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Wonder and Sorrow

By Matthieu Ricard on June 08, 2010

For years ornithologists were intrigued by the fact that bar-tailed godwits (a species of waders, in the family of birds who live principally near water, but who cannot land on or dive in water to fish) became so fat before their winter migration. ‟They looked like flying softballs,” noted the researcher Robert Gill. Indeed, they had to travel an immense distance, between Alaska, where this scientist would observe them, and New Zealand and Australia; however, scientists assumed that they migrated for the most part over land, where they could rest and feed. Therefore, the extent to which these birds overfed could not be explained, and this puzzled scientists. 

Robert Gill wondered if godwits did not remain in flight for longer periods than previously thought.
Recently, researchers have been able to implant satellite transmitters in these migratory birds, transmitters light enough not to disturb these birds. How surprised they were when they discovered that godwits beat all the known records for nonstop flights, traveling up to 7,100 miles in nine days—the longest nonstop flight ever recorded. We can understand why godwits need such reserves of fat! The bar-tailed godwit has to elevate its metabolic rate between 8 and 10 times, traveling day and night, 40 miles an hour.
‟I was speechless,” commented Mr. Gill.

But the wonder felt before such abilities goes hand in hand with a sadness that is equally great when faced with the devastation to which we subject nature and beings. Numbers come crashing down like a overwhelming indictment. Here is a sample:

  • 90% of fish have disappeared from the oceans in the last century.
  • Bee populations have been decimated in the last few years, and the repercussions on plant pollination, both wild and cultivated, are so great that some have speculated that the extinction of bees could, as a chain reaction, lead to that of humans.
  • There were a million Saiga antelopes in 1990 in Kazakhstan and the bordering regions, only 82,000 in 2009, and, in the last month, 12,000 of these antelopes have died within a few days due to an epidemic of explosive growth.

What a waste! All this is due to the unbounded egotism of humans who seem incapable of going beyond the constricted outlook of their immediate self-interest, and thereby seem unable to consider the general welfare of other living beings, including their own.

The wonder evoked in beholding the beauty of nature is all the more poignant now because it is tinged with bitterness.