“If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth.” ~Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe, letter to President Franklin Pierce
Blue herons look majestic, but they don’t have the pipes to match their looks. Looking at a heron, you would expect a delicate, melodic call to emerge from that graceful throat, but in fact, herons sound like a cross between a goose and a gastrointestinally distressed cow.
I know this because every morning when I let my dog, Thomas, out in the yard, his first order of business – after peeing on the deck stairs – is to re-engage his ongoing conflict with the heron that hangs out on our pond. Thomas doesn’t mind smaller birds, but anything larger than a squirrel is an intolerable trespasser.
The dog has so far been unmoved by my lectures about how fortunate we are to have such a gorgeous bird on our shore. And so the heron must be chased out. The bird never goes quietly, and sometimes just flies to the top of our willow tree to squawk angrily at the dog. There is an air of “Don’t you know who I am?” to the heron’s scoldings, as if he were a celebrity denied a table at a Red Robin.
I have to admit that the dog is right – the bird is kind of an arrogant prick. And so it goes.
My dog’s recurring psychodrama with waterfowl had me reflecting on the strange mix of wildlife and domestication in my yard. There are a number of real characters nearby, in addition to the haughty heron. We also have a muskrat that lives in the submerged roots of the willow tree, and a platter-sized snapping turtle. Travis calls him Gamera, after the fire-breathing, turtle-monster Godzilla knockoff from the 1960’s. We also have a suicidally aggressive male cardinal that attacks his own reflection in our living room window every morning, and also a squirrel who likes to drop nuts on me and the dog when we step onto the deck stairs.
I’m coming to realize that I take the measure of a place by the wildlife I find in it. When I think of the places I’ve lived in which I’ve felt the most lifeless, they were all places in which I can recall no regular wildlife residents. My house in Montana had many reliable characters: deer, bear, skunks, coyotes, hummingbirds, pack rats, and elk. My homes in Indiana have been short on charismatic megafauna, but there is still life present: great horned owls, pileated woodpeckers, albino squirrels, bald eagles, coyotes, butterflies, frogs, and hawks have all graced my homes here. My current space is almost claustrophobic to me; the yards are tiny, the houses close together. But this willow-enclosed space on a suburban retention pond houses just enough wild characters to get me through.
I was reading an interview today with Australian anthropologist Thom Van Dooren, the author of Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. Van Dooren’s book is, as Nat Geo characterizes it, an attempt to break through human indifference at the fact that we are currently undergoing the sixth mass extinction in the earth’s history. The last was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs went belly up. This time, of course, mass extinctions are anthropogenic – human caused.
Van Dooren won’t have to work hard to break through any walls on my account. As I read his piece I knew that for me, it’s the wildlife, stupid. Wildlife is at the center of all my travels, all my writings, all my photography. It’s even at the center of my frustration with my current habitat; Indiana is, more or less, a place of extirpation. There is dramatically less biodiversity here than in most places I’ve felt more at home.
Nat Geo comes out and asks Van Dooren: What the hell are ordinary people supposed to do? And he’s forthright about it. I don’t know, he says, and I’ve been trying to figure it out for a long time. Even I know that to be a wildlife partisan is to spend a fair amount of time in the terrain of hopelessness.
I do think there are small things people can do – hell, monarch butterflies are dying in enormous numbers as I sit and type this, for lack of milkweed on which to lay their eggs. It’s not beyond most people to plant some milkweed on their property; that’s a small but meaningful chunk of wildlife activism.
But in the absence of power, one can still bear witness. That, I think, is my job – to photograph and tell the stories of wild things. The tarantulas and the bison and the herons all have stories, and I’m happy to be their biographer.