Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Of albatrosses and human imagination

"At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners' hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
While all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine."

"God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! --
Why look'st thou so?" -- "With my crossbow
I shot the Albatross."

A few weeks ago, I heard several news stories on the radio about the sad plight of the albatross. Thousands of these magnificent seabirds are killed each year by intensive commerical long-line fishing. Dedicated biologists are trying to learn more about the mysterious habits of the birds in hopes of saving them from what at present looks like certain extinction.

There are 21 species of albatross, all endangered. The Wandering Albatross is the largest of all sea-birds. It measures 1.2 meters (4 feet) from beak to tail, and has a wingspan of 3.5 meters (11.5 feet). These birds spend most of their lives at sea, and can circumnavigate the globe in a matter of months.

Hearing of the albatross' peril distressed and saddened me deeply. We stand -- I stand -- not merely the loss of a species -- a valuable scientific artifact -- but something far more important. While it is improbable that the human species would come to material harm through extinguishing these great creatures, the real damage to ourselves is both much greater and less tangible.

'Is it he?' quoth one, 'Is this the man?
By he who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.

The spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.'

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he, 'The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.'

A world without these birds would be a soul-destroying one. It is as if the wellsprings of human imagination were slowly drying up, or being paved over in the name of a 'progress' the fruits of which rot as soon as they are bourne, never to succor parched lips. I hope and pray that someday soon humankind will understand its vital connection with the Earth and all it's creatures. I hope this understanding doesn't come too late.

"Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all."

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

("The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," by Samual Taylor Coleridge, 1797-98)

To find out more about albatrosses, visit the Wikipedia. To find out how to help these birds, visit Birdlife International. The photo used on this post is from the Wikipedia.

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