more distinct as the sky lit up behind them. A tinge of orange pink outlined the lower mountains and the clouds to the south. On the spine of the peaks, the trees stood out clearly. They became a phalanx of soldiers who had just ascended from the dark forests below. Weary and breathless they looked up. Before them rose the sun. Its light was dazzling, blinding. When they opened their eyes, its radiance bathed their souls as never before. Eons of fatigue, of frustration and heartache from wars leading always to more wars, of losing their children and burying their dead but being unable to bury their grief and regret—the weight of all that long apprenticeship loosened as the light’s sheer energy and warmth illumined them.

No one moved. A quiet settled upon them, all up and down the long line of warriors a stillness, broken only by the calling of a single bird. Gazing into the light, they listened, transfixed. Slowly, first one, then another, then another took off his helmet and let his weapon fall to the ground. The grateful earth leapt at the clamor of falling weapons. Then all at once, the spine of the mountain erupted in a cheering, a cheering declaration whose tone ranged from lamentation to firm resolve. “No more!” they shouted in unison, “no more! No more war! No more killing! No more vengeance. No more!”