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Happy Black Friday,

Allow me to introduce you to my friend Sylvie, who is spending this fall with her parents and two sisters in Kathmandu, where she celebrated her 11th birthday last week.

Here's how she got there:

We're taking our family back to South Asia for a Fall Semester Sabbatical! Ever since our 2007 Fulbright semester in India, we've been saving up and planning for our return. We will enroll our own daughters, and teach at Manasarovar Academy, a charity school in Kathmandu serving children of Tibetan refugee families. Paul was granted unpaid leave from his teaching job, and Karen departed one month early from her summer park ranger position.

Their blog is worth checking out in its entirety, for inspiration on how a family of very modest means can offer their kids amazing experiences and opportunities.

I'd like to share the story of how sometimes the greatest gift can be to free a bird.

Paul, Sylvie's Dad, explains that they always try to do something extra special for her, as her birthday has found the family overseas several times, spending more of Sylvie' birthdays away from home than not. ("Lucky!" says her dad, or unlucky, as she sometimes complains.)

"She's rarely wanted a lot of 'things,' preferring adventures or experiences over more 'stuff' to clutter up her room," says Paul.

This year was no different: It started with a round of cards and muffins with friends a couple of weeks ago, followed by candles, breakfast goodies, and a visit to Kathmandu's one climbing wall on her "real" birthday. A fine meal at Fire & Ice, her favorite pizza place in Nepal, rounded out the evening.

But there was something else Sylvie was itching for, a gift involving the "bird sellers" that often wander their neighborhood with 10 or 15 small cages, filled to the gills with parakeets. As Paul explains, these birds are for sale as caged pets, but also are marketed as a way to boost your "karma points" by buying their freedom & releasing them. "It's a twisted industry: The bird dealers will sell their prisoners, then head back down to the Terai (flatlands) to trap more birds. Bring 'em to Kathmandu, sell them to Buddhists to release, go back to the forest and trap some more..."

But Sylvie had one big wish for the year...


What's so cool about this non-material wish is that it doesn't have a Disneyesque fairy tale good vs evil sort of narrative but comes loaded with the full complexities and paradoxes of life and the relationship between human and non-human species on planet Earth. If we're really serious about turning the corner towards creating a more sustainable world, the following is the kind of dialog with our younger cohabitants we need to have:  

We had endless discussions about releasing non-native birds in the wrong habitat, and the concerns that these caged birds might not survive in the wild. We considered if buying these birds would only encourage more trapping of wild birds. We thought about the morality of spending a large chunk of money to free a bird, when there are starving and disfigured human beggars right down the street...

Talk about a gift that keeps on giving! Don't get me wrong, I certainly think that any "thing" type of gift carries with it the same potential for greater learning and understanding, the thing behind the thing. There's certainly a big convoluted story behind every toy and gadget, and imagine our world if we had more conversations about the life journey and side effects of the things we buy. But somehow there's something big and true and sublime and simple about just wanting to let birds fly.

As Paul writes...

But in the end, I had to put away my logical thinking, and listen to and learn from my daughter. She said, "so what if they don't live such a long time, or if they might get trapped again. If they die in just a day or two, at least they'll die free, living in a tree somewhere. Any amount of life flying free has to be better than suffering in those tiny cages!"

And so Sylvie's wish was granted. Her parents flagged down a "bird man," and, after carefully inspecting and speaking with all the birds in the many cages, she decided to release a pair of parakeets.

sylvie3bird release cropped

Sylvie's gift may not be of huge significance in the annals of politics, war and peace, or climate change, and it may or may not have improved the lot of these birds, the vendor, or the Nepalese ecosystem. But to see an 11-year old derive such joy from such a small and simple act gives me hope, because it evokes something bigger than the sum of all tangible results: our human capacity to find meaning in the spaces between, to discover largeness in small things, and to have empathy for all living creatures on this beautiful neck of the galaxy we find ourselves in.

"Watching those emerald green birds flying free was a wonderful joyful moment for all of our girls," says Paul. And Sylvie summed it up quite nicely:

"Thanks Mom & Dad!!! That was the Best BEST Birthday Present EVER!!!"


Help rural communities achieve sustainable livelihoods by getting involved with Heifer International.

crossposted at A World of Words, ruminations from the spaces between soil and soul.

Originally posted to Ecomusings by Sven Eberlein on Fri Nov 26, 2010 at 11:21 AM PST.

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