A New Balance

Sep 17, 2019

A dog walks in the water in Quissett Harbor in Falmouth.
Credit L. Lerner

I was walking on the beach in the East End with my dog Dory.  It was a very low tide and we were halfway out on the flats, trudging through the wet sand and the warm shallow pools of left-behind water.  She happily carried her tennis ball in her mouth and I followed her wagging tail at a moderate pace.  

All around us were a fair number of shorebirds-mostly Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Sanderlings, with a few Black-Bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones among them, and of course the ubiquitous gulls (Ring-billed, Herring, Greater Black-backed, and an occasional Laughing). 

As we trudged along, we would spook the shorebirds, which would fly up in a start and land not far behind us, and resume their single-minded darting and probing in the muddy sand.

All of a sudden, I heard a shrill yapping bark and turned to see a small terrier-like dog zooming along the flats, running this way and that, its sole purpose, it was clear, to chase the little birds into the air: as soon as they would land, the little dog was at them again, until they finally flew off into the distance.  The dog ran this way and that, until the flats were essentially cleared.  Job done, it returned to its owner, not far from me, a woman who said “good boy!” 

What a shame, I thought, that this one little dog should so pervasively interrupt- and basically cancel- the important work that these birds were doing.  I know something about their migratory lives, their caloric needs to sustain flights of thousands of miles: all this undone because of a single silly mutt.  These are not just a bunch of birds, these are beleaguered and often endangered creatures, their numbers diminishing, that visit this beach, as they have done for eons, as a critical component of their life cycle.

But wait: am I being hypocritical? Here I am on the same beach, with a dog, disturbing the same birds in the same way.  No.  My behavior is moderated, mindful: I realize what I am doing and attempt to minimize the impact.  To completely avoid the beach because of the birds is not something I want to do.  I (and my dog) belong here too.  That is important.  But I am attempting a balance to be part of the natural world without changing it unduly.  I draw a line and make distinctions. (I worry less about the gulls, year-round residents that have acclimated to human activity and even benefit from it.) 

A few days later I am walking through the woods, following my dog along a narrow pathway.  What effect have I here?  The odd squirrel up a tree, certainly.  Occasionally a fox given chase.  But overall, benign.  Just then-phew!- I walk into a strand of spider’s silk, destroying a night’s work for sure.  A second later I flush a Cooper’s Hawk, low in the brush, and consider that perhaps I have interrupted a kill.  I begin to consider: I am a disturbance on so many levels. 

Still, I belong here.  I belong.  Nature in all its aspects is, as Mary Oliver writes,

“over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”