Amid my weeks of “Geo-Trashing” and combing over Mars images for futures posts, I’ve also gotten out to relax with some bird photography. In particular, rare bird photography. My good friend I’ve mentioned in past posts, Dr. Anne Geraghty, is not only a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, but also an avid “birder.” Anne introduced me to a location that is home for a whole host of rare birds – One of which being the Red-Headed Woodpecker.
The Red-Headed Woodpecker’s numbers have been decreasing. Why? As I’ve researching, the reason for the decrease is unclear and potentially complex. Whether it be fewer locations for nesting through the removal of dead trees, competition for nesting sites with other birds such as Starlings, or environmental factors, there is concern that this small, unique bird may have a grim future. If you want to learn more about Red-Headed Woodpeckers you can check out this wonderful summary provided by Audubon (click on the blue text).
With this brief introduction, I wish to present a basic, pointed question: Does it even matter that the Red-Headed Woodpecker is in decline?
It is not my intent to start a war of words over birds in this post, but I think this question is at the heart of many concerns about Care for Creation. For example, would the extinction of a bird such as the Red-Headed Woodpecker matter to most people? Would my life have been different if I hadn’t found this small bird? And if this small bird isn’t an integral part of my life nor is necessary to my existence, why care? Am I my Red-Headed Woodpecker’s keeper?
Now, before you presume that I have gone a little crazy or think that, as we like to say in Wisconsin, the cheese has fallen off my cracker, let me explain why this question is important. When we try to understand life in the broad sense, it leads us to many questions, one of which being, “Is life common or rare?” The simple answer to this questions is, Yes!
Life is all around us at all times. From the time we wake up in morning to the time we go to bed, we are interacting with life whether that be our co-workers, parishioners, friends, the flowers in our office, the food we buy, the birds we hear, the pets we have, or the bugs we swat. From this perspective life is very common.
However, we can also speak about particular life and particular species. We can find fossil records of things that once were a part of our common home, but now only exist as a part of sacred memory. We can see how the impact of environmental decisions have endangered and, in some cases, destroyed specific species. Life is fragile and if we are not attentive to the fragility of life we can unintentionally threaten different species of animals and plants.
In light of this, I restate my earlier question: Does it matter that the Red-Headed Woodpecker is in decline?
There’s an age-old struggle in philosophy of trying grasp the distinction between the one and the many. Without turning this into a philosophy lesson, to summarize, I am a part of the human race (the one – communal sense of being a person), but I am also a particular human by the name of James Kurzynski who is a Catholic Priest for the Diocese of La Crosse and Pastor of St. Olaf Parish (the many – our individual sense of being a specific person).
Whether I live or die will have little impact on the totality of the human race. However, how I live and die can influence and potentially foreshadow what may happen to humanity in the future based on how I embrace or reject my neighbor and how my neighbor embraces or rejects me. And that’s the beauty of the tension between the one and the many in relation to the human person – We live as both autonomous individuals and an essential part of the communal reality that is the human species. To put it simply, humanity (and life as a whole) is both common and rare.
Something I’ve learned over the years is to appreciate the Catholic Church’s teaching on Care for Creation by viewing it through the eyes of community. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI names this communal sense of Care for Creation “Human Ecology.” The essence of Benedict’s thought is that when we make environmental choices that protect the current and future well-being of the human person, we naturally care for the whole of creation.
For example, humans need clean water to drink, farm, and bathe. Therefore, don’t pollute our water system. When we have clean water, we also have clean lakes for fish and wildlife, some of which provide us with food and contribute to the broader ecosystem. Therefore, clean water not only promotes the health of the human person, but also allows for the healthy living of all species that depend upon clean, accessible water. It puts a clear, modern context to the Corporal Work of Mercy – Give Drink to the Thirsty.
From the starting point of Human Ecology, Pope Francis broadened this theme when he reflected on “Integral Ecology.” This beautiful vision that complement’s Benedict’s writing affirms that we are not an external agent of creation, but a part of creation and the decisions we make about our relationship with creation will ultimately impact us. Human Ecology and Integral Ecology create a beautiful, cyclical vision of Care for Creation – We need to make environmental decisions to protect the dignity of the human person so we can flourish as a people (Human Ecology) and, to achieve this goal, we need to make environmental decisions that acknowledge we are a part of a broader relationship with all of creation (Integral Ecology).
Therefore, to answer the question I posed earlier, Am I my Red-Headed Woodpecker’s keeper? Yes, I am! And understanding how I relate to life in the broad sense will help me both protect life, but also develop an environmental ethos to wonder at the delicate balance of God’s creation in the broad sense.
To put this another way, life is abundant on our Common Home – And let’s keep it that way!