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    Birding Can Change You

    In Birding to Change the World, Trish O’Kane describes how birding changed her life following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

    By Ragan Sutterfield

    June 4, 2024

    In a recent email to me about climate grief, theologian Hannah Malcolm offered a personal note about the approach she takes with her young daughter: “I have begun to face the responsibility of teaching her to name and relatedly love the world around her,” Malcolm wrote. “As the world breaks down around us, we will all, one way or another, have to make home again when home either becomes unrecognizable or inhospitable. The practice of naming – with all its complexity and tension – offers one way in.”

    When I received that email, I was reading Birding to Change the World by Trish O’Kane. Malcolm’s words reflect the book’s central claim: learning to name can foster love that can save a place. The loss of home came for O’Kane just after she had found it. After working as an investigative journalist, O’Kane and her husband moved into their New Orleans neighborhood in July of 2005, a short walk from Lake Pontchartrain. A month later their house was underwater as Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levees.

    The upheaval of Katrina drove O’Kane to seek solace in the wild world around her. And in her observation of the natural world, she began to ask new questions. “Before Katrina, my question had always been, How can I make the world a better place? What can I do?” she writes. After Katrina, she took a more contemplative stance: “I could feel my question changing from What should I do? to How should I be?” She developed a yearning to understand the life systems of the earth, a desire that drove her to an improbable midcareer move to Madison, Wisconsin, where she began a doctoral program in environmental studies.

    On a freezing day, doing her ornithology homework in Warner Park near her house, O’Kane saw a single, red northern cardinal singing at the top of a tree – a bird she could name. “It was just me, the cardinal, and that cold, bright moment.” Her heart filled with love for that bird and that place. And it changed everything.

    “Love will save this place,” writes the activist Naomi Klein of our planet. And this was true for O’Kane, whose love for the creatures of Warner Park drove her to organize a community effort to save it after the city wanted to “improve” the park by paving over and clearing out its most wild places. The heart of the book follows O’Kane’s efforts to build Wild Warner, an organization working to preserve the wildlife she has come to love so deeply.

    In the face of ecosystems in a spiral of collapse, it is easy to become overwhelmed with the question, “What am I to do?” But O’Kane’s rich and grounded memoir shows us that in asking, “How should I be?” we open ourselves to falling in love. And love can change the world.

    Contributed By RaganSutterfield Ragan Sutterfield

    Ragan Sutterfield writes regularly at “The Way We Practice” on Substack.

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