A Pale Blue Dot*

These days, two major themes dominate the news: violence and climate change. There is endless news about wars, bomb explosions, vehicles mowing down pedestrians, or armed men shooting or randomly stabbing people to death. Every day, too, you can hear news about how huge parts of forests are being cleared, the thinning ice sheets, the rising temperature, or the extinction of a species. Regardless whether you watch the local or international news, you are sure to find at least one story connected to either of these two.

Times like these, I cannot help feeling fearful for the future — if humankind even still has one considering the rate of how people destroy each other and nature in the name of politics, power, and so-called progress. If only people realized that all those are insignificant in the grander scheme of things.

In 1994, Carl Sagan, an American cosmologist and author wrote the book, “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space,”* and in it, he gave a different perspective of Earth, a perspective I wish all people would appreciate.

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That tiny speck suspended in a sunbeam is our home.  Photo taken by Voyager 1 in 1990. (NASA)

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.

On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner.

How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.

Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

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Where Wild Birds Fly

Scholars, state university, activism, premiere education – these are the words that are normally associated with the name of the University of the Philippines (Diliman).  It is a premiere educational institution situated in the heart of Quezon City, an urban jungle that is also well-known for its numerous shopping malls, countless hip restaurants, cafes, bars, and some public parks.  Very few would ever associate both of these places with the Woodpecker, the Black-naped Oriole, or the Lowland White Eye – wild birds that call UP Diliman and Quezon City their homes.

Before April this year, I had never heard the names of these birds nor had I even thought of associating Quezon City with them.  My knowledge of birds was extremely limited, and my awareness of the various birds living and visiting the city was almost close to zero.  Maya (Eurasian Tree Sparrow) and kalapati (dove / pigeon) were the only species of birds I thought present in the city, and the others, whose existence I didn’t have any idea about, could only be found in the rural areas.  How surprised I was when I learned that many wild birds actually take flight in the city’s skyline and build their nests in the quietness of the trees.  Some are even frequent visitors coming from other countries to get away from the coldness of their original habitats.

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I was made aware of all these when I joined a guided birdwatching tour provided by the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines last April.  I saw a poster of the group’s on Facebook inviting everyone to the said event.  It was set at 6:00 am on a Saturday.  And although it was too early for a weekend, and I was not even a bird lover, I decided to join by myself and enrich my knowledge about birds and Quezon City.  It was summer anyway, too, and a nature-related activity was far better than a trip to a mall.

Birdwatching is an activity that observes birds in their natural habitats.  So, a trip to the zoo or an aviary to look at birds and watch their habits cannot be considered as birdwatching.  It can be a mere pastime for others or a mission for some. Whichever is the case, a birdwatcher needs to have the following qualities:

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a Blue Rock Thrush as seen from a spotting scope

Patience – You have to wait for birds to appear.  Sometimes you can see them immediately, resting on a branch or swooping some insects on the ground.  Sometimes, you can only see them flying.  And sometimes you don’t even see them at all.  But when you do finally see them, it can be pretty exciting.

Carefulness and Being Respectful –  As much as possible, avoid contact.  Never shake branches just to make them fly and get a close picture of them.  Don’t mess with their nests or eggs.

Quietness – Noise can agitate or scare off the birds, and as someone who would actually want to see them as close as possible without upsetting them, being silent is the key.  This way, you’ll also get to listen to the way these birds communicate.

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Can you spot where the (sleeping) Philippine Night Jar is?

I did get to see a number of birds like the beautiful and striking Collared Kingfisher (Kasaykasay), the Pied Fantail (Maria Capra), Yellow Vented Bulbul (Kulkul), Black-naped Oriole (Kulyawan), a flock of Egrets (Tagak), Lowland White-eye (Matang-Dulong), just to mention some.  Many of them I was not able to take photos of because they were either flying in the air or hiding in trees.  I only got to see them via a pair of binoculars or through a spotting scope; the others, I was only able to hear.

Although I was primarily there to observe birds, the activity was also a good way for me to get myself familiarized with some of native trees such as the ones below:

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Kapok, a tree that produces cotton-like fibers inside pods

 

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Kapok fiber

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a native tree called Salingbobok, whose flowers are a bit similar to a Cherry Blossom’s

I never knew there were a lot of species of birds in that single area alone.  Having a healthy quantity of trees in the university definitely helped in attracting the birds to inhabit that area.  This is then another excellent reason why green spaces should be increased in our cities.  Increasing green spaces in our suffocating urban jungle would certainly provide homes for the birds and fresher air that many urban-dwellers are deprived of.

I’m glad I joined that birdwatching event because the following morning, I became more conscious of my surroundings; I tried to see whether the ones I saw at UP were also present in my neighborhood.  I also listened to the bird calls more.  Suddenly, the birds didn’t sound all alike anymore.  A statement in front of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines brochure could not be any truer:

All you need is to know what’s out there to see. 

 

For more information about birdwatching, bird festivals, and conservation programs, visit Birdwatch.ph  or its Facebook page, Birdwatch Philippines.

Even the Falling of a Leaf

We may not always understand or discover why things happen the way they do, but there really is a reason for everything… and yes, even the falling of a leaf carries one. I never realized how much grace and beauty were involved in the process until I read this.

* * *

“Professor: Have you ever wondered why some trees shed their leaves during the winter? This occurs for many reasons, but the main reason trees do this is to protect themselves.

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photo taken at Volkspark Humboldthain in Berlin (2015)

You know, most tress that lose their leaves are in cold climates. During the long, cold winters, the air in these places becomes very dry. This causes the leaves of trees also to become dry. To keep the leaves alive, the trees have to give them a lot of moisture. The problem with this is that the trees could lose too much moisture and die. So instead of giving moisture to the leaves, the trees keep the moisture inside… They keep it in their trunks and branches. After a while, the leaves start to die. As the leaves die, they fall to ground around the trees. When this happens, the leaves actually help the trees survive. How, you may ask? Well, the leaves form a protective layer around the roots of the trees. This allows the roots to stay warm. So, by losing their leaves, the trees are able to live through the winter.”

(Passage taken from a TOEFL book I read a couple of days ago.)

Get Ready for Ruby

Typhoon Ruby (international name: Hagupit) is the 18th typhoon to enter the Philippines this 2014, and it will, unfortunately, bear down on many of the areas that Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) destroyed just one year ago. Most of which still have not even recovered fully yet.

source: PAGASA

source: PAGASA

Although Typhoon Ruby is not as strong as Yolanda, it still packs some mighty winds and it is powerful enough to create storm surge that can reach up to 4 meters.  Weather experts say it will make at least six landfalls starting over Dolores, Eastern Samar on Saturday.  Hopefully, the local and national government, as well as the people are more prepared this time around. Stay strong, Visayas!

source: National Geographic Channel

Below is a list of important contact numbers in case of an emergency. Please pass.

emergency numbers

Metro Manila, get ready too!

P.S.  Thank you, PAGASA for tirelessly doing your job.

After Yolanda [part 2]: “Small” Acts of Kindness

[Read Part 1]  

I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay
– small acts of kindness and love.
~Gandalf, “The Hobbit”

It’s been a year since super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) struck the central part of the Philippines, and once again, the news is filled with stories of those who suffered from this exceptional natural disaster.

Indeed, this event produced some of the saddest tales, but amidst this seeming interminable misery, it also showed that compassion still existed.  And it was not only evident in the relief extended by international governments to the Philippines, but also in the everyday people and certain individuals who performed “small” acts of kindness and love.  Their donations and mere show of solidarity might not have been able to feed thousands of people or put a roof over a family’s head, but their humble support somehow restored people’s faith in humanity.

Here are a few of them:

1

kids from Sendai, Japan send messages of hope.

2

photo: PH Red Cross

3  Shoichi Kondoh was a six-year old Japanese boy, who, upon learning about the situation in the Philippines, donated his piggy bank savings of ¥5,000 (roughly P2, 200). As a sign of gratitude, an anonymous group of Filipinos sent Shoichi a gift – 4 jeepney toys and a t-shirt that said “I Love PH”.

Shoichi accompanied by his mother at the PH embassy in Tokyo

Shoichi accompanied by his mother, Miho, at the PH embassy in Tokyo

Shoichi being given his "thank you" gift

Shoichi, being given his “thank you” gift

4  The Empire State in New York lit up using the colors of the Philippine flag as a sign of support

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5  Various European football clubs displayed messages of hope during their UEFA Champions League matches.  This was during a match between FC Shakhtar Donetsk and Spanish club Real Sociedad in Ukraine.

“You are not alone, Philippines”

6  Seahawk’s Doug Baldwin before the beginning of a football match

Seattle Seahawks Doug Baldwin

7

photo:  deleonphoto instagram

8  Some families in the poverty-stricken area of Tondo, Manila rummaged through their closets and kitchen cupboards and looked for things that they could donate.  They themselves actually had nothing yet were still able to give out something.

9

photo: when in manila facebook page

10  The countless volunteers who spent their time packing goods, doing admin work, and even driving victims to help them find their relatives in Manila displayed great benevolence. So many volunteers got involved that one charity organization near my place had to refuse my registration to help twice because all the time slots had been fully booked until the next few weeks.  The same organization also had to stop accepting donations several times because they didn’t have any room to keep them anymore – and to think that it was already their second warehouse!

There were thousands more around the world whose modest donations, prayers, and efforts never got on the evening news.  These people remained anonymous, but their “small” act of kindness would always be treasured by those who have received it, for as Aesop once said, “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.”

[FINAL INSTALLMENT SOON]

After Yolanda: The International Community Responds to Philippines’ Call for Help

The Philippines is no stranger to natural disasters. Being an archipelagic country and a part of the Ring of Fire, the country has endured earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, lahar flows, landslides, flooding, crazy monsoon rains, and typhoons. Among these natural calamities, typhoons are the Philippines’ most frequent visitor. The country gets an average of 20-22 of them in one year. Some don’t make landfalls, while some are vicious and leave a trail of destruction and death behind – bitter souvenirs for the Filipinos to remember for a long time.

You can say that Filipinos are used to typhoons. We have suffered at their hands repeatedly. In fact, there have been a number of times when these merciless guests have made us drop to our knees and made us wonder if we’d ever be able to get back up again. But we did. Because there was no other choice but to stand up and move on.

Super Typhoon Yolanda's track

Super Typhoon Yolanda’s track

Very recently, however, one typhoon surpassed all the other typhoons that we’ve had before. Its international code name was Haiyan, the 24th typhoon to hit the country, and unfortunately, it’s not going to be the last one for the year. Known locally as Yolanda, this typhoon is said to be the greatest typhoon in the world that has ever made landfall in recorded history. It immediately entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR) at Storm Signal #4, the highest storm warning, on November 8 and completely left the PAR a couple of days after, leaving behind flattened buildings and houses, crushed telecommunication and transportation systems, and wrecked power grids. Yolanda has killed thousands and left hundreds of thousands more wounded, hungry, thirsty, and homeless. In total, it has affected millions of people. Visayas, the central part of the Philippines, which actually suffered a strong earthquake last October, has been utterly devastated.

infrared image of Yolanda's eye

infrared image of Yolanda’s eye c/o NASA

There are no words to describe how horrible this tragedy is. Everytime I listen to the news and see these reports and images of the aftermath, I am merely speechless. I CANNOT IMAGINE what the survivors are going through. I know the data, the facts, the figures, but they are overwhelming; my mind cannot comprehend the immensity of the destruction. It was “just a storm” and yet it looked like Visayas has been pounded by tsunamis. It is quite shocking. Seeing the survivors’ plight and hearing the people’s stories simply break my heart.

Many other hearts got broken, too not only here in the Philippines but also in other parts of the world. Many tragedies that have struck the Philippines have prompted other countries to offer assistance before, but I don’t think I have seen anything of this scale and magnitude. If there’s anything good to mention amidst this tremendous calamity, it would be that the help coming from the international community is equally so.

Below is the list of countries that have generously given their resources to help the victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda as of November 16, 2013.

(For the full document please view this Philippine Government Matrix. The document is updated often.)

The amount is indeed staggering! That list only documents the aid coming from governments and big international organizations; however, there are still numerous private organizations that are helping as well, whose assistance are yet to be officially recognized.  Countless ordinary citizens whose names will not even likely enter official public records anymore are pooling their donations and rendering their service to help people whom they don’t even know.

As a Filipina, I am deeply touched and grateful to know that the whole world is behind my country, that millions of people care. It’s amazing to see that many countries from different corners of the world have been mobilized for a single reason. A huge misfortune may be upon the Philippines right now, but the kindness and generosity shown by the world at least give us a glimmer of hope.

(credit goes to the owner of the image)

(credit goes to the owner of the image)

In a Facebook post by the Philippine Red Cross last week appealing for volunteers and donations, it included this line: “It takes a nation to rebuild a nation.” Clearly, the appeal primarily targeted the Filipinos. But now, looking at the amount of support other nations have given to the Philippines, it seems like sometimes, it would take a slew of nations to rebuild just one.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

The Mess in Tubbataha Reef

A group of student protesters and the police clashed in front of the United States Embassy yesterday. The protesters tried to throw paint at the Embassy, and out of the 20 or more so protesters, one of them was able to get through security and accomplish what the group had set out to do. Why did they want to do such a thing in the first place? They were expressing their opposition against US troops in the Philippines and because of this:

USS Guardian2

That is the USS Guardian – a ship that has been aground in the Sulu Sea since January 17. It has been stuck there for nine 9 days now, pounded by the crashing waves and unable to get back on course. According to the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), “inaccurate navigation data [and] may have been a factor in the Guardian grounding.”

USS Guardian1

Ships do encounter navigational errors all the time, and maritime accidents are nothing new, so what’s the big deal about this one?  For starters, the USS Guardian is no ordinary ship. It is a US warship that has already done some damage to an important marine ecological system and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Tubbataha Reef.

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The Tubbataha Reef is in the center the Coral Triangle, an area in the Pacific region, which includes the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands & Timor L’Este.  Around 70% of the world’s corals can be found here and it is an abundant source of diverse species of fish, reptiles, and other marine animals.

Experts have estimated that about 1,000 sq. meter of corals in Tubbataha Reef has been damaged due to the grounding of the USS Guardian.  Scientists say it would take about two to four decades before the damaged part can recover.  This is quite upsetting since this ecosystem is delicate and the harm done here will definitely have serious consequences and grave effects on biodiversity.

There are many questions as to why and how such a thing has happened. What was a US warship doing in a protected area without clearance in the first place? Why did the crew of the ship ignore the warnings of the Tubbataha Management Office rangers? Why was – according to the TMO park rangers – the crew in “battle position”? And how could such a ship with highly advanced technology and navigational system commit such a critical error?

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Indeed, there are a lot of things to be clarified in this disturbing issue, but before those are settled, the most important thing to be done is to lift the USS Guardian off Tubbataha first. The longer it stays there, plowing its entire body into the coral reef, the greater the chances of enlarging the scope of destruction.

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Although the US government, through the US Embassy in Manila, has expressed its apologies regarding this unfortunate situation, I am afraid that its request for forgiveness is not enough. Questions need to be answered, and the violation of laws needs to be redressed. I hope the vessel is removed soon so a thorough investigation can commence.

*all photos are courtesy of WWF-Philippines and AFP Wescom