Bird Brains

A few years ago, our friend Pat gave us a funky little birdhouse resembling a camera.

We never expected anyone to occupy it, but to our delight, recently a pair of Bewick’s Wrens took up residence.

They built a nest, and a week ago, the eggs hatched. Now, when a parent approaches to feed the nestlings, they all peep, “Me, me, me!”

Both parents share childcare, feeding the babies…

…and changing diapers too. The nestlings poop into mucus bags resembling pea-sized white balloons, nature’s zip-locs, which contain the mess until their parents remove it. Eco-friendly disposable diapers!

 

Day after day, from sunrise until sunset, rain or shine, the ‘wrents’ forage for insects for their young. Every five minutes or so, they bring food and remove the fecal sack on the way out, keeping the nest clean. They’re averaging over 300 deliveries per day!

How can such fragile creatures, weighing no more than 3 or 4 ounces, sustain such a grueling pace?  Not once, but twice each season, Bewick’s Wrens produce a brood.

Once common back east, they’ve all but disappeared east of the Mississippi. Pesticides took their toll, and loss of habitat. Conditions changed, other populations moved in. House Wrens expanded their territory into that of the Bewick’s Wren, and aggressively destroyed the eggs and nests of Bewick’s Wrens.

Illustration of Bewick’s Wren by J. G. Keulemans, 1881.

A subspecies, Guadalupe Bewick’s Wren, native to Guadalupe Island, Mexico, went extinct in the 1890s, due to habitat destruction.  The San Clemente Bewick’s Wren died out in the 1940’s, due to habitat destruction by feral goats, and cats.  In California, development of canyons has caused a sharp decline in the Bewick’s Wren population.

When I saw omnivorous crows and Stellar’s Jays swoop in, I moved my office to the dining room table, where I could keep watch and shoo them away.  So much can happen, and so quickly. Babies can fall from the nest. A brood can fall prey to a cat, a snake, an invasion of wasps.  A parent can be snatched by a Cooper’s Hawk.

Last week, one of my own little Bewick’s Wrens was caught by my neighbor’s cat, who took it home via the cat door.  My neighbor saved and released the wren before it was harmed. I was relieved that it returned to its nest. If birds feel threatened by lurking predators, including humans, they sometimes abandon the nest, leaving the babies to starve.  It seems harsh, but instinct drives them to protect themselves, so they might live to breed again, and perpetuate the species.

The balance between survival and destruction is precarious.  Driven by their survival instinct, they make tough choices, and work themselves half to death to ensure the survival of the species, if not their brood.  Ironically, we call them birdbrains, and claim to be the intelligent ones.

We’ve overpopulated this planet, yet instead of conserving our resources, we’re tearing through them like there’s no tomorrow.  Instead of protecting the future of our young, we tilt at windmills; but some countries are embracing them.  Iceland gets 100% of its energy from renewable resources.  99% of Costa Rica’s, and 98% of Norway’s energy is clean and renewable. Those socially responsible governments have taken the lead, right across the high ground, and shown the whole world that it can be done.

While humanity teeters on the brink of self-destruction, and other governments take action, in the United States, our corrupt leaders ignore grave warnings of virtually every climate scientist in the world.  This administration behaves like common looters, greedily stuffing their own pockets, while the building they were hired to protect burns all around them.

In a BBC interview, scientific genius, the late Stephen Hawking, said that pollution, coupled with greed and stupidity, was the biggest threat to the human race, and that climate change would be humanity’s extinction event. “With the development of militarized technology and weapons of mass destruction…the best chance for the survival of the human race might be independent colonies in space.”

But what if, instead, we could be tireless caregivers, make those tough choices, those sacrifices, and be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of the species–all of them?  What if we could think like a bird that gets spit out by a cat and flies straight back to defend its nest?  Unlike birds, people can’t just pick up and go make a new nest; we have only this one small planet to call home.  Unlike people, even birds know better than to foul their own nest.

 

All words and images ©2019 Naomi Baltuck

 

Telling Tales Under the Rainbow

“When Bat came to the animals’ party, Zebra said, ‘You’re not an animal. You have wings. Go to the birds’ party!’  Bat went, but there it was the same. Eagle told Bat, ‘You’re not a bird. You’ve got fur and ears and teeth.’  Bat slunk away.  Perched on a branch, as he cried, he lost the strength to hold himself upright.  He flipped over to hang upside down, his tears dripping down to the ground.”

When the story was over, everyone in the circle applauded Allison.

“It’s sad,” said the first listener. “If it were a kid’s book, the bats would get together and have their own party. But Bat doesn’t get a happy ending.”

“That’s reality. He didn’t choose to be this way and he’s rejected for it anyway.”

“For me, this question of categorizing Bat is really important. It reminds me of going to the bathroom and choosing ‘Men’ or ‘Women.'”

“Or being bi and having everyone want to label you as either gay or straight.”

So begin our meetings at Under the Rainbow

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As the parent of gay children, Naomi Baltuck knew that few programs or public gathering places existed for LGBTQ in Edmonds, just north of Seattle.  In a climate of increasing intolerance, she wanted to use storytelling to heal, inspire, and strengthen the community.  But that connection had to be built on trust, and that trust had to be earned.

Under the auspices of the Edmonds Neighborhood Action Coalition, she partnered with a local queer-friendly game pub to launch a monthly Family Gayme Time, which drew a good crowd. Once that was established, she asked the Edmonds Library to host a monthly storytelling series called Under the Rainbow, for LGBTQ and Allies. When they agreed, she contacted the high school’s Rainbow Warrior advisor, and the Edmonds Diversity Commission.

Allison Cox, social worker and author/editor of The Healing Heart books on storytelling for healthy families and communities, lent her expertise. We needed it. Under the Rainbow was built from scratch. Should there be rules? Age limits? Time limits? Language restrictions? Could we find LGBTQ storytellers willing to work gratis, since we had no budget? We put the word out, and along came Chris Spengler, a storyteller known for her humorous and uplifting personal tales. Chris jumped on board, and we had our team.

Our vision wasn’t of polished performances, but to create a place for LGBTQ and Allies to share their own stories, to support each other and be supported. Rules proved unnecessary in a place where everyone is respected. Age limits too; we’ve had babies, elderly, and everything in between; everyone’s welcome. Our team comes prepared to tell, to get things started. Most of our lives aren’t centered around being a lesbian or bisexual or a supporter of those who are, so we also tell stories dealing with sexism or rejection for not fitting family expectations or having to suddenly pick up and start your life over…the human condition.

The first Under the Rainbow drew only four, we three storytellers and a straight friend. We reminded ourselves that storytelling can be healing, but to a person who has been disowned for coming out, it’s emotionally risky. Eventually Gayme Timers made the leap from playtime to storytime. We got school referrals, utilized social media, and the Seattle Storytellers Guild championed the program, lending non-profit status for grant-writing.

We meet at the library every Second Monday, 6:30-7:30PM. Refreshments are always served, because exchanges over cupcakes can be as momentous as those happening within the Story Circle. After each tale, participants are invited to share their reactions. Listeners opened up gradually. The first time someone volunteered to tell a personal story, we were hopeful. The next month, when a young person prepared a story ahead of time, we were elated. Now nearly everyone shares. The gay son of a Mormon bishop, a straight elderly woman who dated a gay man in Lebanon fifty years ago. We heard about being gay in Mongolia. Being homeless. At last month’s meeting, one coming out story led to another and another.

Tackety Boots (The Healing Heart ~ Families, edited by Allison Cox and David Albert) is a traditional Scottish tale about Sandy, who is kicked out of a party for having no story to tell, then takes an unexpected canoe trip across the river, changing gender in the process. He lives as a woman with another man and they have a child. Sandy finds the canoe one day and is shocked when it carries him back across the river and he becomes male again. Distraught, he bursts into the party and wins a bag of gold for telling the best story of the night. But Sandy could only whisper sadly, “Oh my child! Oh my man!”

Allison even told the children’s classic, “Going on a Bear Hunt,” by Michael Rosen, an acknowledgement of all the times in life you “can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it…got to go through it!” Everyone clapped in time, grinning like a kid.  Naomi chose Tatterhood, the Norwegian story of a girl born different. No matter how hard the queen tries to mold her into a princess, she defies taming and remains true to herself, but saves the day in her own way.  While traditional stories evoke conversation, Chris’s personal stories turn listeners into tellers.

The success of this program can’t be measured in numbers, but by the impact it makes on people’s lives. Even more good things lie ahead. We’ve just received a grant from the Pride Foundation to bring in more LGBTQ storytellers for concerts. Writing Rainbow is a natural offshoot of Under the Rainbow. We meet monthly at a queer-friendly Edmonds café to write, brainstorm, and meet other LGBTQ+A writers.  A Gayme Time spinoff is LGBTQ+A Dungeons and Dragons, where gaymers roleplay a crew of gay pirates, creating their own continuing adventure story.

Here, under the rainbow, we celebrate who we are. It looks like the bats are having a party of their own after all!



Naomi Baltuck, Chris Spengler and Allison Cox are storytellers living on the shores of beautiful Puget Sound, and they invite you to come listen and share a tale at Under the Rainbow.

©2018 Naomi Baltuck, Chris Spengler, and Allison Cox

A Match Made in Hell

 

Are you familiar with The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson?  It’s a tragic tale about a child trapped in a world of poverty and abuse, hunger and homelessness…

On New Year’s Eve, someone steals her ill-fitting shoes, so the little girl wanders barefoot through the snow, trying to sell matches to uncaring people hurrying home to warm houses and holiday feasts.  No one has a farthing or even a second glance for the unfortunate waif.  If she goes home having sold no matches, her father will beat her.  To keep the cold at bay, she huddles against a wall and strikes her matches, one at a time. In each tiny flame she sees visions: a warm stove, an elegant feast, a Christmas tree lit by candles…  

Then her dead grandmother, the only person who ever treated her with kindness, appears to the shivering child, and carries her soul off to Heaven. The next morning, the strangers who walked past her the night before discover the little match girl’s icy corpse, clutching the burnt-out matches in her frozen fingers.  Too late they feel a twinge of pity.  The end.

As a child, I hated that story.  I was appalled that grownups could look away from a child’s suffering, without lifting a finger to help.  Why would anyone invent such a depressing story, and who would want to hear it?

As an adult, I still hate that story, and even more now, because I realize that when Anderson wrote The Little Match Girl in 1845, except for the bit about the grandmother, he was fictionalizing a deplorable reality he himself was witnessing. He wrote during the Industrial Revolution, when the poor were miserable and overcrowded.  Pollution from the unregulated burning of coal poisoned the air, and factories were dumping metals, chemicals, raw sewage, and other toxins into the lakes and rivers that people depended upon for drinking water.

Wages were so low that the working class toiled 12 to 16 hours a day, yet still couldn’t earn a living wage.  On the brink of starvation, they sent their children to work in factories and mines.  Many were separated from their families, left to the ‘mercy’ of strangers, working ungodly hours for only a place to sleep and the food they ate.

In 1832 it was reported, “…workers are abandoned from the moment an accident occurs; their wages are stopped, no medical attendance is provided, and whatever the extent of the injury, no compensation is afforded.”  

The wealthy were given free reign to exploit the poor. When the Industrial Revolution sparked disputes over inhumane working conditions, the government introduced measures to prevent labor from organizing. The rich got richer, the poor remained poor, and children, who were forced to work all day or starve, couldn’t get an education to help them rise from poverty.

In the USA, industrialization occurred mostly in the North, with an influx of immigrants serving as factory fodder to keep up with attrition and demand. The South had its own foul history of systemic oppression, with its agrarian economy dependent upon human slavery.

Over time, Americans have fought and died for the cause of social justice.  They organized labor unions, which brought an end to child labor, shortened the work week, and ushered in workman’s compensation for on-the-job-injuries. They are still trying to negotiate a living wage.  Public education, Social Security, Medicare, Affordable Healthcare have all helped to even the playing field and a provide a social safety net.  Civil rights, women’s suffrage, Affirmative Action, environmental protection have, too.

We still had a long way to go to overcome class, gender, religious, and racial discrimination, such as the legacy of Jim Crow that still exists.  Yet we saw the middle class grow, the standard of living rise, and each generation doing better than the preceding one, until the 1970s.  What in Hell happened?  Ronald Reagan, and his trickle down economics, for starters.  It has been a downhill slide since then, snowballing since the Trump administration took power.

Today there is a little match girl on every street corner.  Our democratic republic has degenerated into an oligarchy, bought and run by big business, with puppet strings being yanked all the way from Russia.  International treaties have been broken, environmental protections scrapped to increase company profit, families torn apart by inhumane ICE policies, cruelly punishing the innocent children of undocumented immigrants. Affordable Healthcare, Social Security and Medicare are in the administration’s crosshairs.  The three richest men in America own more than half of this country’s wealth.  Our society has regressed two hundred years to become a near perfect match for the one that inspired Hans Christian Anderson to write The Little Match Girl.  A match made in Hell.

I will always hate that story.  But we need to keep telling it, until we can pound out a new ending.  We need to keep telling it, until we never need to tell it again.

©2018 Naomi Baltuck

Boots on the Ground

Last month concerned citizens rallied in Olympia in solidarity with protestors in fifty state capitals.  We had hoped to convince electors to vote their conscience. In light of all that has passed since then, it seems naïve to have hoped they might step out of the party line.

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Those who lived through the rise of Hitler see history repeating itself. As a student of history, I looked back even further. When Trump bragged, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” I thought of the Latin phrase, agere et pati, ‘to act and to endure,’ a perfect description of medieval society.

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Bodiam Castle, East Sussex.

There’s a striking parallel between our current social order and that of the Middle Ages, in which the wealthy ruling class acted and peasants endured. Peasants made up ninety percent of the population. Lords squeezed serfs for taxes plus three days of unpaid work per week. The church exacted two more unpaid workdays, and a compulsory tithe, 10% of their income, forcing peasants to live hand to mouth. Nobility had the power of life and death over them, while the church tortured and executed dissenters.  Protest was not an option.

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Traitors Gate, Tower of London. They go in, but they don’t come out.

Like Trump and the GOP, the nobility and the church had their snits, but mostly they scratched each other’s back. Nobles gave financial support to the church, and the church justified the social order by declaring it God’s will that nobles should possess all the wealth and power, and God’s will that peasants and serfs should live to serve them.

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To cement the pact, the church placed highborn second sons into powerful positions in its own hierarchy. This artful deal resulted in feudal nobility with an iron grip on peasants, and peasants who were taught from birth to endure their sorry lot and wait obediently for their reward in Heaven. Nothing changed for centuries.

Burying plague victims.

It took the Black Death to upset the fruit basket. The plague hit Europe in 1347, killing half the population over the next five years.  With the workforce so reduced, nobles hadn’t the manpower to till their fields or chase down runaway serfs. Surviving peasants finally had some choice about whom to work for, and could demand decent wages or leave, maybe even to learn a trade in the city. At last upward mobility was possible, and the middle class got a toehold in society.

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Thirty-five years later, in 1381, to pay for its pricey Hundred Years War with France, the English government imposed its fourth Poll (per head) Tax in four years. It was a regressive tax, hardest on peasants, who shouldered as much of the Poll Tax burden as the wealthiest landowners.  Just when the peasants thought it couldn’t get worse…

King Richard II

…King Richard II issued The Statute of Laborers, capping wages and forcing workers to accept the same miserable conditions they had labored under before the plague struck. The new law threatened severe punishment to serfs and peasants who dared seek better conditions or higher wages.  It also forbad merchants and tradesmen to charge the market price for goods and services, and ordered a return to pre-plague prices. King Richard even tried to cut the only social security the poor had by forbidding beggars to beg.  In other words, he wanted to make England great again.

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In an unprecedented protest, 60,000 peasants marched to London to demand an audience with the king. 2000 protestors died in the ensuing violence, and others did too, including the archbishop, the king’s treasurer, and a number of tax collectors. The peasants dispersed after the king made promises, which he broke, and granted pardons for the rebels, which he revoked. Rebels were hunted down and executed.

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Richard II meets with rebels by Jean Froissant.

After the dust settled, it might’ve seemed like nothing had changed, but historian Michael Postan says the revolt made history, “as a landmark in social development and a typical instance of working-class revolt against oppression.” If only for fear of another uprising, peasants were treated with more respect, the hated Poll Tax was never again raised, and it marked the end of feudalism. Most importantly, peasants set their sights on astonishing new, if distant goals; freedom, equality, and democracy.

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We face difficult days ahead. Our hard won democracy has deteriorated into an oligarchy—a nation ruled by a small elite group of the obscenely wealthy. Any power or constitutional rights we lose to Trump and the Republicans will be difficult to recover. In D.C., the House, the Senate, and the White House are controlled by Republicans. Trump hasn’t assumed office yet and they’re already ripping apart social and political safeguards, unbalancing our delicate system of checks and balances.

We can’t afford to surrender to despair or even resignation. We must resist. Since the Peasants’ Revolt, we’ve had shining examples of nonviolent civil disobedience from heroines and heroes like Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, Lech Walesa, and the Standing Rock Lakota. Nonviolent movements like the Underground Railroad, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, United Farm Workers, and the Dakota Access Pipeline Resistance have brought change that makes a difference in all our lives. Not without sacrifice, but with hope, courage, and determination.

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Harriet Tubman, civil rights activist, abolitionist, humanitarian.

Solidarity in Communist Poland began with strikes to demand a free trade union, and resulted in freedom and democracy for the Polish people. There was the Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia. The Singing Revolution in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania began with people gathering to sing national songs forbidden by the Communists. Four years later they were independent nations, free of Soviet rule.

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Every protest matters. It’s an act of faith, almost a prayer. Not the kind in which you petition for a miracle or  just a quick win.  The kind that lends you strength to endure however long it takes, but also transforms you from silent sufferer to person of action. You’ll be there for those who have no voice, or who need help finding their own voice. You’ll be there to inform the public and to lift each other up, to remind yourself that you are not alone.

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Each act of resistance repays a debt to those who fought and sacrificed on a battlefield, in a courtroom, or on a picket line to make our lives better. And each act of resistance is a gift to our children and grandchildren.  One day this will all be history. When people look back, and they always do, I hope to be remembered for fighting for what’s right. It’s time to call out the lies, write our congress, gather those signatures, and save our nation from a shameful demise.  It’s time to put our boots on the ground.

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Copyright 2017 Naomi Baltuck

My Turkish De-light!

Two of my favorite things in Turkey…

…and…

The more the better!

Eye candy!

Sky candy!

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Luminous.

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All words and images NaomiBaltuck