Hope is the Thing With Feathers: a Meditation About Empathy on a Dying World

Tundra Swan at Svenson Island, along the lower Columbia River. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Recently, I’ve been listening to The Lost Birds: An Extinction Elegy, by American composer Christopher Tin. It is an arrangement based on the poems of Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Christina Rossetti. It is sung beautifully by Voces8 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Tin composed this marvelous arrangement as a memorial to various bird species that have been driven to extinction by habit loss, pollution and encroachment. The pieces soar and dive in a powerful rollercoaster of emotion, especially when one has been a student of extinction for as long as I have.

But it also got me remembering an incident from my childhood. I think I was around the age of 13 when I saw this. I was coming home from school. Actually, I was just outside the school entrance. A small bird was screeching up at me. He seemed inconsolable. I couldn’t understand why, until I saw him hopping up to a mutilated figure. It was the crushed body of a bird like him. Back and forth, he bobbed and shifted. Looking at the crushed corpse, then looking back up to me. I felt its desperation. It was as if to ask why? Why?

It was at that point that I realized species, other than my own, felt. They felt pleasure and pain. But more, they felt sorrow. How else could I explain it? Self interest? Yes, but isn’t sorrow about self-interest, at its core? We feel sorrow because we loved greatly. I know, with confidence, that this small creature had as much feeling as I had on any given day when I felt grief. It felt passion. It felt love. It felt confusion. It felt injustice.

That experience has haunted me throughout my entire life. I can still see that bird. Its eyes. Its frantic movements. I can still see the crushed cadaver of his mate. And I can still feel the sting of guilt that I didn’t do more. But what could I have done? I remember kneeling and telling him how sorry I was, but what good was that? I gently moved the body of his love off the pavement and under the shade of a shrub nearby so that he could attend to her without danger. Then I walked away, unable to reverse the enormous injury to this small, sentient being.

Birds loom large in our collective storytellingAnzû wreaked havoc over the ancient Sumerians, Vaqub governed the Mayan underworld. A crow was often associated with death in many European folklores. And Impundula worked with Zulu witches to prey on the vulnerable. But they also come as an omen or as teachers. To the Chinese, Jingwei taught us perseverance. To the Medieval Saxon, partridges taught us kindness. And according to many Indigenous North and Central Americans, hummingbirds taught us love. But these are symbols. Birds, of any variety, exist independent of our anthropomorphism, and they have suffered enormously from our avarice, apathy and cruelty. Still, I cannot deny the influence of these stories on my own reflection.

Fast forward to a time when I worked in hospice care. As a grief counselor. Once again, I was there, kneeling at the bedside of the dying and the bereaved. Feeling useless. Feeling inadequate to the task of stopping the misery that was unfolding. But eventually learning to fill the role I was given. Being there. Offering an ear. Helping with final arrangements. Telling difficult truths about death and preparations and burial. Explaining civil documents. Bringing a cool or warm beverage. A blanket. A hug, when asked. A warm human body.

I’ve realized since, that empathy isn’t about solving anything. It is about presence. It is about being with another in a time of joy or a time of sorrow, without judgement. It isn’t about doing anymore than that. Of course, if someone is in jeopardy our task is to administer assistance as best we can. But so much of life is about coming in after a tragedy has occurred. The aftermath. Arriving at the scene. Sifting through the wreckage. Finding the wounded. Applying healing balms and bandages. Handing out blankets and water. Breaking bad news. Holding and warming. And paying honour to and burying the dead.

I am grateful to have been on both sides of this transaction. Not that I have enjoyed being in either, just that it has given me some insight. Grief is an unforgiving and intrusive visitor. A mood and vibe killer. Bursting in like an insolent, seemingly inconsolable child and smashing all the crockery while they demand even more of your attention. More of your attendance. It is no one you’d consciously invite into your home, much less your head.

But I will admit, these experiences have helped me traverse some dark inner terrain, many of them in recent days. Because some days I feel lost in the miasma of my own grief or melancholy, and this hyper-capitalist dystopia we call civilization. These lanterns help to light my way. And it has deepened my empathy for the wider world of species who suffer daily from our kind. From our endless consumption and trashing. Our mindless drive toward the destruction of the only home we’ve ever known.

Empathy is what makes us human. And it exacts a toll. But its absence is lethal to us and the planet. In a sense, we are all arriving at the scene of a tragedy. The aftermath of an unfolding disaster we often feel powerless to stop. The Sixth Mass Extinction. If we can feel the despair of one small bird, we can surely feel the sorrow of an entire species. We can be present in this moment and provide comfort while paying respect to those beings now gone forever. And right now, this is the best starting point for protecting and preserving what we can, while there is still time left to do so.

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.