Finding Our Proper Relationship to the Natural World

Oct 15, 2019

Credit L Lerner

A friend of mine who lives in Eastham was preparing his morning coffee when he heard a ruckus in his yard and looked out to see a hawk grappling with a grackle. “Hey,” he said, “these are my grackles!” and he ran out and chased away the hawk.  He later shared this episode on Facebook.

He got many responses: most were laudatory…”good man”, “hero”, way to go…but a well-known writer and student of wildlife posted that it was “too bad that you don’t comprehend the predator/prey interaction”, and besides grackles eat lots of baby birds themselves. 

There was some back and forth.  One theme I return to again and again is the challenge of finding our proper relationship to the natural world. 

I remember years ago seeing a photo essay in the New York Times by a photographer who had documented an hours-long battle between a female moose and a small pack of wolves; she was courageously protecting her little calf from these predators, until, finally, fatigued, she failed to prevent one pass and her battle was lost, her calf was down.  Subsequent letters to the magazine excoriating that photographer were angry, even livid: why didn’t he do something?  Why didn’t he prevent that violent act?  I’m not sure how a single person in the wild is supposed to redirect a pack of wolves safely and efficiently, but that was the charge.

And then a few years back there was the eagle or osprey nest that was on a webcam, and it became apparent that the parent was neglecting, even abusing one of the chicks.  The web world was ablaze: why doesn’t somebody do something?

The question remains: what are we to do?  How should we be involved? What is our proper role?  This is not an easy question to answer – not by me, anyway. I’m the one who puts stranded spider crabs back in the water, who charges at a gull about to peck out the eyes of a baby seal, who even ran along a line of menhaden that had just thrown themselves up out of the water to escape marauding bluefish and threw them back in, I don’t have the answer.

And then there are the unintended consequences.  Bruce Beehler in his latest book observes that our bird feeders are one reason why we are seeing fewer species like Wood Thrushes- a bird whose two-tone antiphonal song at dusk is guaranteed to break your heart- because bird feeders also support crows, jays, raccoons, and others that impact these forest birds.

Many more examples could be trotted out.  But let’s be clear: we are talking here about the ten percent of humanity (well, perhaps a bit higher on the Cape) that actually even think about the natural world and care about it. 

The other day on the beach a woman asked why I was wearing my binoculars.  I told her that I was a birder, and although I was at the moment just going for a walk with my dog, I did do a bird survey for the town.  (I was trying to impress her- I don’t know why.) 

Well,” she said, “maybe the town could do something about those noisy birds over there.”  I turned my attention to two nearby gulls actively engaged in frenetic bugle calls- really cool behavior. 

I’m not certain what the gulls were talking about, but I am pretty sure they were complaining about that woman.