Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A World of Wounds

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”

--Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” 

--Mahatma Gandhi

It may be that I'm just emotional, but I frequently find myself overwhelmed with the beauty and wonder of the world around me. Watching a preening bird or feeding butterfly, or finding a delicate wildflower gives me a total endorphin high. Seeing a a pair of wrens feeding their chicks can move me to tears. A walk along the beach or in the Prairie can lift my mood for days. If I spend too much time on the computer or in the car, or when I haven't been able to get out for a while, I start to feel irritable and anxious. I need my nature fix! Or as environmental educator and author, Richard Louv would put it, I need a dose of "Vitamin N"!
Red Knot, Preening

I'm also a worrier. My family teases me about this, but I can't help myself. It's in my nature. I worry about the people and things that I care about. And these days, one of the things that causes me worry is the hurt that we humans are causing to the nature around us. Not willful, intentional hurt, although that bothers me too. What I'm worried about are the unintentional consequences that happen as a result of people who just are not thinking about what they do or don't care. The accidental collateral damage to nature that seems to go hand in hand with human civilization. I watch the ominous signs and feel despair. But many people happily go about their daily business, apparently unaware. 

Recently there was a sad story in the paper about a woman near Orlando who was attacked by a bear as she was walking her dog. It doesn't sound like she was doing anything wrong. The woman was hurt. Wildlife officials went out in search of the bear and they found and killed one right away. But it turned out to be the wrong bear. So they went out looking again, and found more, including a mother with 2-3 cubs. One story I read said that 6 bears had been euthanized so far. I was horrified on so many levels after hearing this chain of events. It must have been terrifying for the woman to be attacked. But 6 bears? And what had happened here so that there were so many bears living in the proximity of people? Could it be that we have encroached on the little space that is left for bears? Don't people know that bears need a lot of territory to be able to find enough food?  I can't imagine that there are people out there who think we should get rid of all the bears, but then where are they supposed to live? Everyone is paying the price here. 

A week or so ago, my husband and I took a spontaneous trip to the beach. It was going to be a rainy weekend, but the storms weren't quite to the coast yet and the weather was lovely. The light was grey and subdued, and it was a little windy, but the air was warm. The beach was bustling with people and birds. I encountered several shorebirds that I'd never seen before and walked and watched along the beach for hours. I really love the way that the little "Peeps" zip back and forth with the surf, looking for food. Our hotel was right on the beach and it was really pleasant. At the exit from the hotel property onto the sand, there were signs telling people to stay off of the protected dunes and sea oats and to be aware that sea turtles come to the beach to lay eggs. There were disposal bins for fishing line to help keep birds and other animals from getting tangled in it. There were signs telling drivers on the beach where driving was allowed. As I walked the beach I was acutely aware of the of the precarious balance of humans vs. nature. It's hard to imagine that something as vast as the ocean could be hurt by humans. Indeed, in a big storm, the ocean could easily rise up and wipe out all the development. But in the meantime, the danger to the shore life is evident. The dunes were riddled with foot trails, despite the signs. There was a lot of garbage, either left by beach-goers, or washed up by the waves. At night, the lights in the hotel rooms shone out towards the water, even if the hotel had dimmed their outside lights for sea turtle protection. People want to be close to the beach to enjoy it, and this is what happens.

Birds, People, Trash, Buildings, Beach

Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderling Scouting the Surf

Whether because of the coming storms, or just because they're common, hundreds of Cannonball Jellyfish had washed up on the beach. The birds didn't seem very interested in them, but they are a favorite food of the endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles. Sadly, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags that are floating in the ocean by the millions for jellyfish. They eat the bags and it kills them. I found a plastic bag and a jellyfish side by side in the sand, a perfect illustration of the problem. Not far from the baggie, I found the mangled body of a dead Royal Tern, tangled in fishing line. The bright colors of the bill and feathers were so beautiful and it was so sad. Such senseless waste. A few yards further, the plovers and sanderlings rested in the sand, reminding me that they also nest in the sand. A gull standing in the tracks of a car that drove along the beach illustrates the danger--that a resting or nesting bird could so easily be run over. Yes, there are protected nesting areas, and birds can fly away if they are resting. But some birds don't read posted signs or fly fast enough. 
Cannonball Jellyfish and Plastic Bag

Royal Tern Caught in Fishing Line
Sanderling Resting

Ring-Billed Gull Stands in the Tracks

The next day we stopped at Blue Spring State Park to see wintering Manatees. Last year there were so many manatees there that people described it as being like a "parking lot". This year there were just a few. The weather had not gotten very cold yet, which may have contributed to the lower numbers. But there has also been a large manatee die-off this year in the Indian River area. Some biologists attribute the die-off to pollution from leaky septic systems in the highly developed area. In any case, manatees are very vulnerable. Almost every manatee bears the scars of encounters with boat propellers. They are slow swimmers and apparently can't hear the boats coming in time to move away. When you see a manatee, with its squinty, star-like eyes, the way they swim slowly and munch plants and grasses, it's heartbreaking to think that they we hurt them all the time. I hope that it's usually not intentional, but we just seem to keep hurting and killing manatees. I always feel lucky to see them. 
Manatee and Young

We also discovered that Blue Spring Park was a place to see Florida Scrub Jays. Here is a success story. The park has been doing some plant removal and restoration of the Scrub and a ranger told us that there were possibly 25 pairs of Scrub Jays now. We hiked back to the scrub area and were lucky to see about 15 Jays. I've never seen them before, so this was a big treat for me. They are endangered, so several had tags and bands, but they seemed happy and comfortable in their park. And as if to underline this feeling, a faint hint of a rainbow appeared for a brief moment behind a tree with one Jay in the top and another feeding in the weeds. It was a beautiful sight. 
Florida Scrub Jay

Given that Florida has about 19 million people and attracts millions more in tourism every year, and given that the world has 7 plus billion people, some struggling to live in dire conditions where they don't have the luxury of caring about the environment, what do we do if we want to preserve the natural areas and protect plants and animals? I don't really know. But I guess the first thing is to know that our actions are not without consequences. People have to care about the natural world enough to want to take care of it. And recognize that it's not just for the animals or the plants, it's not just some radical environmentalist thing, but it's for the entire world. We live here, too, and what we do to the natural world, we do to ourselves. So what do can we do? Think about how and where we build. Drive less and walk more, but watch where we go. Buy less crap. Don't use plastic bags. And pick up our trash. It's a start at least.
Portuguese Man of War (Not a Jellyfish)