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Parable of the Canaries

By Carolyn Raffensperger A quiet, ordinary canary, an older female named Vida had sent many of her brood into the mines. She had had enough. “What”, she thought,” can I do to stop sending our children into the mines to warn the miners of death? The mines themselves are death. This is what we must say.”

One night the miner who cleaned her cage and gave her food and water left the door ajar. Vida slipped past the billowing curtain and flew out the window into the dark. She went to each miner’s house and visited every canary whose job was to warn of death. She unlatched the cage doors and convinced the canaries to meet on a tree branch under the light of the full moon.

“Isn’t it time we stopped dying for this folly? Isn’t it time they stopped dying in the name of jobs and money? How can we warn them about mining itself?”

The canaries agreed to revolt. Each canary flew to the pillow of their miner’s lover and whispered, “he will die”. Some went to the young lovers of the men who would become miners and whispered, “he will die”. A few went and whispered to the grandmothers whose lovers had died, and said, “your grandsons will die too.”

In the morning, after the lunches had been packed and the men were gone the women gathered around the mending, the cooking, the hearthing, and recounted their dreams. No one wanted to speak first. Finally one told her dream of a canary who had warned of her lover’s death. Each had the same dream.

The next night Vida reconvened the council. She asked if Eagle would join them. Eagle had come perilously close to extinction because of a pesticide that made her eggs too thin to support her weight while the babies hatched. What advice could she give?

That night each canary and each eagle flew to a lover’s pillow and whispered, “the children will die.” They whispered to the grandmothers, “the grandchildren will die.

Again in the morning, the miners left for the mines and the women gathered. Each had dreamed of the death of the children and the grandchildren.

The third night Vida gathered the birds and invited the Dark Clouds and the Ocean. She said, “you have warned the humans, just as we have. Speak of what we must do.” The Dark Clouds--the red ones that warned of stormy weather, the white ones that spoke of peace--said that the coal and the oil and the minerals would change the climate forever—or at least as far ahead as Clouds can see. The Ocean spoke of her partnership with the Dark Clouds and the Mountains and then said, “I am so polluted with plastic and oil, and so acidic that I cannot support life. I have become the garbage dump for all that is dug out of the Earth.”

That night each Canary, each Eagle, each Dark Cloud and the Ocean went to whisper at the pillow of the Lovers and the Grandmothers. “You will all die.”

The next morning the Lovers and the Grandmothers took the canaries and the lunch pails and went to the mouth of the mine. They opened the cages and freed the canaries. “No more”, they said. “This day we choose life not death”. They blocked the mine and refused to let anyone in it. They took up shovels and filled in the mouth so no one could get inside. They filled the tanks of the mountain removal equipment with sand so they could never run again. And they sang to the canaries who sang back.

And that is how mining ended. As the canaries said, “we’re all humans now”. As the humans said, “we’re all canaries now”.