The Plastic Bag Harvesters of NYC

(August 14, 2005)

Mark Bittner has not worked in at least a couple of decades. He knows how to make cappuccinos, which he calls a survival skill, at least in his part of the world: the north beach section of San Francisco.

Mark has read lots of the beat poets, you know Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder. He came to San Francisco to be a singer, which didn’t pan out.

Instead he keeps, well he doesn’t keep them exactly, let’s say he has befriended, a flock of wild parrots, the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. (https://www.pelicanmedia.org/wild-parrots)

He loves them.

Today I want to talk about passion. I want to talk about holding fast to dreams. I want to talk about the open heart that opens eyes and opens lives. Your life. My life.

No one is quite sure how this group of red crowned conures made their way to this wild side of San Francisco.

We do know, however, how Bittner got in touch with the wild parrots. Bittner one day was reading Gary Snyder, the nature beat poet, who had been, I think, influenced by Buddhism.

Just listen to the simple beauty of the last part of an early Snyder poem entitled, “Robin.”

Rain patters on the rhododendron
cloud sweeps in from the sea over sand dunes
and stoop lodgepole pine.
Thinking of the years since we parted.
Last week I dreamed of you —
buying a bag of groceries for Hatch.

He was reading Snyder because he wanted to get into nature and Snyder was a nature poet. And he said that Snyder gave the following advice: If you wish to get into nature, start where you are. So Bittner bought some bird seed, some sunflower seeds, and started looking for and at what was around. And then he saw a couple of parrots. To him, they seemed more like monkeys than birds. He was immediately smitten.

Soon, he was consumed with his work, the work of observing, feeding, and loving a bunch of red crowned conures, and one blue crowned conure named Conor.

A loner, Conor had once had a love, but she died soon after Bittner met the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. Bitner loved Conor, admired Conor. And he wanted Conor to be his friend, but Conor wasn’t much of a joiner.

Conor was his own bird.

Bittner observed these 45 birds of Telegraph Hill and the partnerships that they fell into and sometimes, of necessity, fell out of. Sophie and Picasso were two birds that had kind of precarious lives. They both had been struck with viruses and Picasso, of the temperament worthy of his name, got into fights and couldn’t see real well, because of a black eye received by a bigger bird. Bittner thinks that Picasso was killed by hawk because his vision was limited on one side.

After Picasso’s death, Bittner thought that Conor might fall for Sophie, that Conor might gain some new purpose in life by protecting Sophie, small and vulnerable, but Conor wouldn’t have any part of that.

Conor was his own bird.

Bittner’s vision was trained on these birds. Tourists would often think that Bittner owned the parrots or was some kind of city official charged with the care and nurture of this unusual flock. But he had simply fallen, headlong and completely, into his life’s work.

Today, we talk about the joy of falling — madly, deeply — into the meaning and purpose of your life.

He’s crazy? Bittner is eccentric, yes? Maybe. But I don’t really think so. He saw, with his open heart and his open eyes, an opportunity to get to know something right in his field of vision and he went for it.

It turns out Jesus, if we look at the biblical witness, spoke only a few times about love. Once in the Sermon on the Mount, to love one’s enemies. (Is it too much to ask that we once and for all be a Sermon on the Mount people.) And once in answer to the question from the lawyer, who tried to trick him: What shall I do to have an open heart and open eyes and a life open to greatness and adventure? (I’m paraphrasing.). Love God, Jesus said, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s it as far as I know, that’s it on the love front.

Jesus demonstrated love again and again. My guess is that perhaps he felt that was enough. I’m sure of it, actually.

While love is rarely mentioned, the biblical witness points to the necessity of an open heart again and again. The heart is an image of the deepest self in the Bible. It impacts vision. It impacts thoughts and feelings. It impacts will.

When we see with a heart enlightened, we see wonder, we notice beauty. The open heart knows radical amazement in the memorable phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

When we see with a heart enlightened, we sense a deep feeling of gratitude. We get in touch with compassion. We pursue justice.

One day Mark Bittner encountered with an open heart the advice of poet Gary Snyder to look at around at what was close at hand. And because his heart was open, his eyes saw a bunch of wild parrots in his back yard, and he fell madly into his life’s passion.

At one point, one of the birds in his charge, Tupelo, dies. He says that the night before she died, he her on the floor paralyzed, immobile. (Most of the birds never came into his home, unless they were hurt or sick. One, I can’t recall his name, came into his house and refused to leave. When that bird was in trouble — outside he went!)

Anyway, he fed Tupelo a kind of formula. He says that when he picked her up, he could feel a sense of gratitude coming from her. Later, as she grew increasingly sick, he said that he would pick her up and she would express some sort of resignation.

As he reflected upon Tupelo’s death, he came to see that all life is one. That it is all one thing That we are all caught up in a network of each other.

A teacher of his, Suzuki Rashi, went once to a national park and saw a beautiful waterfall. He saw that the river flowed as one, then individual droplets made up the waterfall and each droplet returned to the river as one. He said that all there is is contained in that river. At some point the massive river hits the cliff, and these individual droplets rush over the side. One’s life is that droplet of water in the time it takes to get from the top of the cliff to the bottom. We think, as individual droplets that we are separated from the oneness of all things, the river, but we have merely forgotten. We lose nothing as a result of our forgetfulness, because at the end we are reunited with the rush of the river, but our remembering, or our forgetfulness, does not make one bit of difference in whether or not we’ll return to the All. It simply is what it is.

Remembering seems better, though.

Let us turn, for a moment, to the problem of plastic bags stuck in trees. The problem of plastic bags stuck in trees confounded and frustrated a particular Brooklynite, Ian Frazier, the former staff writer for the New Yorker.

And there are a bunch of bags in trees. He says that once he saw his first — they are called witches knickers in Ireland apparently — he began to see them all over — in mesquite trees in Arizona, in cottonwoods in South Dakota, and in unidentified sorry trees along the Dan Ryan Expressway. But he says that at the Grand Army Plaza in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, you could only call the bags in trees a blight.

So one day he mentioned the problem of plastic bags in trees to his friend Tim, a jeweler. They somehow designed a snagger that would not hurt the trees and off they went. They didn’t seek permission. They didn’t seek publicity.

They just went around trying to do their bit of good in the world.

Bag snagging is quixiotic of course; but it is also, in its essence, good. Ian Frazier says that he was surprised to find out how solid and real good can be.

One easily recognizes it, and knows when one has done it, even when the act is as small as taking a bag out of a tree.

Ian Frazier says it changed his life. He thinks a tree that has been liberated from its plastic bag hanger-on it simply more beautiful than a tree that’s never been bothered by a plastic bag. That’s a debate I’ll refuse to engage. But he’s on to something.

You keep your heart open and your eyes begin to see in new ways. You keep your eyes open and whole vistas appear.

Stop for a moment. Listen. Look. Feel. Remember.

What is calling you? What is your life saying to you?

A parrot needs some nurturing. A bit of litter needs addressing. You keep your heart open and whole worlds appear. You find yourself holding a patent on plastic bag harvesters, after simply noticing blight, despair, chaos.

You begin to do things you never thought possible. You suddenly realize you’ve named 45 parrots, determined their names based on their particular individual characteristics. After a life time of being alone, you suddenly find yourself in a complicated relationship with 45 birds. You find that you know the name of trees, in a lot of different places.

May you keep your heart open, your eyes peeled. There are wild parrots all around us. There are plastic bags in trees waiting to be harvested. May your passion catch you and may we all find your enthusiasm and commitment contagious. Inspire us. The world needs one more open heart and more pair of open eyes.

August 14, 2005, Unitarian Church, Davenport, Iowa. Rev. Roger Butts

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Roger Butts

Author, Seeds of Devotion. Unitarian Universalist. Ordained 20 years.