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I return to the place where I was born

I wonder which place migratory birds consider home. I wonder if they don’t even think of the two places as separate.

Dipping my feet in the water of Warm creek in Hot Springs, South Dakota. And walking with my dad in San José, Costa Rica.

I recently came across this "vocation meditation" in my journals. I did it in a seminar for my Lutheran Deaconess formation process before moving to Costa Rica, back in 2008:

I return to the place where I was born.

I am born.

I gather information from the world.

I put it in a basket over my head.

I carve myself a place in the world,

And push myself to the limit of my existence.

Return to the center.

I send my message out into the world,

Letting go of the results.

I return to the place where I was born.


The afternoon was lazy, the best kind at the cabin in western South Dakota. The wind whispered through the tall, thick forest of ponderosa pines, in the days before the pine beetle took around 60% of the forest. When that happened, as when a fire passes through, it’s tempting to feel sad. These trees have been standing here for my entire life, after all, and they are home to animals, they sequester carbon, create shade, and drop cones and needles that we kids would turn into playthings. But when I learned more about the volcanic batholith that is the Black Hills, it sunk in that these trees are like toothpicks stuck into a granite rock, here today, gone tomorrow, a blink in the millenia-long history of this place.

I was on the deck, tea in one hand, book in the other. Most of the adults were taking a walk down to the quartz mine, long abandoned but now good for impromptu exploring. My mom was sitting behind me, drinking her own coffee. A flitting caught the corner of my eye, and I looked up, to the small broken off branch on the ponderosa, a few meters higher than my head. There sat a bird, about the size of a robin, with a black back, white belly, and red upside down triangle on its chest. It had a thick and triangularly shaped beak. “Look, mom!” I whispered. She is the bird expert in my family.

“A rose-breasted grosbeak!” She exclaimed, excitedly.

The first I had ever seen.

The bird was perched on the tree that is at the center of this photo of the family. It was there on a different day than this photo was taken.


The rose breasted grosbeak.

The students were gone for the month, off at their internships and field research sites. Those sunny April days in Costa Rica were a welcome respite after two intense months of working and traveling with 20 college students. This was particularly true in the spring semester because it was the dry season and the sun lasted all the way until sunset through the mountain pass to the west of the city.

The migratory birds were on their way north. My colleagues were in the heat of their competition over who would see the first one in our office yard. I didn’t really understand at the time, but the avid birders who live in or visit Costa Rica know that, depending on the time of year, one can see birds that reside year-round in Costa Rica, birds that come to Costa Rica during the Northern winter, and birds that pass through Costa Rica on their way north from Panama or Colombia, or Argentina or Chile.

On one of those calm afternoons in April, Machi suddenly ran up the stairs outside my office windows, shouting for everyone to follow her to the director’s office. I couldn’t tell if there was something wrong, or something very exciting to see. Those of us working on the second floor dashed in to find Machi looking out the window at the roble de sabana tree, her finger to her lips. On it was perched a rose-breasted grosbeak, maybe a winter resident, maybe resting from his journey north from Colombia.

The second I had ever seen.

Part of the backyard at ICADS, in Curridabat, Costa Rica.


One of the books I have been reading about migratory birds says that the migratory songbirds likely originated in the tropics. Millenia ago, when their population grew and competition over resources became too fierce, some of them flew north (or south, depending on the species). If they timed it right, there they would find a spring explosion of insect populations with which they could feed their young. Some of these species can thus successfully fledge double the number of chicks as their tropical cousins (those some of these may die in the arduous migration journey, so it likely evens out).

It struck me then, how birds fly north, say to South Dakota from Costa Rica, to have their babies in the place where they were born. But then in the fall the entire flock of birds heads back south to the place where the species was born.

I wonder which place migratory birds consider home. I wonder if they don’t even think of the two places as separate, just as I don’t consider my living room and my bedroom two different homes.

Maybe one part of me was born in South Dakota, and another part of me was born in Latin America.

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