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Nature has no shame

Liz Lerner

After some forty-odd years of observing the natural world, one of the few universal conclusions I have come to believe is this: Nature has no shame.

One of the first times I realized this was when I saw a pair of killdeers – those handsome, double-breast-banded plovers – nesting on the graveled roof of a shopping center in Florida At the time I thought of it as an anomaly, but over the years I kept running into instances of nature’s apparent lack of any need for an appropriate aesthetic setting in which to do her stuff.

For instance, the only time I have ever seen an upland plover on Cape Cod was in a junkyard in Harwich, where the bird was drinking rainwater out of an upturned car hood. Another time, in an oil field in Kentucky, I was astonished to see a robin sitting on a nest it had built on a working oil well pump!

To call such behaviors “shameless” is, of course, a subjective and anthropocentric reaction. After all, nothing requires wildlife to seek out appropriately aesthetic settings in which to carry out their evolutionary mandates. But such juxtapositions of wildlife and man-made settings do challenge our expectations and preferences.

Sometimes the contrast is between a natural setting and its immediate surroundings. One of the most dramatic examples of this is Belle Isle Marsh, a 350-acre nature preserve that is the last remaining salt marsh in the city of Boston. It hosts a rich variety of marsh, grassland, and forest birds in the very shadows and roars of planes taking off from nearby Logan Airport.

But one doesn’t need to go off-Cape to encounter such jarring juxtapositions of natural and manmade environments. The other day I took my car in to be serviced at the Mobile station on Route 6 in Wellfleet. I was told that the service wouldn’t take long, and since it was a lovely day, I decided to explore the area on foot.

I had stopped at this service station numerous times, but I had never gone behind the garage. When I did, I first saw what I expected to see: a bare, scraped lot full of a dozen or more cars and trucks in various states of repair and disrepair. But my eye was caught by a sign at the far end of the vehicle-strewn area. It said “Head of Duck Creek Conservation Area." Intrigued, I wandered beyond the sign and entered an unexpected world, a kind of natural “Secret Garden.” It comprised a grassy terrace perhaps two acres in extent, supplied with a picnic table and a few benches. Despite its modest size, it contained an impressive variety of trees and shrubs, including pitch pines, locusts, arbor vitae, beach plum and cypress spurge in full bloom. And at its southern end was a swath of prickly pear cacti, the easternmost species of cactus in North America.

But its most striking feature was a small tidal creek winding its way through a bordering salt marsh. In this most unlikely setting, I had come upon the headwaters of Duck Creek, a once-navigable waterway that flows up from Wellfleet Harbor to Route 6.

None of this was rare or unusual. Rather, what struck me was the unexpectedness of finding a bit of unspoiled nature literally in the backyard of a commercial garage.

When I retrieved my car, I asked the mechanic who handed me the keys if he knew about the area. “Oh, yeah,” he replied.” I go have lunch there sometimes – it’s a nice spot.”

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.