Upping Our Environmental Game: The Swallow and The Little Birds

W. Aractingi

Earth Day was this past week, a time for stepping up our environmental game.

I was at my favourite falafel joint with a friend for lunch yesterday. We had both dutifully brought drinks in our own re-usable bottles and when we ordered our take-out, we were careful to say, “No bag, please.” We waited, holding our eco-sac at the ready. The woman popped our falafel sandwiches in a bag and handed it to us. My friend took the sandwiches out of the bag and handed it back to the woman at the counter (very politely and without attitude). The woman grabbed the bag, crumpled it up in front of us and threw it in the garbage.

Why wouldn’t she listen to us?

Because not listening is endemic with humanity. Here’s what Jean de La Fontaine said about it by way of one of his fables.

A swallow had learned a lot during her travels. Those who have seen much gain wisdom. The bird could foretell the slightest storm brewing. She warned sailors, before the weather erupted. 

One day, during the sowing season for hemp, she saw a peasant spreading seeds in row upon row of tilled furrows.

The swallow said to the little birds who made their home around the fields: This sowing should worry you. If it were me in this extreme peril, I would get far away, or take refuge in a hidden corner. Do you see that peasant’s hand waving in the air? The day will come, not long from now, when that grain she’s spreading will be your ruin. The harvest of that hand’s work will be used to engineer any number of tools to lasso you, wrap you up, imprison or kill you. Beware the cage or the cauldron!

The swallow continued: That’s why you should eat the seeds. Believe me. 

The little birds made fun of the swallow. There was so much else to eat in the fields.  

When the hemp field was green, the swallow warned them again: Tear out the sprigs those bad seeds produced. Or be sure of your own demise.

The little birds responded: Prophet of misery! Doomsayer. What a job you want to give us. It would take a thousand to clear these fields.

When the hemp was full height, the swallow added: This is not good at all, bad seed grown quickly. It’s not like you’ve listened to me before now, but when you see that the field is covered after the harvest, and the people aren’t busy with their grain sheaves, they will make war on you. When they use their nets and bird loops to catch little birds, stop flying around. Stay at home or change geography. Imitate the duck or the stork or the woodcock. Well, I know you aren’t able to seek out other worlds, to cross the distances over desert and ocean, the way we swallows (or ducks or storks or woodcocks) can. You only have one sure choice. Hole up in a wall.

The little birds, tired of listening to the swallow’s warnings, started chattering as inattentively as the Trojans did when Cassandra so much as opened her mouth. They were taken, same as the Trojans. So many birds enslaved. 

By instinct, we only listen to those who are like us. And we won’t believe in anything bad, until it’s already here.

We are all swallows and little birds about the environment (and so many issues).

Take me as an example. I’ve been trying this year not to drink bottled water (sparkling or still). But I love bubbly water, so I’m often trying to order it at restaurants, without involving a bottle. Often that means club soda from one of those dispensing guns at the bar. That’s okay. Not as tasty as Lurisia or Pellegrino, but more festive than tap water. If a restaurant has carafes for wine, I sometimes ask if they’ll fill a carafe with soda water. This can result in a lot of confusion and the server then bringing me a bottle of sparkling water. That’s already opened. I can’t send it back. And anyhow, sending it back makes me look like a jerk and also a pedant, because I’ll try to explain that I was trying to save the environment.

Of course, there are other ways in which I am the environmental bull in a china shop. I fly a lot, which consumes mad quantities of fuel. I order takeout food, which comes in ridiculous numbers of plastic containers (oh, and a plastic bag). You get the picture.

We think of our individual environmentalism much the way we think about other drivers. Anyone driving faster is a dangerous wacko. Anyone going slower is a grandpa in my way. Anyone who is more environmental than me is an unrealistic zealot, that’s our little bird selves. Anyone who is less environmental than me is a slacker—that’s our swallow selves.

The hemp shoots are fully grown. The globe is warming. Garbage is piling up. Consumption has run amok. The environmental clock is running down. How fast is debatable. There’s no debate that each one of us could be doing better. And maybe that’s all that’s required. Wherever each one of us is at, let’s up our individual game. We don’t have to be perfect. That’s not possible anyway. But can we do better?

Here’s a starting place. Have a look at the top ten sources of garbage in the ocean and reduce your use in one of these categories (and yes, I said reduce, not recycle). Cigarette butts are the number one garbage found in the ocean and all of the top ten polluters are plastics—food wrappers, bottles, caps and bags are numbers 2, 3, 4 & 5.

To nourish our resolve to do better, here are wise words from Rachel Carson, the godmother of the environmental movement. This is from her 1962 commencement address to graduates of Scripps College in California:

“The stream of time moves forward and mankind moves with it. Your generation must come to terms with the environment. You must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”


When I suggest taking action, I do so as a fellow little bird, not a swallow. Let’s prove our maturity. Let’s master ourselves together, each in our own individual way.


For other environmental insights through the JDLF lens: Instead of Tariffs, Let The Sun Do Its Work and The EPA May Self-Eviscerate, But We Can Be Environmental: The Child and The Schoolmaster.

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