At the mic: Dinuk Magammana
My name is Dinuk Lahiru Magammana. I was born in the beautiful, tiny island called Sri Lanka. I have loved nature for as long as I can remember. At the age of 13 I moved to the United States with my family. I am now 22 years old and I spend my free time doing things that make me happy, such as drawing, painting, photography, playing games, hiking with friends, and reflecting. I am very grateful for all I have in my life: an awesome job that gives me the privilege to educate people about nature, great friends, and a loving family; life is good.
It was a winter morning, the cloudy skies blocked out the brilliance of the sun. A chilly wind ran through the treetops like a group of mad, fast-moving invisible Capuchin monkeys. The branches of a nearby tree were shaking uncontrollably and the delicate stems could not support the weight of its leaves and blooming flowers. The blooms that were meant to be glorious fruits were blown away in the icy cold wind, never given the chance they deserve to become fruits. I was a boy of sixteen, recovering physically and mentally from a herniated disk surgery that ended my dream of pursuing volleyball and track and field. The days felt long and I was full of frustration. Even though I was in the comfort and the warmth of my home, the frigid weather outside seemed to reflect my feelings and understand me. But in the icy wind, a flicker of yellow, seemingly full of energy and life caught my eye. It was a small songbird that not only caught my eye, but also reopened them to the beauty of nature. Sharing this moment with the small song bird, I discovered a thirst for learning about the magnificence of the natural environment that lifted me out of the darkness and guided me to my passion.
The weather continued to be dark and damp but that curious bird did not seemed to be bothered by either the wind or the absence of light. The little critter was lively and I could not gaze away from its enchantment. I took the time to study it. It was slightly smaller than a bar of soap, had a small sharp bill, grey-bluish color on the back, and black stripes along the sides of its a pale-whitish belly. The most eye-catching parts of the bird were the yellow chin, yellow stripes along the sides, and a yellow spot right above the tail. This curious bird was in a world of its own, as it made quick dashes here and there, flicking its tail and fluttering its wings. The bird was searching for insects. With the great display of aerial mastery it pursed its food and with a quick beat of wings and snap of its beak, the nearby spider was gone and the lively bird went in search of another.
As my eyes were fixated on this bird, questions and curiosity ran rampant in mind. Why was this little bird out in the cold? How did it get those brilliant colors? Why haven’t I seen one before? Other than spiders what sort of food does it eat? Finally, what was the name of this bird? Curiosity took over and I wanted to find out everything. I sat down in front of my computer and I Googled “Birds of North America.” Google slammed me with results, as I read the title “900+ Birds Species of North America.” Initially, I felt frustrated; how was I to find a single bird out of 900+ birds? Silly me. (In retrospect I realized that I should have searched “backyard birds” as opposed to all of the birds of North America.) But for the first time since my surgery I felt the motivation that I used to feel when I played sports. I felt that sense of drive, passion and inspiration flowing inside me like an unstoppable river, washing away any debris that dared to stand in its path. I carried out the painstaking process of individually Googling the names of each bird, hoping to find the right match. After hours of searching, my eyes red, hands cramped, and the mouse feeling grossly sticky from the raisins I was eating, I located the little bird.
Within a short time I decided to volunteer at the Madrona Marsh Preserve and Nature Center so I could pursue my love of nature and further my understanding of the environment. I fell in love with the Preserve and its people. I continued to volunteer there every Saturday morning planting plants, pulling weeds and, engaging in restoration of the land. One morning when the sun was just peeking through the clouds, the manager of the Preserve, Tracy Drake, asked Ron Merlin (one of the other staff members) a question. I overheard their conversation and to my surprise they were describing a bird with yellow markings. I enthusiastically asked, “Is it a Yellow-rumped Warbler?” Even though at this point I only knew a handful of birds, she saw my passion and soon offered me a change in my volunteer responsibilities that would allow me to further my knowledge and gain experience in birding. I marveled at the serendipity of the two moments.
I truly fell in love with the work I was doing. Tracy was kind and met up with me in the early mornings to teach me the proper ways of birding and doing bird surveys. She soon became one of my favorite people and not long after I viewed her as my mentor. She gave me a field guide and a pair of binoculars; the gesture brought tears to my eyes because of her kindness and the faith she had in me. I wanted to make her proud and I committed myself to memorizing the whole field guide, page by page. I wanted to know every bird’s field marks, the colors, the songs, the range, and everything I could learn. As a result, in a relatively short time, I was able to do regular bird surveys of birds by myself, as well as assist with nature walks and classes Tracy was leading. Soon Tracy began to trust me to fill in for her leading tours, which gave me the opportunity to share my passion with others. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, I had volunteered over 870 hours at the Preserve. Every minute I spent at the Preserve brought me opportunities to further my passion.
I viewed the Preserve as a massive mother tree that had many seedlings sprouting beneath its canopy. In time those first generation seedlings grew up to be big trees and now they were dropping their seeds for the next generation. I knew I was the next generation so I dedicated my time to learning about the nature, specifically learning about birds. Within two years I was able to identify countless birds with a single glance or with a single chirp. I was humbled to learn that others noticed my thirst for knowledge and birding knowledge. I was offered the great internship opportunity to attend one of the most prestigious Ivy League universities in the world, Cornell University. I learned one of Tracy’s older students contacted her about internship opportunity and Tracy recommended me for the position. A professor from the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University contacted me shared his interest in me taking advantage of the internship opportunity. He also talked to me about the possibility of continuing my education at the prestigious university. Due to personal circumstances I was unable to accept the humbling offer. Still, I was very grateful for the wonderful people who believed in me. Opportunities did not end there, though. As I shared my passion with great enthusiasm, several local environmental agencies requested that I lead their nature walks on a regular basis.
When an opening for a staff position came up at Madrona Marsh, I applied. As the three-person interview panel asked me questions, I answered them to the best of my knowledge. I was nervous as this was my first job interview, but I only wanted to show my love of this field. At the end of the interview one of the panel members asked me, “Is there anything else you would like to add?” I replied “Out of everyone who walked through those doors today (I turned and pointed back toward the door) all of them have more experience than I do. But I can guarantee that I will have the most love, passion, and dedication for this job and for the Preserve. I have put in more than 870 hours of volunteering because I truly love this field.” Later that day, on that golden afternoon, just as the sun was setting, I was at home with my cousins sitting on the lawn. I could hear the distant melodic song of a House Wren through the chatter of my family. The sweet scent of gardenia flowers drifted ever so lightly through the air and the warmth of the sun that soaked into the earth also soaked into me and it felt comfortable. I received a call. It was Tracy, calling me to offer me the position. A sense of great joy came over me and it was overwhelming. I had obtained my first ever job, working for the City of Torrance, giving me the opportunity to share the beauty of nature with people. That day I recalled my initial interaction with that little Yellow-rumped Warbler and all the incredible opportunities the little bird brought me.
I continue to be grateful for the opportunities that songbird created. As I keep volunteering for local environmental organizations leading monthly walks, my teaching skills have continued to improve. As a result Tracy, gave me the opportunity to teach my own Birding 101 class to youth. It was a great success. I was able to share the beauty of nature with next generation of youth who were as enthusiastic as I. The sense of accomplishment I felt was incredible. I shared not only my passion but also fostered that passion in future generation. The experience was very rewarding.
Much time has passed since my initial encounter with a Yellow-rumped Warbler on that rainy dark day. I am still impressed that the little bird paid no attention to the harshness of the moment as it energetically dashed here and there, full of life and flashing yellow. The enchantment of that bird woke me from my hour of darkness. I realized that my future is not limited, that my dreams are not restricted, and my passion, like an unstoppable river, will carry me through the “debris” of life to a destination of my choice. I found where my heart feels at home. In the moment I shared with the bird I found my passion, and opportunities rained upon me for my future.
Oh, the time has passed. Recently I walked outside in the glory of the sun and looked again at the tree that so long ago lost its blooms in the raging wind. But today the stems are stronger than before and a different Yellow-rumped Warbler now serenades the land. I see the blossoms on the tree and in my mind’s eye see the glorious fruits of the future flourishing in the light.