Category Archives: Nature

Delayed Mowing for Pollinators

A silly little poem I wrote, but what the heck. It’s all about the images that follow. For more on my thoughts about lawns, read my earlier blog post “Musings on Mowing the Lawn: An Environmental Conundrum.”

Delay the engine, the crush of wheels,

pollinators of all sizes are needing their meals!

Sunniest blooms, a lively display—

brings much more delight

than a lawn trimmed up tight

like a T on the green

of the PGA.

Long LawnSmall Bee 1Small Bee 2Wild StrawberriesDandelions

Dominion: Lording Over Nature

black duck

Photo by Doug Brown on Pexels.com

“We have seen that no species can evolve apart from its co-evolution with all other species—meaning that all have played their role in our evolution. We could not have evolved by ourselves. If we look at co-evolving living systems through eyes other than our own, we will quickly see that we have no more reason to consider ourselves a supreme form of life than have others.” Elisabet Sahtouris

Just yesterday my neighbor posted a picture on Facebook of his cat watching, through a sliding glass door, a turkey eating seed scattered on the deck of the house. Immediately someone commented to his post that the turkey would make a tasty meal and advocated that my neighbor consider acting on this possibility.

This is a comment trend that I have frequently noticed on social media. Someone posts a picture, out of curiosity or in awe, of a pristine wild creature, and it’s not long before the guns come out and someone suggests killing and eating the star of the photo. Usually a semi-polite but slightly heated debate about hunting ensues.

Now, I would guess that the cat watching the turkey is indeed interested in an adrenaline-filled chase of the winged creature (likely not weighing in the fact that the bird is 3 times its size), and, perhaps, the cat in the window is even salivating a little. But it’s a cat.

What I wonder is why the first “highly-developed” human commentary on these kinds of Facebook posts is about snuffing out the bird and gnawing on its leg. Okay, maybe biology explains some of it. “Me caveman. Me eat meat.” But here in the modern US, we are not exactly starving. (Well, some of us are, too many of us, but that is a subject for a different blog post.) What I mean is that the commentators on these social media posts likely have a sizable refrigerator that, if not full, contains adequate sustenance such that a photo of a large bird, or perhaps a doe and its fawn, or a sea turtle, should not immediately trigger salivary glands and thoughts of bloodshed.

Inevitably on these post threads, some wildlife “expert” contributes that the species is overpopulated and there is a dire need for humans to step in with their traps, poisons, and firearms. At first glance, this seems reasonable, maybe even a justification to kill the critter. This comment may also be to assuage some sort of subconscious guilt that energizes over the age-old spiritual questions that arise when a human takes the life of another living creature.

But perhaps these comments come from insidious cultural conditioning. Somewhere, likely through a variety of religious and philosophical texts, we humans got the idea that humankind was plunked down here on this planet, in this galaxy, in this universe, to hold dominion over all the creatures, plants, even rocks, minerals, air and water. I would argue that this foundational belief in the self-maps of many people is what spurs these predatory comments, and this is what spurs the subject to then wander to hunting “rights” and population “control.” For if we hold dominion, it’s our right to shoot that turkey. If we have ultimate sovereignty and control, then we are charged with the responsibility to “balance” wildlife populations.

This notion of dominion thus allows for those that would love a drumstick to be absolved ethically and morally for wanting to end the life of the seed-eating turkey. It’s our role and job as humans—as stewards of the earth. But part of the definition of steward is “responsible care.” And I have to say humanity has not been adhering to these words where nature is concerned.

When I was a kid, I never saw a single wild turkey in my rambles throughout New England woods. I didn’t, in fact, ever see one until I was in my mid-thirties. Now, almost every time I drive down our Vermont roads, I have to stop to wait while a flock waddles across the road. I see them in cornfields, in backyards, near farms, and even in neighborhoods of towns. They are everywhere! So if I had to make an educated guess, I would agree: wild turkeys are overpopulated.

As a country girl, I do not judge or begrudge my neighbors and friends who hunt for food for their tables. I know most of my neighbors use all of the meat, and even the feathers. I know they hunt ethically, causing as little pain as possible. I know that their dinner had a happy, wild, natural life, thus being a kinder meal than eating a factory-farmed bird struggling to stand with its oversized breast while suffering in overcrowded, nasty conditions. I get that hunting can be a morally superior, sustainable food choice.

I do see the language that we use for hunting as stemming from the dominator model, however. We call hunting “sport,” our prey “game”, and we “harvest” kills as if we were farmers. But at least harvesting is a more respectable term than the poor word choice of “bagging” a turkey or a doe, wording more symbolic of a joking, cruel conquest.

But before I’d jump to hand out more hunting licenses and increase the length of turkey season, it seems prudent to ask the question why—why are turkeys everywhere? Are they truly overpopulated, or do they just have less wild space in which to roam? It seems we humans are overpopulated and eating up open spaces and forests like Hungry Hungry Hippos (the silly game some of us played as kids where we tried to “eat” as many marbles as we could with our plastic hippo heads).

Why were there hardly any turkeys in the ‘70s and tons of them now? A complex systems approach is needed. What is going on in their ecosystem to foster this burgeoning? I would bet the reason is tied to some bumbling actions, intentional or unintentional, of the supposed stewards of the planet—us.

In Virginia Scott Jenkins’ fascinating book, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, which is all about domination of another natural environment, our yards, she writes about how humankind has long been “at war” with nature. Nature has been our greatest conquest. She quotes John Crowe Ransom, writer and literary critic: “Ambitious men fight, first of all, against nature; they propose to put nature under their heel; this is the dream of scientists burrowing in their cells, and then of the industrial men who beg of their secret knowledge and go out to trouble the earth.” She then quotes feminist activist Annette Kolodny who “concludes that the brutal images of man against nature reflect ‘the very pattern of our current ecological crisis’”. Jenkins continues, “Wilderness has also appeared as the villain, with the pioneer as hero relishing its destruction” (134). We can’t be at war with nature and her stewards simultaneously.

I can hear the Facebook commentators now: “Good grief, it was just a silly joke about eating a turkey.”

At home, I often observe the flock of turkeys that dines on my neighbor’s porch and entertains their cats. The large birds have colorful, shiny feathers, sometimes sticking out with wads of burdock tangled in them. They walk slowly and carefully through the snow, pecking at this and that, their big feet leaving forked tracks. They appear serene, though alert. All I have to do is open the door and they take awkward flight. Sometimes I’m amazed the lumbrous fowl can even get off the ground. They often bunk down under the pines right behind my house near the marshy watercourse. Well, it is supposed to be marshy, but my other neighbor mows it flat each fall. He tells me he wants it the way it was when his grandfather had the land, when cows ate all the vegetation in the low-lying wash. I’ve observed the turkeys picking pathetically at the remaining scattered weeds and seed stalks, and surmise that the vegetation in the wash was likely their winter food source. So now they must resort to bird feeders. Indeed they have a good memory. I had a feeder out back last year, but have not put it up this year. Sure enough, at the beginning of the snows, the flock trucked right under the tree where the feeder used to hang, clucking and looking about, as if in confusion. “Well, it was here last year!”

I enjoy these waddling intricacies of perfection that somehow organized out of the universal chaos that our microscopes and statistics struggle to comprehend. They bring a smile to my day as they bob their heads and yodel about the backyard on their way back and forth to the feeder. I am glad my neighbor with the cat is not inclined to sup upon our feathered friends.

Bibliography

Jenkins, Virginia Scott. The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Sahtouris, Elisabet. Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution. iUniversity Press, 2000.

 

Braking for Butterflies

In New England it’s late summer and the days are growing shorter, but still the sunshine-infused hours flow by lazily. The breezes are easy, not yet carrying down Arctic briskness and warnings of winter.

Floating on the wind, in sync with the slow energy of the season, are a myriad of butterflies—some white, some yellow, and some orange. Of note this year, and hooray for this as their population has been of concern, is a seemingly large number of monarchs (Danaus plexippus). These beauties maneuver the lift and fall of air currents with astounding grace.

Unfortunately, butterflies like to crisscross and hover over the back roads. In a speeding car, they are a challenge to miss, the flyers moving much more slowly and randomly than the hulk of metal propelled by fuel in a straight-forward trajectory. It’s common for the hapless butterfly to glance off of the windshield, or hood, and tumble to the road. I guess it’s human conditioning to say, “Oh well, it’s just an insect. What can one do?” This thinking is likely further justified by the idea that one has to get here or there as quickly as possible to do this or that, as if that task is one-thousand times more important to the grand scheme of the universe than the said butterfly’s mission to sip a flower or a raspberry, to pollinate, and prepare to travel thousands of miles to their winter hibernation grounds in Latin America.

While I never like hitting any living creature large or small, I will admit that I was one of those humans that made these justifications in my mind. That is, until this summer, when I took the time to observe the reality of these mishaps of vehicle to Lepidoptera, the insect order label taken “from the Greek, ‘Lepis’ = scale, ‘pteron’ = wing” (“Biology of the Monarch”).

This summer when I have witnessed a butterfly hit by a car, especially a large monarch, I’ve stopped to move it off the road. I do this just in case it was not injured badly and might still live. Sometimes my efforts are fruitful: the butterfly emerges from being stunned, grabs my finger with its legs, and takes flight. However, more frequently what I have discovered is rather horrifying: rarely is the insect dead. Instead it is alive with some part of its body maimed, be it its wings, legs, or torso. Alive, they lay in the gravel or on the burning hot tar awaiting death. For hours.

I’ve taken to mercy killings, putting them to a quick and painless end, though it saddens me to do so. I’m well aware that an insect’s experience, biologically speaking, of “pain” or “death” is considerably different than human awareness of such things. Science even indicates that they don’t really feel pain. I argue even so, to lie maimed on a road, is this not suffering in whatever the capacity of the experience?

The other evening I was taking a walk when I happened upon yet another monarch lying in the road. It’s astounding, actually, when you start to pay attention, how many are hit on a daily basis. I bent to pick it up, hoping it was dead having had a quick ending. But no, it was alive, it’s antennae swiveling this way and that. I inspected it carefully in my palm—wings were intact, torso intact with a bit of gravel and possible slight body injury on one side, a couple of crumpled legs. Maybe it will have a chance, I thought.

I carried it home where I studied it further with a flashlight, determining that recovery just might be possible.

Lining a small box with some paper towels and grass, I put the butterfly in the box, and set the box in the warm garage for the night. I added in a geranium blossom and some flowering clover. Not exactly sure what butterflies eat, I drew upon my knowledge derived from helping a client write a book about raising bees and added in a lid full of sugar water, put a dab of honey on a piece of clover, and put in a thimbleful of plain water, then propped the monarch up near the lid of sugar water. I was concerned that it didn’t seem to want to use its two good legs and had yet to flutter its wings. But its head moved all about curiously and its antennae continued to twitch this way and that. It seemed not to be suffering egregiously. I put on some classical music on my little garage radio, figuring that studies have shown it to be soothing to plants, why not an injured insect?

I’ll give it the night, I thought.

While preparing dinner—salad with blueberries and raspberries—a little light went off in my mind. I remembered seeing butterflies hovering around the black raspberry bushes out back, possibly sampling the berries. So I mushed up a raspberry and stuck it in the lid of sugar water. The monarch immediately unrolled its proboscis (its straw-like mouth). I joyfully watched it checking out the raspberry, then turned out the garage lights to resume my dinner preparations. Checking occasionally, I found the butterfly was still moving its proboscis about near the raspberry and turning its head this way and that. A positive sign. Yet I was disturbed that it had yet to move around otherwise.

Before bed, I checked on the butterfly one last time. This was about 5 hours after I had picked it up from the road. The monarch had stopped moving, its antennae resting at half-mast. I thought perhaps it was sleeping. Do butterflies sleep? I didn’t know. It’s amazing how little we humans really know about the workings of the natural world, yet we impact it daily. Leaving the classical music on, I went to bed. I did not hold out great hope … it seemed the insect’s legs were not working and its wings had perhaps been paralyzed by the hit. Still, it did not appear to be suffering and I wanted to give it a chance.

The next morning, I got up to see if there was any improvement for the injured member of the family Nymphalidae, subfamily Danainae. The monarch sat quite still, in exactly the same position at the lip of the sugar water, antennae at half-mast. Dead. Part of me was relieved that I didn’t have to kill it to end its misery. And perhaps, at least, its last hours had been pleasant—a warm, quiet garage, soft paper towel with fragrant grass and geranium, a taste of raspberry, and classical music—more pleasant than lying in the gravel, waiting.

Regardless of the current pronouncements of science about if and to what extent each living insect, animal, tree, or plant “feels” or doesn’t feel, or to what degree they experience consciousness, I believe there is a lot we don’t understand about energy, consciousness, and the bend of the universe. As Socrates professed, “the only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.” I try to keep this open mind and heart. I recognize that nature has her own hierarchy of suffering: survival of the fittest, needing sustenance to survive sometimes taken in cruel ways. And at the same time, I feel it is entirely possible and true that all matter and all living beings are manifestations of one, divine and universal energy—call it god if you will, the goddess, the Great Spirit, the outward thrust of the Big Bang. I felt there was a bit of me in the life of that butterfly and a bit of that monarch’s essence within me. It deserved my compassion.

This summer has brought a shift in my awareness of even the little creatures that may fall in my path, and so, to the extent that it is safe for me to do so, considering the roadway, the traffic behind me, I brake for butterflies.

Butterly three

Work Cited:

“Biology of the Monarch Butterfly.” NatureNorth.com: Manitoba’s Online Nature Magazine, Nature North Zine, 2018, http://www.naturenorth.com/summer/monarch/monarchF2.html.