Archive for March, 2009

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 19 2009

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Cold Mud

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Through binoculars I watched a robin singing the other day.  It was the first robin I’d seen or heard this year so it was quite a treat.  My neighbors must have thought I was crazy.  I stood in my back yard at sundown, in flip-flops and a t-shirt despite a chill in the air and the spongy, cold mud beneath my feet.  And in that moment I accepted the obvious:  Spring has come early to Vermont this year.

The birds are back, the remnant snow pile in my front yard has melted away, and the first green shoots of day lilies have broken ground.  More to the point, the sun has been burning brightly through a clear sky for days now, warming up the earth – a long, warm sun, rising an hour after I do in the morning and setting well after dinner.  Such a welcome surprise.  Until that robin appeared, I had been waiting for the next winter storm to bury me in snow.  Am glad to be wrong about that.

For several days running now, Matika and I have been going for long walks.  Judy joined us for one at the beginning of the week, just as the last of the snow was melting from the Rail Trail.  Second day out, I tramped through the woods until my shirt was drenched in sweat.  Atop Aldis Hill, I bent down and grabbed a handful of cold mud just to remind myself what the earth feels like.  It was a handful of joy, pure and simple.

Some folks don’t think it’s spring until the wildflowers bloom in May.  Others grumble until the air temperatures are in the 60s or 70s.  Still others wait impatiently for summer.  I relish each and every day of this, the earth’s great awakening, often leaving my house with binoculars in hand.  I pull on hiking boots whenever I can.  I love sinking into cold mud as I hike and don’t mind the rain when it comes.  Early spring is more gray and brown than green, but that’s all right by me.  My dog, Matika, agrees.  Rain or shine, it’s all good.  And every day another harbinger of spring comes, mocking the bleakness.

After winter’s long sigh, the spring breeze is a godsend.  I feel a sudden surge of happiness as a grackle pulls a worm from the ground.  I didn’t know they ate worms – either that or I forgot.  What other small surprises await me this season?  What other forgotten pleasures will I soon enjoy?

The pursuit of happiness is a fool’s game, I realize.  Happiness usually comes when we least expect it, in commonplace settings, mostly from inconsequential things.  But I’ll be on the lookout for it this spring all the same – the season of renewal rarely disappointing in that regard.  Yeah, it’s all good, if you are as partial to cold mud as I am.  This season is chock full of it.

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Mar 13 2009

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Woodpecker on Mt. Philo

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I drove to Mt. Philo the other day on impulse, after running errands in Burlington.  I figured the remnant snow on the access road leading to the summit would give my legs a good workout.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Although the punky snow wasn’t more than a few inches deep, climbing the foothill was like climbing a giant sand dune.  Yeah, a good workout.

A strong March wind tossed the trees back and forth while I hiked.  The chill of it glazed my eyes with tears.  I walked with my head down for the most part, lost in the abstractions I had been writing about earlier that day, along with the sobering financial news that had streamed over the radio during the drive.  Only my own heavy breathing kept me linked to the here and now – that and my goofy dog, Matika, running back and forth as fast as she could, all smiles.

Towards the top of Mt. Philo, a pileated woodpecker cried out loud and clear, wrenching me from my thoughts.  I stopped to listen more intently but it didn’t cry out again.  Strange silence.  Only the sound of roaring wind.  Then I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and, sure enough, there was the silhouette of that pointy-headed bird etched against the gray sky.  It clung to a dying birch for a second or two then disappeared, making me wonder if I’d actually seen it at all.  I finished my hike to the summit, temporarily loosing sight of surrounding trees to a thickening fog.

What is important – the human condition, a drop in the Dow, or the brief glimpse of a woodpecker on a misty day?  Perhaps none of it is.  Perhaps the smile on my dog’s face, a bone-chilling wind, and my own sweat-soaked shirt is all that matters.

I gazed across the Champlain Valley from a lookout atop Mt. Philo for a short while before finishing the hike, slip-sliding back down the car.  Halfway down the hill, I heard the woodpecker again.  One call to greet me, the other to say goodbye.  I stopped and turned in the general direction of the call but saw nothing.  So much the better.  That way it melded into my abstractions and stayed with me the rest of the day.

It’s hard to say whether the current downturn in the global economy will end soon or continue for years to come.  I don’t know where all my philosophical abstractions will take me, either.  But this I do know:  the wind will blow through trees, dogs will romp in snow, and woodpeckers will call out long after I’m dead and gone.  Maybe I should focus on that.

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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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Mar 02 2009

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Hemlock Cones

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Last week I hiked the trail around Indian Brook Reservoir just to stretch my legs.  The Reservoir was completely iced over and the trail was half a foot of packed snow, but it was good getting out.  I’ve been feeling cooped up lately so it was a pleasure hiking long and hard enough to break a sweat.  Besides, the air temperature was hovering right below freezing – a balmy, late-winter day by Vermont standards.  That and the bright sun shining through the clear sky overhead made me reconsider my bias against the season.  Maybe winter isn’t so bad after all.

On the far side of the Reservoir, I found a tiny hemlock cone in the middle of the trail.  I looked around then plucked a few more from the snow.  I did the same beneath another hemlock a short while later.  I put the cones in my shirt pocket and finished my hike.  Back home I found a place for them atop a stack of books.  I knew what would happen.

The next day, the cones opened up, exposed as they were to indoor heat.  I smile every time I notice them.  The first hemlock cones of the season – proof positive that winter is on its last leg.  The way I see things, these small cones mark the beginning of a new growing season.  Spring can’t be that far away.

Last Friday an exceptionally warm wind blew out of the southwest, driving temperatures into the fifties.  I swapped out my winter coat for a rain jacket and went for a long walk on the Rail Trail.  Plowing through the punky snow was as difficult as walking a sandy beach, but I didn’t care.  I reveled in the melt-off going on all around me, dreaming of things to come.

Right now it’s snowing outside.  I just returned home from a short walk on the edge of town where a wicked wind blew the white stuff horizontally across the trail.  I froze one half of my face on the way out, and the other half on the way back.  So it goes.  I probably won’t be outside again today any longer than it takes to shovel a path to the car.  But the hemlock cones resting atop my books still make me smile.  I know what’s coming.  It’s just a matter of time now.

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