Tag Archive 'wild nature'

Mar 26 2009

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Those Pesky Grackles

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Robins are what come to mind when most people think of birds returning in early spring, and sure enough they do, but assorted brown and black birds soon follow.  Sometimes these darker birds beat the robins to the punch.  It’s hard to say who actually reaches the North Country first.  All I know is that while looking around for a delightful, red-breasted songbird, I often spot a great flock of red-winged blackbirds gathered high in a naked tree, or a smaller gang of grackles on the ground.  When the dark birds arrive, they’re hard to miss.

I don’t know what the proper name is for a flock of grackles, but the word “gang” seems appropriate.  They act like gangsters when they arrive at the feeder, pushing aside the finches, sparrows and other small birds to make the food source their own.  Like gangsters, they ally themselves with similar birds, namely cowbirds and starlings.  They aren’t above raiding other birds’ nests for eggs, and will even take out a songbird on occasion.  They are, in fact, very opportunistic creatures, feeding on worms, insects, small reptiles, fruit, seeds – pretty much anything they can find.  Not what we generally associate with springtime.  Nothing like thrushes, vireos or sweet-singing warblers.  Yeah, these are the tough guys of the winged world.

Recently my wife, Judy, has been perturbed by the grackles voraciously eating the suet that she hung up for the cardinals, woodpeckers and other birds that have wintered over.  Every morning she looks out the kitchen window and sees a grackle picking away at the suet all by itself.  She insists that it’s the same fat grackle, day after day, but later in the morning I usually see a half dozen of them out there munching away.  I think they’re taking turns.  Either way, they’re eating us out of house and home.

Menacing or no, Judy and I agree that grackles are quite beautiful in their own right.  The iridescent blue sheen of their heads is quite remarkable, even by avian standards, and if you look closely you’ll even see a little purple or green there.  If they weren’t so common, birders and other aesthetes would probably hold them in high regard.  Maybe they secretly do.

For years I have been arguing that wild nature is both harsh and beautiful, and that the true wonder of the world is bound up in the tension between the two.  Yesterday I finished writing a set of philosophical essays emphasizing this point.  In general, I’ve encountered considerable resistance to this worldview – most people preferring to think that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, or that nature is fundamentally benign.  Meanwhile, the spring season slowly advances and those pesky grackles keep munching away.  Judy is making sure to get plenty of pictures of them.

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Mar 10 2009

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Malthusian Economics

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When ecologists speak of the limits of growth, conservative businessmen everywhere cringe.  It’s as if the tree-huggers were uttering blasphemy – as if the very tenets of capitalism were being dragged through the streets then nailed to a cross.  Ecology is just a cover for socialism, these conservatives say, and it will ultimately undermine all economic progress.  This attitude amazes me.  What amazes me even more is that so many ecologists also believe that capitalism and ecology are mutually exclusive belief systems.  Doesn’t anyone read Thomas Malthus anymore?

In 1798, the political economist Thomas Malthus published The First Essay on Population in which he stated quite clearly that population, when unchecked, increases geometrically, while the food subsistence increases only arithmetically.  This line of reasoning is ironclad, and it doesn’t take a math whiz to see where it leads.  Planet Earth is a finite quantity.  Eventually, given enough people gobbling away at it, we’ll use up all the resources here.  It’s only a matter of when.  The key phrase is “when unchecked.”  But that, of course, implies limits to population growth, either man-made or natural.

Malthusian economics isn’t so much a doomsday scenario as it is a way of quantifying human misery.  The prospect of starvation cuts right to the heart of the matter, but human misery can manifest itself in many other ways.  War, disease, famine, wholesale death – when the Four Horsemen ride, there is plenty of human misery to go around.  The real question is: why should the rich care?

Some rich people believe that their property rights are sacrosanct, yet there is nothing written in nature that prevents one life form from seizing the resources held by another. How easily we forget this as we go about our affairs in the complex web of relations that we call civilization.  The struggle for existence dominates all of nature.  In the wild, any anything goes.  It is only when we, as humans, think, plan ahead and make rules that the game changes.  So what will it be then?  What rules best promote the well being of all parties involved?  I think this is the point that Malthus was trying to make.

Green economics are coming hard and fast.  Why?  Because it’s in the best of interest of the vast majority of people on this planet to slow population growth, optimize natural resources, convert to renewable energy, preserve what’s left of wild nature, and create a world where our kind can be happy and healthy for hundreds of years to come, maybe even thousands.  The alternative to this, as Malthus was trying to show us, is wholesale misery and death.

We’re the ones in the driver’s seat.  We’re the ones with the big brains, thinking ahead, making plans, dreaming up new rules and living accordingly.  So what will it be then?  Green economics or Malthusian?  Civilization is a human construct.  The choice is ours.

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Oct 31 2008

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October Snowstorm

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Snow lingers on the ground despite the weather forecaster’s promise of a return to autumn.  I look at the calendar on the wall.  It’s not even November yet.  This is an unusual turn of climatological events even by Vermont standards.  A dusting of the white stuff before Halloween, sure, but lingering snow this time of year?  C’mon now.

The night before last, I drove home through the darkness just after the cold rain switched to wet snow.  It was a white-knuckle drive that made me think about things to come.  But I went to bed confident that the snow would be gone by noon the next day.  And now, into the second day, I’m trying to make sense of it.  I’m trying to make sense of Mother Nature’s capricious ways.  It isn’t easy.

The law of averages provides some consolation.  Given enough time, snow will fall in September one year, and flowers will bloom in December another year.  It all evens out, right?  Of course it does, unless Mother Nature is up to something we don’t know about.  Yeah, trust the law of averages.  It’ll pass.

On October 4, 1987, I was taken by surprise.  I hiked into the mountains that day with enough gear to spend the night and every intention to do so.  There was something in the forecast about possible rain and a big drop in temperature but I shrugged it off.  Way too early in the season for anything serious.  I was trout fishing in my shirtsleeves at noon, wearing my rain jacket by mid-afternoon, and dealing with freezing rain at dusk.  I set up my tarp against a fallen tree then started a fire to stay warm.  That sorta worked.  When the freezing rain switched to sleet, I put on the dry clothes I’d brought with me and slipped beneath the tarp.  I duct-taped my ground cloth to an emergency blanket, creating a waterproof pouch around my sleeping bag.  Then I climbed into it.  I was nice and warm even as the thermometer I’d brought with me dipped below thirty.  The sleet turned to snow.

Just before daybreak, I awoke to snow – several inches of it covering my camp – and it was still coming down.  I used a stick to beat the ice loose from my rain jacket, then I put it on. The trees swayed precariously in a strong wind blowing from the west.  I broke camp in a hurry, foregoing breakfast.  Then I bushwhacked out of the mountains, three miles downhill, following a stream.  A mature birch cracked loudly in a gust of wind and I jumped out of the way just as it fell where I had been standing.  I kept an eye on the trees all around me as I slogged through the slippery wet snow, falling down repeatedly.  It was a long hike out.

I’ve never been so happy to leave the woods as I was that day, but my tribulation wasn’t over when I reached the road.  It was another two-mile march along the highway, face to the fierce wind, before I reached the nearest town.  There I called Judy and drank hot coffee while waiting for her in the delicious warmth of a convenience store.  I still had icicles in my beard when she picked me up.

Whatever happens today, I’ll be sure to stay warm.  I probably won’t go outdoors for anything more than a little errand running.  It’s way too early in the season for a winter hike.  But I’ll be thinking of that time when Mother Nature really zinged me.  By comparison, the inch or two of snow covering the ground right now is no big deal at all.

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Aug 24 2008

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A Quick Jaunt up Aldis Hill

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I slipped into the forest shade at midday, getting away from abstract literary matters for a while. The smell of earth, lush vegetation, dried leaf matter and rotting wood worked its magic on me. It was the smell of wild happiness, reminding me of more remote places I would soon visit. The trees welcomed me with open arms.

To make the short hike last, I cut my pace. A spider’s web glistened in a shaft of light. Leaves rustled ever so quietly in a gentle breeze. A katydid sang its late summer song. The boulders and downed trees scattered about the forest floor seemed timeless and unchanged. I’d seen them all many times before.

The green infinity extending from me in every direction was an illusion to be sure. Aldis Hill is, after all, less than a square mile of forest located on the edge of town. A mere pocket of wildness.

Much to my dog’s disappointment, no squirrels stirred about the forest floor. No bird sang in the heat of the day either. I followed the well-beaten path underfoot all the way to the top of the hill, past the lookout, past secondary paths trailing away. I reveled in the sweaty pant uphill even though it went by all too quickly. My reward was a patch of white asters in bloom near the summit and a passing view of larger hills to the east. A two-note whistle to Matika, who had wandered off, put her back at my side without hesitation. Good dog.

Everyone should have a place like this – an arboreal sanctuary only a few minutes away from home where wild nature can be sampled, triggering memories of more adventurous outings. Some of my best ideas have come to me on this hill, along with a number of unexpected insights. The mind needs lots of space in which to expand if it is to reach beyond the commonplace. Fresh air feeds it. The surrounding forest encourages contemplation. Sometimes an hour is all it takes.

The easy ramble back to the car was one long daydream. I returned to the starting point and popped out of the woods faster than expected. A glimpse through the trees at Lake Champlain in the distance, then into the car I went for the drive home. Back to work. But I’d visited a familiar haunt and was better off for it. Not a deep woods experience, but good enough for the time being.

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