Death and Renewal Pt II: The Dance and Flight of the Albatross; Rituals of Transformation

Nesting on the island within Kure Atoll are two different species of Albatross. These two species look different and behave differently, but it doesn’t take a bird expert to tell they share a common ancestor. The Black-Footed Albatross is primarily black and walks with its neck tucked in as if it were crouching. The Laysan Albatross has black wings with a white breast and neck and a cream colored beak, and walks with a erect and often bobbing neck. Both species mate for life, nest on the ground, and dance with their mates or potential mates.
These common yet distinct traits illustrates a profound point about life: the species are enacting rituals reproduced from one generation to the next. All Laysan Albatross learn the same dance moves of bobbing their neck up and down, whistling, thrusting their head straight up to the heavens, shaking their head left to right, lifting one wing and tucking the beak behind it, and also rapidly clapping the beak. They do this because it is ritual. It is what works, what allows the species to continue to reproduce. The Black-Footed Albatross have their own dances, and they do it for the same exact reason: it works. Same but different.
The mystery of why something works and doesn’t in the world is not always for the eye of the beholder to grasp. It is part of a higher order of law invisible perhaps to the eye, but quite visible to the mind. We are born into this world and know nothing about it to start except for what is giving to us from the past; our parents, our ancestors, our history. Thus, we enact the ritual of traditions that came before us because it worked for them, and so it should work for us. But there is a predicament that occurs constantly in nature, and that is that nothing stays the same.

Same but different. Death and Renewal. One species splitting into two. One culture splitting into many. A proto-language going extinct yet still encoded within the modern dialects spoken across the globe. Death and renewal. The source of creation can be found in all life that presently walks this Earth; in its genes, in its behavior, in its rituals.
The notion of evolution brought time into the equation of Western human’s understanding of nature, and we began to perceive the very nature of our own selves. This breakthrough in science was actually a kind of renaissance, a renewal of something that was already known deep within our being, but long forgotten in the conscious world: that all creatures of earth share a common ancestor, and we are all bound in a complex web of change. Death and renewal.
There once was only a single species of albatross, a common ancestor, and even as these creatures transformed into their own unique species, they held on to common traits; rituals preserved through time, a story that traces their lineage back to their creation. It is here, within the rituals we can find the key that opens the door into our past and our future. And no longer must we walk upon our path blindly.

Today, a low cold pressure system swept in from the north and mixed with the high hot pressure that has been sitting around Kure. It produced a dazzling reaction of hot and cold, high and low, that didn’t quite reach our atoll but we could see it off in the distance: dramatic shades of grey, blue and purple deepening the coloration of the horizon and forming massive cumulus clouds. It brought with it little precipitation but enough to ignite the Albatross chicks, who have now been nesting for nearly six months and nearing their fledgling age: a call to adventure beyond the reef and out across the big ocean blue. The surface of this island is covered with these chicks; just over 23,000, and when that little bit of wind and rain touched the island they all stood up, spreading and flapping their wings, some even taking their first leaps into the air.
They knew. Somehow, by some instinct, they understood what this change in weather meant for them. It meant freedom. It meant flight. It meant survival. Yes, even within our habitual coding lie the deeper patterns which spark transformation. Those chicks have been sitting and waiting for six months, saving energy, yet giving their nature, so intricately tied to the cycles of growth and the patterns of the seasons of this planet, they are able to activate their desire to turn into something they are meant to be. They knew it not because they read it somewhere, nor because someone told them, but because of a feeling. Something passed down genetically, activated by patterns of nature. A ritualistic code.
We humans also live by rituals. We survive by rituals. Ritual is just a fancy word for a pattern. And patterns are just a generic form of habit. And habits are that which we do automatically. Without thinking, carved into our motions. Instilled within our being. Our heart beats because of habit so we can live. It transforms it’s rate of beats so we can survive.
Just this last week, we were doing our annual albatross chick count, in which we scour the entire island to count the remaining chicks. It was a nice break from all the invasive-pant treatment we do, but when I went out on my first chick-counting route I reached around to try and pump my spray pack only to grab air. I was so used to having to pump the pack we wear for plant treatment that that very motion had become habit. It had become ritual. Even as I was not wearing a spray back. Even as I could no longer feel it’s weight on my shoulders, the habit was powerful enough to engrain within my muscle memory the ritualistic practice of pumping the spray pack. I believed it was there. Even when it wasn’t. This is what belief is, it is a kind of habit of the mind that guides our lives. Makes things easier, more efficient, less expenditure of energy. But the issues is that the truth is always changing, like my spray back no longer on my back, and so I cannot cling to my belief that it is still there, otherwise I will not transform my behavior to effectively match the circumstances of my environment. In this case, counting albatross. The same can be said about more abstract beliefs, such as in god or moral laws. Transformation occurs and new beliefs are shaped around the transformation and we live, ritualistically, or habitually by these codes, guiding our society, guiding our faith. But time is always changing, we are always discovering and finding new truths, that the old become just that; outdated. No longer relevant to what is present.
Every creature lives by the code of ritual. It’s part of our survival. And humans are no exception. Especially when it comes to society and culture. Culture is just another kind of expression of nature. It exists within the same perimeters, it’s just that the information being passed through culture is abstract and symbolic. yet the effect is the same, creating deep subconscious patterns that often go unquestioned or even unnoticed.
Humans have taken the art of ritual and applied it to our culture as an effective means to pass on our nature from one generation to the next. We took this to another level and birthed complex social organizations, and our psyches are prescribed to these organizations as a means to keep society functioning through time as the humans that comprise that society cycle through it. Think about the inauguration of the President, or the Pledge of Allegiance, or the chanting you do at the end of your yoga class. Patriotism is just a ritualistic mechanism to maintain the cohesiveness of a nation. Ohm is just a resonating sound that binds the universe together.
A society is like the courting ritual of the Laysan Albatross. The individual albatross eventually dies, but her dancing lives on into the next generation. It is the same principle with socity. We use ritual to reproduce the past, but we only do it to the extent that it is still relevant to the time. When it is no longer relevant, no longer effective, then the process of transformation occurs: and thus the world births a new species of albatross, or, a new nation, a new culture, a new way of life. All of sudden things that seem so widely different actually share the same intention. A common root, a common purpose for action, even if those actions look insanely different. We have to see through the differences to find the similarities, to remember what all of this is for.
This is how we can come to see the process of revolution as just another natural process. It is the process of keeping evolution going. Keeping the natural cycle of life and death flowing. A revolution is built upon the past. It cannot ignore all that came before it. It has to grow from it, transcend from it, transform from it. But it also must carry with it all that came before. A revolution stores within it all the lessons, all the practices and understandings that allowed the revolution to occur in the first place. A revolution is the embodiment of wisdom, as wisdom is knowing the right time to act. A revolution is in debt to that which came before. It must respect the past. It must acknowledge the past as its source of existence, its creator; like the dance of an albatross generating new offspring. It must hold gratitude. It must have compassion. Within the fiery desire of the who seek change, there must also exist the love and understanding of what came before. We would not be alive to make the transformation if it wasn’t for the patterns and way of life that birthed us.
This is what religion gave people, it gave them the ritualistic practice of holding reverence for the source of our existence: the revolution that spawned humanity.
A desire to change, like the albatross chicks flapping their wings, is a preliminary stage for transformation, and cannot exist through fear. Fear is a reactionary mechanism and its ritualistic purpose is to act quickly for short-term survival needs. Fear-driven emotions exist in chaos and confusion, severed from the enfolding process of all that has lead up to the moment of transformation. Us tall and erect creatures walking heavily by the albatross chicks often causes a fearful reaction in them. They stand up quickly and turn their bodies as rapidly as they can to face their perpetrator, snapping their beaks and turning their heads with hyper alertness. And if this approaching threat becomes too dangerous, then the chick transforms into flight, running away and creating a safe distance between its perpetrator. Internally, the chick’s vitals are elevated, and unfortunately the bird is forced to use up energy. The heart increasing its rate. To always be responding in fear is not sustainable and will eventually ware down any single creature… or society. Our own history teaches us this, and so does our science in regards to personal health. Chronic stress, which is the body operating from a constant biological state of what I would call fear, causes the body to eventually breakdown and invite in disease.
A revolution does not come from this place of fear, it is the opposite response than that of fear. It is in fact a calling, a reaching out, a deeper listening for the necessary continuation of life, but it cannot come too soon or too late. It occurs precisely when it is meant to (Gandalf knows all about this). And we, we are the actors whom listen for the moment, and we act upon it knowing that it is time. The albatross chicks know then it is time to fly, for they feel the strength of their bodies match with the signs of nature around them. Cannot we humans do the same in our personal lives as well as our collective lives shared in the organization of society?
History is repeating itself, and we know it because we hold on to those past rituals, we recognize they had a purpose, played a role in the unraveling story of humanity, and we remember the stories of our past that go all the way back to the time of myth, when it was no longer known what was based on a real event and what was based on some primordial, demagogue drama. But we see the pattern emerge, the parallel between what happened then and what is happening today. And then we understand our purpose. What we must do. Each of use. Our role. What mythical character we are playing.

But to fully understand this process of revolution, of transformation, we must confront the one thing we have all been taught to fear: Death. And out here on Kure, I am confronted by death every single day.

(To be continued in Ducks of Our Lives, Pt III of Death and Renewal.)

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