Danny O’Keefe is founder and director of the Songbird Foundation, which works to raise awareness about conservation of migratory-songbird habitat, particularly in coffee-growing regions and urban areas.

Monday, 15 Dec 2003

SEATTLE, Wash.

As usual, the day starts with that first cup of sustainably grown coffee, in this case a home-roasted espresso comprised of a blend of organic, shade-grown, and Fair Trade coffees from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Indonesia. They were roasted in hot-air popcorn poppers in the back room of the house. It’s great coffee and as fresh as you can get it: Lots of crema on the espresso and a soft chocolate taste with very little back-of-the-mouth bitterness. Yum.

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Then to the aid and bane of modern living: the computer and email. Much is happening in the world of sustainably grown coffee. We’re getting into this year’s coffee harvest, which is increasingly problematic with world coffee prices at all-time lows. Because of the glut of coffee on the world market, prices are not likely to improve in the near future. The toll this is taking on coffee farmers can’t be overstated. The coffee farms of southern Mexico and Central and South America are where the migratory songbirds that breed in the U.S. go in the winter. Here’s a website where you can see many of the birds that winter in coffee country as well as some of the native birds.

I’ll fly away: a painted bunting.

Photo: Songbird Foundation.

Destruction of tropical forest has been rampant over the last 20 years, and with low coffee prices it is increasing again as timber becomes another source of income for people pushed to the edge. There is little recourse in coffee production when the price paid for the commodity falls well below the costs of production. You can find out more about the various aspects of this issue at the Songbird Foundation’s website.

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We have a new project in development with other local organizations: the Urban Habitat Coalition. We will focus most of our attention over the next year on the coordination of this project, although the coffee crisis will still be a very important issue. Increasingly, urban/suburban landscapes are being recognized as key habitat for native and migratory birds. There are many organizations working on sustainable gardening programs and quite a few of those programs take into consideration the role that wildlife plays. Getting people to think in terms of sustainable strategies in their gardens, in their cups of coffee, and in other localized consumption patterns has a transferable potential to many different contexts.

Gardeners recognize that the soil speaks back to us when we put our hands in it. Put your hands in viable, organic soil that is rich in nutrients and then feel some over-chemicalized dirt that’s been overworked and you’ll instantly understand the importance of nurturing the Earth. As more and more people turn to gardening for solace and spiritual sustenance, it becomes a highly fertile sector to work with. The baby boomers are turning to birding and gardening in increasing numbers. And they vote.

We started with coffee because it is a ubiquitous commodity in the culture, locally, nationally, and globally. It’s the second most traded commodity, after oil, and plays a huge role in personal and national economics in the tropical countries where it is grown. Getting people to think about the quality and the conditions under which their coffee was grown can get them into a mindset of questioning the production of other purchases. Price will always play a key role, but we have real power of purchase and business listens very attentively to what we choose to buy.

I live on an island in Puget Sound and take the ferry to the Songbird Foundation office in Seattle three or four days a week. When I get into the office today, a call is waiting about carbon sequestration in the coffee “forests.” Many rustic coffee farms parallel natural tropical forests in their ability to support diverse life forms and help hold carbon in the soils. There has been an increasing move to trade carbon credits on stock markets as a way of mitigating carbon dioxide levels and increasing the value of forests.

The day moves through the logistics of projects and how to keep momentum in their development to end-of-the-year fundraising. Never a truly enjoyable task, fundraising is absolutely essential. An appeal by board members is prepared with “bonus” Songbird logo items for the generous. An electronic newsletter is discussed and started, which will be sent by the end of the week. We have received commitment from a very generous person to help with the hiring of a key staff person for next year.

We are also in the beginning stages of a new round of grant writing to fund the Urban Habitat Coalition campaign. We’re working first on getting funding to develop a portal website with sustainable gardening information and habitat strategies for urban and suburban gardeners. While this project will focus on the greater Seattle area for the time being, we hope the models we are developing will have greater application as other cities and regions begin to apply them.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, 16 Dec 2003

VASHON ISLAND, Wash.

The day begins early with that essential cup of coffee. This time it’s a drip cup of Costa Rican Santa Elena Tarrazu “miel.” This coffee reflects a relatively new style in coffee production wherein some of the fruit is left on the beans to dry. The sugars of the fruit are pulled into the beans in the drying process to create a sweeter cup with more complexity; it also lends itself to espresso use. The Costa Rican coffees are traditionally mild, acidy coffees without the complexity of other coffees — this new advent is an attempt to heighten sales potential for the Costa Rican growers. Because so much specialty coffee is used in espresso drinks, and because specialty coffee roasters and retailers are willing to pay more for the quality they need, coffee farmers are doing all they can to create the kinds of quality that will help them survive.

I’m on the island today, looking out of the “Bird House” windows at the harbor and Mt. Rainier trying to lift her skirts. It is still dark, but the birds are busy at the feeders and quietly conversing. The brown creeper who occasionally walks up the tree outside my window hasn’t shown up. It always seems like a good sign when he does. He walks up the tree; the red-breasted nuthatch walks down. That’s something my inspiration and mentor Hazel Wolf told me. I think of her often when I feel my tenacity lag. Ah, a bald eagle just landed in the big firs across the way; the crows will soon follow to harass.

I have a conference call today with a company seeking to develop carbon sequestration models in shade coffee farms. It’s an interesting and complex idea. If value were created for farmers who keep and foster the trees on their farms, it would be much easier to promote the idea of shade-grown coffee. As frustrating as it is, it all comes down to the relative absolute, money. These farmers have been pushed to the edge by global trade circumstances beyond their power even to understand.

The harsh truth is that a lot of the international banking and economic development groups have pushed coffee as an agricultural resource when they knew the economic logic didn’t support it. Some 105 billion pounds of coffee are consumed worldwide and 115 billion are produced. Despite that fact, more countries are being encouraged to go into coffee production. Because coffee isn’t grown in the U.S. (Hawaii being the small exception), we don’t have any agriculture subsidies that would make other countries uncompetitive. Coffee-producing countries rely on coffee as a cash crop because they can’t get much else across our borders — bananas, of course, and nuts, and oil and minerals if they can keep the multinationals from taking advantage of them.

And then, of course, there are drugs. The only tariffs levied on the drugs are when the “mules” get caught. Many coffee farmers have had to turn to drug cropping in order to survive. None enjoy doing it, because it wreaks havoc on their communities, as it does on ours.

The deeper you get involved in these issues, the more frustrating it becomes. We push for organic certification for farmers who can’t afford it and then can’t sell their crops for the elevated prices the organic certification was intended to bring. Same for Fair Trade — so much more coffee is certified Fair Trade than can be sold as such. It is terribly frustrating for people who are trying to hold their lives and their lands together. Migration from Latin America over the last several years has largely been from the agriculture sector, of which coffee is a significant part. When the World Bank and others promoted large-scale coffee agriculture in Vietnam, which then became the second-largest producer of coffee in the world after Brazil, they must have known the kind of sad havoc they were creating. The big commercial coffee companies have always claimed that the answer was to have more people drink more coffee. That has a hollow ring. Even companies like Procter and Gamble and Kraft are recognizing the severity of the problem. Whether they will do much to change it remains to be seen.

I’ve answered my email, had a great cup of coffee, and now it’s time to cross the water to Seattle. The price one pays for the admitted luxury of living on this somewhat rural island is the three-hour commute. Sometimes there are orcas out in Puget Sound, which light everything up inside. The salmon and the orcas are the heart of this place. As they diminish, so do we.

Today will be a day of fundraising, grant writing, and thank you’s to the people who have helped us make it through another year. We are planning a trip into Coffee Country in January to get video footage of coffee production and interviews with farmers to develop a more in-depth issue outreach via a DVD. We have appealed to popular music artists over the years and will do so again this year. They can create awareness quickly, and the ripple effect can reach into communities more effectively than grassroots efforts alone. All techniques must be tried. The clock is ticking.

Wednesday, 17 Dec 2003

VASHON ISLAND, Wash.

A beautiful day! The mountain (Tahoma/Rainier) is out in all her glory, the wind is down, and the water is calm. I wish I could grab the kayak and head for the west side of the island to visit the Dall’s porpoise or the pod of orcas rumored to be hanging around. But nooo, duty calls.

Roasted some wonderful coffees last night. I had just gotten some Kona coffee from my friends Cea and Bob Smith in Hawaii. They aren’t certified as organic or shade grown but in fact they are both; they care passionately about their lives and the lives that depend on their land. Cea often grumbles about not being able to have their farm certified as Fair Trade, as they certainly pay their employees fair wages and utilize sustainable methods of growing. One of the key reasons Fair Trade was started was to level the playing field for the small farmers who make up the majority of coffee growers but who often have the game weighted against them because they are poor and disorganized. Being able to get Fair Trade prices for their coffee is only one of the benefits. The community fostered in the process strengthens them and allows them to help each other.

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a director of a company that trades carbon credits — a process that may become more difficult because the U.S. has abandoned the Kyoto Protocol. I’m sure there are some who see carbon trading as avoiding an essential responsibility, but it can encourage the maintenance and restoration of forests. This could be particularly important to coffee farmers, especially the ones who got conned into believing that if they modernized and put in sun hybrid plants, the greater yields would give them a significant advantage. It never happened, and as the volume of coffee in the world market grew, they were left with chemical-dependent soil and plants and no way to return to the sustainable shade-grown farms they once had. Carbon credits might stimulate replanting of these farms and pay these farmers for the conversion. It also might be a way to monitor the canopy cover conditions and thus create shade coffee certification at no charge to the farmers. Somnio, ergo sum.

Today we also tackle the year-end newsletter, which of course has the necessary donation pitch. Because we are a public charity, a 501(c)3, we are dependent on the kindness of strangers. If you’d like to receive our newsletter you can sign up here. We promise not to bug you with too-frequent dunning.

Our associate Jason Werle has been honing his videography technique in anticipation of his trip to Coffee Country in January. We’ll post pix and Quicktime movies on our website when he returns (if you’re on our mailing list, we’ll let you know via our newsletter — hint, hint). We’ll be working out the itinerary today and tomorrow and figuring out what kinds of shots and interviews we’ll need. All of this will eventually be combined into a DVD, as I mentioned in yesterday’s entry.

If you’re interested in visiting Coffee Country yourself, please contact our friend Kimberly Easson’s company Java Ventures. They will show you beautiful country and the wonderful people who grow our coffee. Kimberly is also a key person at TransFair USA, the Fair Trade certifying organization.

Gotta go. Time and the Washington State ferry wait for no one. Hasta manana.

Thursday, 18 Dec 2003

VASHON ISLAND, Wash.

The end of the year draws near and the pace heightens perceptibly. We try not to rush, but there are beggings and offerings to be gotten out the door; travel arrangements to be made for trips in January to coffee-producing regions in Latin America; cards of thanks to all the good people who helped make the successes of this year possible.

It has been a most interesting year for the Songbird Foundation. We started the year with hope and a certain trepidation. We end it the same way. Hope is the currency of our trade.

Yesterday, out the window of our office in Seattle’s Old Ballard neighborhood, there was a sharp-shinned hawk across the street in a tree limb with a tasty prize. Here we have it: Adaptation to less-than-optimal circumstances. Work with whacha got. And that’s what we do, too.

The holiday/end-of-the-year season is fundraising time. We have grant deadlines to meet before we write our personal cards, buy our presents, and contemplate parties and dinners with family and friends. We prevail upon board members to request of clients and associates that they make that tax-deductible contribution. (“If you haven’t got a dollar, a quarter will do. If you haven’t got a quarter, then God bless you.”) Then, as the last envelope is sealed and we can do no more, we sigh and smile. The sense of satisfaction runs deeper than surface anxieties.

Thanks to people like Paul Hawken we are beginning to understand that our wealth is derived from our natural resources and that sustainable strategies are the only way we shall endure. We can imagine we’ll keep pushing farther into the solar system or the universe beyond, like the acquisitive pioneers we are, and the abundance will continue. It comes back to hope, but in this case the perversion of hope, which is delusion. The Earth is what we have and what we are. As my friend Marlin says, “Honor the Earth, all else is speculation.”

The bright notes are small things like the sharing of an epiphany from someone in the United Students for Fair Trade organization who realized that “quality” is the only way the coffee farmers can capture the markets they need. Charity is not enough, at least not enough for equity. Another email from a coffee roaster and retailer announced that his business was converting more coffee lines to sustainable coffees and asked if we would add him to our Coffee Resources map (if you want to know where to find sustainably grown coffee in your part of the country just click on your state).

These are small things but they’re additive. The cup of coffee we have in the morning is a small thing. (By the way, today I’m drinking a cup of “Cubanito,” a coffee from Cuba. We can trade with China and Russia, deal with all the other “evil-doers,” but we can’t bring ourselves to open our doors to Cuba. Petty.) Asking who made what we bought this season, what it really cost, and who really benefited is a good practice for sustainable thinking. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but form certainly is. The only constant is change. Which reminds me, I’ve got to get on the boat and into the office to ask for some of that change from prospective funders.

It’s a beautiful morning again here in the Bird House (my name for the office I work in on the island). The mountain, Tahoma/Rainier, is blinded by the sun and the harbor water is calm. I long for the solace of the kayak, but I have miles to go before I glide. It’s another wait in the ferry line. Another day of figuring out the numbers and the language of inducement. Another day of accepting the stone as did Sisyphus, knowing it will be waiting at the bottom of the incline again tomorrow. Peace.

Friday, 19 Dec 2003

VASHON ISLAND, Wash.

This morning at dawn the sky was afire and glowing all around the mountain. It’s still beautifully visible but surrounded by various types of clouds and what looks to be a storm on the northern face. The mountain is like a beacon, a being that stands to remind us of the water it catches and holds for us. There’s a squirrel upside down on the tree outside my window staring at me at the moment, about eight feet away. There were low-flying Canada geese when I first came up to the Bird House this morning. We’re surrounded by life.

I opened my email to find out that Gary Stewart, the country singer, had taken his life at 59. Gary had recorded a song I wrote called “Quits” and liked it enough to put it on his “Best Of” collection. I never got to know him but I considered him kindred. A song is a curious and special thing, made more special when someone you respect records one you’ve written. I think I was pulled to the birds because we are kindred in our singing. A dawn chorus in spring has that hope that the Earth can be renewed, and we with her.

This may strike you as strange, but I regard God as change. Observing that which continues to move, regardless, gives insights into nature itself, as well as what we consider our part of it. Not that it can be understood, if understanding means grasping, but that it can be inclusively appreciated. No matter how concrete we try to make our lives and our world, no matter how still we sit in contemplation, the appreciation of change, the love of it even, is where we find our constancy. My hope and prayer for Gary Stewart is that he has changed, shedding that cocoon that pained him to flutter off into the ineffable that is constant and fundament.

Today is a major coffee-roasting day. I give coffee to friends to remind them of the nature of how coffee comes to be what it is and how important it is in our lives and the lives of all it touches. Beautiful chocolaty Guatemalans, spicy, citrus-noted Yrgacheffes from Africa, coffees from East Timor, coffees from New Guinea, coffees from all over the world grown only in the band of the tropics.

Coffee roasting at home is fairly simple. I get green beans from a couple of different sources online and I roast them in hot-air popcorn poppers. When coffee roasts it has its own musical rhythm. The beans make “cracks” or “pops” when they roast. The first crack is finger-snapping loud. After a brief lull during which the internal heat of the beans grows, a second kind of Rice Crispie crack commences. Depending on how you like your coffee, you stop the process there or let it go a little longer. For a nice drip cup of coffee, the beans shouldn’t be too dark and oily as you lose the complexity of the taste. For espresso you may want a little darker roast but not so burnt that all the beans are covered with oil. When you see oily beans in the bins in the store, you can bet that they are over-roasted and probably stale. The world of coffee constantly unfolds.

I came to all of this — the Songbird Foundation, the birds, the coffee — because of a dream I had six years ago or so. It was January and I’d read a story earlier in the day about how coffee agriculture in Latin America was taking a toll on migratory songbird wintering grounds. They were converting forest-like farms to sun-grown row-cropped models of American agriculture, and the birds were declining proportionately. I think what caught me was that we were destroying these beautiful species because of our dependence on a simple stimulant that had become ubiquitous in our culture. That night I had a lucid dream hearing the birds all singing in a dawn chorus. As I awoke, I realized it was only about 3:00 and no birds were singing. I took it as an omen, of course, and began following the thread that has lead me here. It’s been, and continues to be, an enormous educational process.

The first person I called to ask for advice on how I should step onto this path was a wonderful woman by the name of Hazel Wolf. I don’t have enough time or space to tell you about her, so I invite you to visit her online and let her speak for herself. When she turned 100, all her friends held a party for her and I wrote her a song. I think the lyrics speak to why I started the Songbird Foundation and continue to devote my life to making sure there are always songbirds there at dawn to remind us that each day holds another promise.

A Rare Bird

A bird came to my backyard, I thought some kind of wren
A bird I’d never seen before and I’ve never seen again

Before I knew which one it was I heard a plaintive song
A sound for which I listened and now for which I long

I watched it at the feeder as it took a little seed
It filled me with a child’s delight, a fair trade, yes indeed

It sang, “Once we were many, now our song is seldom heard
So pause a while and listen — I’m A Rare Bird”

There were passenger pigeons; I’ve seen paintings of the auk
Some are passing as we speak, not much comes of talk

There are zoos and the nature shows as the numbers dwindle down
There are pictures for our albums when the lost cannot be found

Greed steals even from the heart and blinds the eye to care
As our own worth diminishes by what we have made rare

I think of this like yesterday though really it’s been years
A memory’s like a sunset that eventually disappears

My heart’s become my anvil where I fashion tunes and words
But I have no song that will compare to that Rare Bird’s

Oh, once there were many whose songs are seldom heard
Let’s pause a while and listen, pause a while … and listen
For that Rare Bird

(c) 1998 Bicameral Songs

Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas. Don’t forget the birds and the people who grow our coffee. They depend on us.