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Far away but close to home

Why should we care about an endangered bird in Argentina? The answer is easy: the extinction of one species is a tragedy that extends across the whole of Creation

By David Wilson

One of the qualities that make Alanna Mitchell a leading science writer is her eagerness to immerse herself in her subject matter — sometimes literally. A few years ago, while researching her Grantham Prize-winning book Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, she squeezed into a submersible and descended 1,000 metres under water into the Straits of Florida. For a 2011 Observer feature on the polar ice caps, she first went swimming in the Arctic, then a few months later dunked herself in a pool of meltwater in Antarctica.

Late last year, she packed some hiking gear and notebooks into a backpack and immersed herself in a new subject — a funny-looking little aquatic bird called the hooded grebe that lives in the Patagonian wilderness of southern Argentina.

Mitchell drew our attention to the hooded grebe during an informal chat about this time last year. She told us how she had struck up a friendship with an Argentine researcher who has become obsessed with the bird. Human-induced factors have plunged the hooded grebe population into critical decline, and the researcher has made it his mission to find out everything he can about the bird before it’s too late.

It wasn’t really a story pitch, but the more we chatted about it, the more it dawned on us that there might be a story here. Mitchell’s writing appears in many places, from CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks to the science pages of the New York Times. She’s been writing for us for about five years. As varied as her platforms may be, there’s a common thread running through her journalism: a conviction that the relationships that make up the created order are sacred. To understand those relationships is to move closer to knowing God. To harm them is to stray into sinfulness. She may not always use this type of language, but these are the kind of ideas that inform her work. For Mitchell, an active member of Eastminster United in Toronto, writing about science gives voice to a deeply felt spirituality.

Hence her interest in the hooded grebe. Mitchell’s voice was soft and sombre as she continued her tale. She was clearly moved by the bird’s plight, and by the passion of a small but determined group of people who are committed to saving it.

Several months later, Mitchell was on a plane to Argentina, for a week of trekking around the vast Patagonian landscape in search of the hooded grebe. She returned with a remarkable story, “Losing the hooded grebe." To give it the space it deserves, we’re publishing it in two parts — the first this month, and the second in the June issue.

On the face of it, devoting so much space to a little bird that lives 10,000 kilometres away might seem odd. Why should we care about an endangered bird in Argentina? The answer is easy: the extinction of one species because of the actions of another is a tragedy that ripples across the whole of Creation. Extinction caused by humans is a blasphemy. It means forever, and forever is God’s province, not ours.

So while Mitchell’s story is about the hooded grebe, it’s also about all the other creatures that share the Earth. It’s set in a faraway country, but its relevance is as close as your front door. And while the piece sounds a clear alarm, by doing so it also proclaims hope. People who can see beyond the horizon, who understand that Creation is holier than the sum of its parts, are today’s prophets. We’d do well to listen to what they say.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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