When I first saw the sign, I snickered.
I’ve been traveling a lot this summer—long days in a car, routines upended, meals eaten out—and I’m definitely more “thickly settled” than I’ve been in a while. That’s common for someone my age, I suppose. But the unexpected sign seemed a mocking public rebuke.
Of course, the sign was warning us of the population density outside Athol, Massachusetts. Here in Kentucky—a rural state by all accounts—we’re more accustomed to seeing “Congested Area” signs when a curve in the road reveals a cluster of homes or other indications of human activity.
Perhaps New Englanders adopted their expression back in the mid-1700s, when most of these towns were established. A few moments later, as we approached the iconic New England village of Petersham, there stood another “Thickly Settled” sign. I could count three or four houses dotting the rim of the beautiful town common, a gathering place for all 1,200 people who live there. The expanding roll around my middle, I thought, is denser.
By all appearances, Petersham hasn’t changed since the 1950s, when my family lived there. The Unitarian church is still at the center of the green, with the handsome stone library just a couple of doors down. Across the common, the general store still serves the residents, although the current proprietor is more interested in selling you healthy snacks than the cigarettes I remember buying there for my mother when we visited some years after moving away. The town hall is next door. And in the middle of the common is the obligatory bandstand, where we enjoyed a concert by the Petersham Band on Sunday evening.
The closest gas station? Fifteen minutes north or south of town.
Harvard Forest, the 4,000-acre research forest where my dad worked, is just down the road. We were in Petersham to meet with the director of the Forest, David Foster, who had invited us to review the voluminous materials relating to my father’s work currently housed in their archives. Julie Hall, Harvard Forest archives assistant, had covered a long cherry conference table with sleeves of photos, scrapbooks, published materials, bulging pocket folders of research notes and presentations, and correspondence between my dad and other staff scientists. I couldn’t hold back a few tears as I surveyed the treasures on the table and considered the painstaking care of the archivists who had stored these materials for nearly 70 years. I settled in at the table and consumed as much as I could in the few hours I had.
Then we headed back outside to walk through the surrounding woods, the target of much of the research ongoing at the Forest. I discovered that Prospect Hill Road—a path my father frequently mentions in the journal he kept while at the Forest—is not a road at all, at least in our lifetimes, but a 2.5-mile loop trail through the forest, passing tagged trees and research equipment. We walked amid beeches, oaks, pines, and maples; dense ferns nearly disguising stone walls built by early settlers; twisted trees that survived the 1938 hurricane; hemlocks severely threatened by the woolly adelgid; 300- and 400-year-old black gums in a swamp area. It is a gorgeously diverse woodland.
Back at the parking lot in front of Shaler Hall—the red brick office and classroom building named for Kentucky’s own Nathaniel Southgate Shaler—I looked around one more time at the buildings and the land so familiar to my parents so many years ago. As a young couple hoping to start a family and build a career far from their Kentucky home, my parents faced many challenges while in Petersham. But the area evokes a sort of nostalgia for me. My dad still has a presence there. The people welcome us as if we naturally belong. The woods beckon. In town and at the Forest it’s as if time has stood still, even if my graying hair and growing girth attest otherwise.
For an up-close view of the work going on at Harvard Forest and how scientists there are striving to measure the toll of climate change, I highly recommend Witness Tree by Seattle environmental reporter Lynda V. Mapes. You can watch the daily changes in the 100-year-old red oak she observed for more than a year by accessing the Harvard Forest webcams here. Scroll to the bottom of the page for a view of Mapes’ witness tree.
Thor finally took a day off.
Mind you, not a full 24 hours. But from sunup to sundown on Friday we had no storms. No rain. We even had some moments of sun. It was a welcome respite after days of threatening weather.
But later that night, the heavy rain returned and we’ve bounced in and out of splotchy sunshine and rowdy storms ever since.
I’ll spare you another screed about climate change. What’s the point? We’ve all heard about continuing flooding across the Midwest, the South, and even the Northeast. Homes and businesses damaged, lives lost. Let’s just get used to it, shall we?
Now that summer is here, the forecast indicates we may finally move into a drier pattern, at least temporarily. The Mississippi River is below flood level in some areas. Sunshine is predicted here in Kentucky this week. There may be opportunities to get out and enjoy the seasonal wildflowers as they once again stand tall among the impudent mushrooms.
Unlike Thor, I’ve managed to take more than a day of rest this month. I’ve backed off the writing and editing to relax those literary muscles before the next phase. Perhaps in July I’ll hunker down again and reacquaint myself with a more disciplined daily routine.
But it has been nice to look up from the task at hand and engage with the world beyond my computer screen. And I’m glad Mother Nature granted me one day to paddle around the lake and visit some of my amphibious neighbors.
If Sol does indeed manage to disarm Thor for a few days, I’ll wipe off the mildew and head back outside to pay homage to brighter days ahead.
On Monday, May 6, the world learned how the United States intends to monetize climate change for our benefit.
While speaking at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo never once mentioned the phrase “climate change,” even though the council has recently focused most of its energies on this issue in that increasingly fragile region. Newsweek reports that Pompeo did, however, point out that “Passageways opened up by retreating sea ice could turn the Arctic into a ‘21st century Panama Canal,’ creating new trade routes that could ‘potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.’”
In other words, as the ice melts and polar bears, seals, and Arctic foxes lose their habitat, humans will have unfettered access to the treasures beneath the ice, which we will then distribute to American households in record time. Oh goody. The AP reported that “[Pompeo] called the Arctic ‘a frontier of opportunity and abundance’ with untouched oil and gas reserves, unmined uranium, raw earth minerals, precious metals and gems.”
So for those of you worried that melting polar ice might lead to devastating flooding, punishing storms, loss of habitat and inhabitable land, and the demise of native species, fear not. Speedier trade with China and Russia and access to new oil and gas reserves will offset all of those chimerical problems.
What made the Secretary of State’s seemingly careless but certainly intentional comments even more disturbing was the release that same day of the UN’s global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems. As Brad Plumer of the New York Times wrote:
“The findings were sobering: Millions of acres of wetlands and rain forests are being cleared away. As many as one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction because of farming, poaching, pollution, the transport of invasive species and, increasingly, global warming. Almost everywhere you look, nature is vanishing before our eyes.”
But, it appears, nobody much cares. Especially not our national leaders. Which is why the hundreds of international experts who collaborated on this report tried to frame it in terms that will help humans—the sentient perpetrators of much of this willful destruction—understand what price they will pay for this assault on the earth’s biodiversity. In brief, our quality of life will suffer as we deal with such inconveniences as costly natural disasters that upend our lives and diminishing foodstuffs we have come to crave.
According to Plumer, the report takes pains to explain how “Natural ecosystems…provide invaluable material services to people, from mangrove forests that protect millions from coastal flooding to wetlands that help purify our drinking water to insects that pollinate our fruits and vegetables. The loss of wild plant varieties could make it harder in the future to breed new, hardier crops to cope with threats like increased heat and drought.”
If the science behind this catastrophic issue won’t rouse you to take notice, perhaps poetry will. Plumer concludes his article with this metaphor presented by Sandra M. Díaz, a lead author of the report and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina:
“Life on Earth is an intricate fabric, and it’s not like we’re looking at it from the outside. We are threads in that fabric. If the fabric is getting holes and fraying, that affects us all.”
Mike Pompeo, in his threadbare suit, might want to pull on a plastic rain slicker to protect himself from the big one.
David Hoefer, co-editor of The Last Resort, looks skyward for inspiration. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
My favorite science fiction movie is The Thing from Another World, produced (and possibly directed) by Howard Hawks in 1951. Based on a classic John W. Campbell pulp-magazine story, The Thing tells the tale of a group of American scientists and military personnel stationed in the remote Arctic North who fight off a superhuman alien invader with a crash-landed UFO that is likely in the vanguard of worse things to come. The movie ends with the victorious survivors gathered around journalist Ned Scott filing his news report over the radio. Scott admonishes his listeners to be prepared for further trouble; indeed they must remain alert and, he says, “Keep watching the skies!” [photo credit]
That phrase has always stuck with me, though without the sense of impending danger that is integral to the movie. No, the reason to keep watching the skies, especially after dark, is the beauty it reveals and the pleasure it brings. Though mostly unmentioned in The Last Resort, I have to imagine that Pud and his pals indulged in some nighttime sky-watching of their own. (There is, for instance, a reference to a beautiful moonlit evening in the entry for May 29, 1942.) As soon-to-be scientist and soldier John Goodlett would have known, nature is not limited to Earth.
This same realization came to me during a recent late-night foray in celestial observation. I was outside in pleasantly cool weather, head tilted up and eyes straining, to see the Lyrid meteorite shower, which reached peak viewing in Louisville during the evening of April 22. An hour of intermittent scrutiny netted three sightings, with a possible fourth. Of course, stargazing was made for ancient agriculturalists and mountaintop astronomers rather than dwellers of the inner suburbs. I’ve never forgotten the spectacular night skies over Ghost Ranch from my digging days, when I was looking up in the dark rather than down in the dirt. The fewer the humans, the better the viewing, and north-central New Mexico is a place of relatively few humans.
That said, I had some limited success on the 22nd with the aid of high-tech tools: a Web site, Timeanddate.com, which first clued me in that there was a reason to go outdoors, and an iPhone compass, which helped me locate the Lyrid radiant in degrees azimuth. (I had to guess the altitude, using the much-less substantial protractor I carry around in my head.) That wasn’t the only technology that popped up on this occasion. I was surprised by the number of off-planet contraptions—some jets but also quite a few satellites—that were partaking of arcs through the sky. The spangling but austere nights of a world before the Wright Brothers are being replaced by busier tableaux, like a gentle picnic suddenly swarming with fire ants.
Meteorites are aptly described as shooting stars. Those I saw appeared in brief flashes, streaking parallel to the horizon rather than moving to intercept it. My iPhone compass may have been useful but not so the camera; the seemingly random appearance of the Lyrids made obtaining a still photograph impossible. I’d have been better off with a time-lapse device, the visual equivalent of a Geiger counter. What images I do have are salted away in memory, but I’ve included these graphic elements from the Internet, as inexhaustible in its way as the infinite skies that surround us.
Joe Ford of Louisville, Ky., is a longtime friend of David Hoefer and Sallie Goodlett Showalter, co-editors of The Last Resort. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Recently, David Hoefer and another mutual friend, David Summerfield, invited me to join them on a fishing trip to the Cumberland River in South Central Kentucky. This has become an annual pilgrimage for the two Davids, a chance to haul in very large trout in the turbulent waters just below Wolf Creek Dam.
Reminded that the window of opportunity would soon open for the Pud Goodlett Memorial Fishing Tourney we proposed last summer, I took to scanning The Last Resort for all things fishing: species, methods, tackle, places.
I am constantly amazed at the detail Sallie and David brought to the book and to this blog, from fishing tackle to taxonomy to the political history of Salt River, not to mention Sallie’s amazing grasp of the connections between her own far-flung relatives and the other boys of The Last Resort.
As I browsed the Bibliography included in The Last Resort for fishing-related information, I ran across this entry: Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist’s Perspective, by Paul Colinvaugh. It turns out that this is a fairly well-regarded collection of essays, as much for its accessibility for non-specialists as for its scholarly worthiness. In essence, it is about ecological niches.
But, for me, the content is not the attraction. It's the title: Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare.
I instantly added it to my mental collection of great titles, names, and places. In case you’re wondering, this collection also includes things like the most boring book ever, spied in the window of Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, England: A History of Foreign Language Dictionaries. Then again, you probably weren’t really wondering.
The attraction of Colinvaugh’s title is actually imagining its opposite: What if big fierce animals were not rare? Isn’t that fun? You have to admit that crows, turtles, and squirrels were not exactly safe around the boys’ camp. So let’s start with fierce (cue Randall’s honey badger vid).
What if those crows had been of the sub-species corvus beakus horriblus, like the crows in Hitchcock’s The Birds? Envision the boys huddled in the cabin as the birds swarmed and cawed and screeched and pierced the wood with their large beaks. Don’t laugh. If it could happen in Bodega Bay, it could happen in Lawrenceburg.
Or the turtles, terrapin humongosoid. Imagine an entry in the journal about how JCG and Jody had to rescue Bobby Cole after a humongous turtle had latched on and was trying to pull him under.
You want big and fierce? What about the squirrels, squirrelsaurus rex? Big as a kangaroo, they might subsist on deer, stray dogs, and, well, go for it, Joe: terrapin humongosoids. Massive enough to shake the ground when they walked, these predators would chase the boys back to the cabin—JCG, Bobby, and Jody dropping fish offerings as they ran and then hiding inside the cabin's sturdy walls until the danger had passed.
Finally, let’s not forget the fish and predatarus toothus. I’m not suggesting that piranhas are actually in Salt River, though it is a fresh water species native to our hemisphere. I feel I would be remiss, however, not to point out that pythons have taken over the Everglades.
I’m sure Salt River has plenty of smallmouth and blue gill for the Davids, and I’m happy to compete in the tourney for bragging rights.
But I will say this: You go in first.
April 14, 2019
Joe Ford responds to Barbara Fallis' comment (see below).
Barbara, you are very perceptive to grasp our fishing prowess so quickly. As a matter of fact, we did catch fish so big they would not fit in a photo. But obviously that meant we could not publish a photo of it. Here is a pic of a slightly smaller fish but still so big that only his eye fit in the picture! Next time we’ll take a bigger camera.
I was going to mention this in the blog article, but I thought people would just think I was being absurd.
Parts of the country are buried in snow. We’re demoralized by rain.
Heavy, relentless rain. Cold rain. This past week we had two days of rain—occasionally with thunder--while the temperature stubbornly sat at 34 degrees. It has warmed now, but we’re back to steady, obstinate, pitiless rain.
Roads are closed. Dams are holding back record levels of water. Topsoil and grass have washed away. Leaves leftover from late fall are matted to the ground in dense carpets, never having been dry enough to rake. The deer in our neighborhood apparently have little to forage. They stare in my front windows, lean over the porch railing, pleading for corn. Young calves are dying in the fields, stuck in the mud, frozen in cruel temperatures that never quite dip low enough to offer firm footing but are certainly low enough to bring on hypothermia. Once picturesque horse farms are vast mud pits, reminding tourists that these postcard-perfect stretches of land are still farms, wrestled into their summer beauty through the brute force and determination of committed men and women laboring behind the scenes.
In 2018, we had 72 inches of rain, 160% of our average (45.21 inches). By December 1, it was already the wettest year on record. Then we had five more inches of rain before the year ended. In the first eight weeks of 2019, we have had 10 inches, almost double the average and on target for a year similar to last year.
Don’t tell me you don’t believe in climate change. Don’t tell me that, all across the country, we haven’t seen extreme weather that has altered our lives, damaged our economies, and endangered our future.
You may not agree with the specifics, or the vague generalities, summarized in the Green New Deal proposed by Democrats in the House and the Senate, but after years of inaction and denials, I give them credit for taking a bold first step. For at least trying to rivet our attention away from mopping basements, resodding lawns, digging cars out of snowbanks, fleeing wildfires and mudslides, standing in line for FEMA assistance, watching helplessly as the latest storm, the latest flood, the latest once-in-a-hundred-year event wipes out our homes, our businesses, our towns.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is planning to establish a 12-member Presidential Committee on Climate Security to refute recent reports that climate change poses clear risk to our safety and our economy. Science and data be damned.
Back in Kentucky, I woke up on Thursday morning and the rain had stopped. The sky was blue. The birds were singing.
I had no idea where I was.
We are so disoriented by these rapid changes in weather and climate—just as we are disoriented by new norms for civility and verbal expression and respect for our fellow man—that we have become numb to it all. Numb to the dangers. Numb to the costs. Numb to who we’re becoming.
And that perhaps poses the greatest threat of all.
David Hoefer, co-editor of The Last Resort, shares a story of taxonomic serendipity. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
In a previous blog post, I discussed John Goodlett’s taxonomic activities at Camp Last Resort, where he identified and sketched living organisms (especially plants) as part of his undergraduate education at the University of Kentucky. Similar activities, recorded more scientifically in the Harvard Forest journal, indicate Pud’s gradual emergence as an upper-echelon botanist and plant geographer.
As such, it’s been a pleasure to read Corey Ford’s Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, a biography of the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, with its demonstration of the vital and even heroic role taxonomy can play in helping us understand our planetary home. Steller accompanied Vitus Bering on his second and last expedition into the then-uncharted northern waters between Asia and North America in 1741-42. It was this expedition that finally confirmed that the landmass east of Siberia was in fact that same North America then being colonized by other European powers on the Atlantic Coast and by the Spanish in Central America and what is today the Southwestern U.S. and California. And what was the final piece of the puzzle that completed this realization? From Cape St. Elias on Kayak Island, Alaska:
“Perhaps no other naturalist in history ever accomplished so monumental a task under such difficulties and in so little time. It was four in the afternoon when Steller spread his specimens around him in the sand, and began to enter in his notebook the results of the previous six hours. When the yawl returned at five ‘o’ clock, he had completed his exhaustive report, the first scientific paper ever written on Alaskan natural history…
“Some plants in his collection were already familiar to him from his earlier investigations in Kamchatka. He identified the upland cranberry, the red and black whortleberry, and a shrub he called the scurvy berry, probably the black crowberry. He was more enthusiastic over ‘a new elsewhere unknown species of raspberry,’ the salmonberry of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Although the berries were not yet fully ripe, Steller was impressed by their ‘great size, shape, and delicious taste’…
“The yawl brought what Steller ironically described as ‘the patriotic and courteous reply’ to his message to Bering, a brusque order to ‘betake myself on board quickly or they would leave me ashore without waiting for me.’ There were only three more hours left until sunset, barely time to ‘scrape together as much as possible before fleeing the country.’ He sent [his Cossack assistant] Lepekhin to shoot some strange and unknown birds he had noticed, easily distinguished from the European and Siberian species by their particularly bright coloring, and he started down the beach in the opposite direction, returning at sundown with his botanical collection.
“Lepekhin had equally good luck. He ‘placed in my hands a single specimen, of which I remember to have seen a likeness painted in lively colors and described in the newest account of the birds of the Carolinas.’ Steller’s fantastic memory had recalled a hand-colored plate of the eastern American Blue Jay in Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, etc., which he had seen years before in the library of the St. Petersburg Academy; and he identified Lepekhin’s find as its west coast cousin, known today as Cyanocitta stelleri, or Steller’s Jay. Now his last doubts about the land they had discovered were resolved. ‘This bird proved to me that we were really in America’” (Ford 1992/1966:80-2).
The price paid by the expeditionary force for this discovery was considerable. Beset with difficulties, many crew members perished on the way home, including Bering himself. Steller lived only a few short years after returning to Russia, but left behind his scientific writings, which eventually found their way into print. His current renown hung more than once by the slenderest of hairs.
My husband and I spent Thanksgiving Day raking. An acre of property, 40 mature deciduous trees. We barely made a dent. Nonetheless, it was a rare sunny, cool day and a pleasant way to avoid any potential holiday stress.
The irony of our labor didn’t strike me until a friend called me out.
“So, you’ve been out raking the forest floor, huh?” he chided. “Doing your part to prevent local forest fires?”
Most of us have enjoyed the sardonic memes posted by the Finns after President Trump’s public statements about how the good citizens of Paradise, Calif. (not “Pleasure,” dear President) could have avoided near annihilation if they had properly raked and cleaned the floors of the nearby forests, like the Finns. (Never mind that the Finnish President has denied ever mentioning “raking” when talking with President Trump. Or the fact that the Finns have complex structural and systemic ways of preventing forest fires in their country.) Twitter exploded with photos of Finns smiling with their rakes and references to #RakeAmericaGreatAgain and #Rakenews.
In the Washington Post, columnist Philip Bump kept a straight face as he calculated how many man hours it would take to sweep and cart away all of the debris on America’s forest floors. And how much of our budget would be required for the purchase of equipment for that purpose. (No mention was made of the devastation that would rain upon forest critters large and small who depend on that debris for cover or sustenance.)
All humor aside, the rampaging wildfires are real. The loss of life is real. Those who survived have found their lives totally upended, with no home, no supplies, no job to return to, no idea of what their future holds.
The president is right that we must find a way to prevent this sort of devastation. We must work together to protect land and property and lives. But we cannot do that successfully until we admit that climate change is worsening the natural disasters afflicting us around the world.
As the Camp Fire in northern California raged, Cal Fire spokesman Bryce Bennett told the Sacramento Bee, "Right now, Mother Nature is in charge." That will never change. But there are things we can do to mitigate the conditions that fuel droughts and wildfires in the western part of our country, floods in the east, and hurricanes along the coasts.
Unfortunately, we as a nation have no appetite for addressing what is at the crux of the problem: greed and a craving for comfort. We seem unwilling to make sacrifices to protect our forests, our shorelines, our food sources, our water supply, the purity of our air, or the diversity of our ecosystems—despite the avalanche of data about what our future holds. For some reason, other countries see the writing on the wall and have joined together to protect their citizens’ interests, while here in the U.S. we strip environmental regulations, over-develop threatened areas, and decry a “War on Coal.”
A persistent chorus of experts, thankfully, continue to sound the alarm. Another month, another comprehensive report about imminent catastrophes from climate change.
Last month scientists representing the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of the dire consequences we can expect by 2040 if we don’t take steps now to slow the warming of the planet. This month—the day after Thanksgiving, alas—13 federal agencies in President Trump’s executive branch predicted economic devastation by the end of the century if we don’t heed the warning signs.
According to the New York Times, “All told…climate change could slash up to a tenth of gross domestic product by 2100, more than double the losses of the Great Recession a decade ago.” The projected price tag for our inertia? “$141 billion from heat-related deaths, $118 billion from sea level rise and $32 billion from infrastructure damage by the end of the century.” International trade will be disrupted. Agriculture will suffer. Diseases will spread. The numbers of people dying in heat waves and storms will dramatically increase.
You would think that would get President Trump’s attention. He likes to think of the value of things in dollars and cents. Perhaps someone will finally convince him to listen to his administration’s experts at NASA, NOAA, the EPA, and other agencies.
But don’t hold your breath.
We’re not talking about the future any more. We’re talking about now. We’re talking about the devastation that is occurring in our own country right now. And we’re still sticking our heads in the sand.
Here in central Kentucky, we’ve had 20 more inches of rain than we typically have by this time of year. We’re mired in mud and mildew. The grass is still growing. I have a lot of raking yet to do.
Our lives may have been inconvenienced. But we still have our home. Our health. We’re comfortable, you know.
But for how long? What will it take for us to act?
Each October Rick and I look forward to our first walk down an old farm road near our house that in recent years has been taken over by a deciduous forest. The footpath is inaccessible in the summer, when the dense ground vegetation makes it nearly impassable. But as fall arrives, and the undergrowth begins to die away, we clear a path for daily walks. Our dog, Lucy, loves it as much as we do. It gives her new territory to sniff and new space to roam. It lets us feel like we have stepped out of our built world and into the heart of a woods.
Each year we also find that nature has somehow altered our path. A large tree has come down, forcing a detour. Oversized thorny bushes convince us to try a new route. Rains carve out a gully we have to step around.
We take all of this in stride. It’s fun to forge a new path, to see the woods from a slightly different perspective.
But across large swaths of the southern United States, two powerful hurricanes have altered the lives of thousands of Americans. Nature has once again roared ashore, destroying buildings, obliterating livelihoods. U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and other parts of Florida and Texas are still recovering from last year’s storms. Humans rarely win a battle with nature—especially when we continue to deny her power and resent any implication that our indulgences are contributing to her erratic behavior.
A report issued Oct. 8 by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that these catastrophes will only get worse unless we hunker down and take the necessary steps to reduce global warming. If we don’t, it could cost us trillions of dollars. A New York Times article describes the threats we are facing as “a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040” as well as “intensifying droughts and poverty” and “increased coastal flooding.”
Forestalling this cataclysm will take international cooperation and a complete transformation of our economy, according to the report. We all know how likely that is to happen.
But when change is in our control, when we can alter our behavior to avoid such devastation, wouldn’t that be the obvious choice? Wouldn’t we at least want to take incremental steps to prevent worldwide suffering and economic loss? Why do we keep waiting?
Back along our woodland path, we see that the adjoining property has been cleared for a new home. Construction is ongoing. The owner is a friendly man, who loves my dog. But I can’t help thinking how human action has once again destroyed a small area of natural land.
This morning I saw two deer wandering down the middle of the main road through our neighborhood. They looked perplexed. They had just emerged from a small copse of woods on one side of the road. Normally, they bound immediately across the road, into the protective woods on the other side. But today the woods are gone. Acres of trees that have stood for decades have been bulldozed to make room for 50 more houses. Heavy equipment roars and beeps day and night. A whole hillside has been moonscaped.
I know the place where my house sits was once woodland, too. The remnants of the deciduous forest remain along the shoreline of the lake. I realize this area was also cleared for development. But in our part of the neighborhood, the houses were tucked into the existing trees. The sharp hillsides were allowed to remain. The natural contours of the land are still evident.
Being the caretakers of this land is a privilege. I understand that we have to accommodate the needs of the people who depend on it for sustenance. But isn’t it also possible to be thoughtful guardians, protectors of both the wild inhabitants and the future generations who will need to inhabit it? After all, we’re all dependent on each other for life. We cannot breathe if not for the woods. Our breath gives them sustenance. Every creature large and small plays a role in our complex ecosystem.
We may think we hold sway over all that is on this planet. That we have the power to manage it all for our own purposes. That is, until the next mammoth storm or wildfire or flood. And then we are reminded that nature always wins. That we have to be the ones to step out of the way of the fallen tree and think hard about how our actions contributed to its demise.
The first time I recall encountering a snake in the wild was at Girl Scout camp. I was 7 years old.
My father had died about three months before and, at my uncle’s urging, my mother had moved what was left of our family from Baltimore to central Kentucky, closer to relatives. While staying at the rambling farm house of my aunt and uncle awaiting our move into a new home, my father’s mother—my only grandparent—died. My mother’s aunt and closest confidante suffered a stroke. There seemed to be no end to the calamity.
I loved staying with my cousins at their farm. But I was unmoored from all that I knew. My father’s absence seemed to confuse me less than the prospect of starting life over in a new town. I hated leaving my friends. On the other hand, my dad—a professor during the academic year and a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey during the summers—hadn’t been around much anyway. Did I miss him? I wasn’t sure yet.
As summer arrived, my cousins were preparing to go to camp. My mother and aunt (Charleen, the boys’ ready rescuer at The Last Resort) evidently thought it would be a good idea to send my sister and me, too, perhaps so we could be around children our age in a more normal environment, or perhaps to allow my mother a little privacy to grieve.
I was technically too young to attend the two-week camp, but the administrators had given me special permission. Everyone kept a watchful eye on me. I was not only the youngest camper; I was most certainly the tiniest.
But no one needed to worry. I loved every minute of it. I loved being deep in the woods of Morgan County. I loved sleeping outdoors in a tent modeled after a Conestoga wagon. I loved swimming in the brownish green water of the lake. And I particularly loved the hikes along the mountain trails.
So when one of our counselors first pointed out “Blackie,” the camp’s “pet” black racer, I was mesmerized. He was enormous—at least five or six feet long in my memory. It was a lighthearted moment. The 8- and 9-year-old veteran campers around me ooohed and ahhhhhed and called to him affectionately. Blackie took all the commotion in stride.
I was smitten. I became that child who always volunteered to handle snakes that were brought into the classroom. At home, I gently shooed the garter snakes out of the way of the lawn mower or the hedge clippers.
I can’t remember if we saw any other snakes that particular summer, although I encountered several over the succeeding years. (The image of the heavy rat snake coiled around the top of the latrine just above the seat is burned in my memory.) And I was fully aware that during every hike at least two counselors carried “snake sticks” and hatchets in case we came across a less companionable snake that needed to be disposed of for everyone’s safety.
All of these memories came to my mind recently after having yet another conversation about snakes with two friends who share a sincere fear of the reptiles. A large corner of their consciousness seems to be devoted to their phobia. During our conversation, I wondered aloud way I reacted so differently. After brief reflection, I’m sure it’s because snakes were first introduced to me as friends, family even. Important wildlife that we should not disturb. That we should respect.
During a recent paddle around our small lake, I experienced yet another flashback to Camp Judy Layne. I tucked my lightweight canoe into a cove deep in the woods, and the heavy vegetation and woodland smells transported me to my favorite childhood camp. After a dreadfully long stretch of dark and dreary days here in the Bluegrass, brilliant sunlight illumined the black oak leaves and the purple ironweed.
As I paddled out of the cove, I could see bluegill swimming just beneath the surface as if they, too, had been longing for the warmth of the sun. Several Great Blue Heron swooped and cackled at me, warning me away from their supper. Dinner-plate sized turtles didn’t bother to leave their posts on downed logs, daring me to disturb their sunbathing.
Perhaps, at some unconscious level, I learned at a tender age that the woods welcome us when our spirit has been wounded. That escaping into the woods can soothe the soul. The abundance of life there somehow gives back just what we need. Our personal afflictions can’t alter nature’s rhythms and cycles.
Even the snakes have a role and a certain majesty. And somehow that comforts me rather than frightening me.