Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 4, 2009

Walkin’ Man Stalks Falcons in the Tall Trees

“The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all the other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste… Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves. This we know: Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.”  – Chief Seattle, 1854

Thanks to some destructive Emerald Ash Borer beetles (are they alien in Skokie, or native?), my local park district had to cut down nine huge trees in the park next to our house about a month ago. In an ineffectual act of protest, or maybe as a sort of mourning ritual, I shot a bit of video and a few photos while the cutting crew was working. Not sure what I’ll do with the footage now, though.

It takes genuine effort and discipline to conserve, and to maintain a connection to “the land”, in the modern era. I don’t mean real estate, mind you. Nor do I even mean ownership or landscaping or planting new trees. Just a steady appreciation of the woods, lakes, rivers, meadows, trees, marshes and various animals that roam them.

I try to get out and do my powerwalk in the forest preserve once or twice a week. But sometimes driving ten minutes to get there (or more, if I want to see new parts of the steadily greening landscape) seems like a waste of both time and gas. Why add pollution to the air in an effort to appreciate the trees that produce our oxygen?

And, like old Donald Rumsfeld regarding Iraq, I’m always frustrated by all those “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” — by what I and my fellow suburbanites are both aware of and unaware of, regarding what we don’t know about trees and earth science and local species of plant and animal life. (Didja catch all that?) I enjoy nature, but I can’t help but ask unanswerable questions at times, and get depressed about the situation. Maybe that’s the job of a poet or a “natural” philosopher. I don’t know.

For instance: can you name any Secretary of the Interior, the nation’s chief conservationist, from any presidential administration? I can’t… even though I saw the current one on the Daily Show only three weeks ago (I think). But I can tell you the last seven or eight secretaries of state. We just don’t prioritize the landscape, or the planet, like we ought to.

Watching a local news story in Chicago yesterday put me in mind of this conundrum in a new way. They had video of a few peregrine falcon chicks, in a nest that a falcon pair has been brooding over since sometime in the Nineties, right atop one of the main buildings in the heart of the busy Loop business district. As a raptor fanatic, I thought it very cool that NBC/WMAQ covered this story and gave the public information about the successful falcon re-release/conservation program conducted in this region.

On the other hand, I wondered how many people watching the broadcast fully understood the subtext of the story: how drastically we’ve altered the landscape and taken away the predators that actually keep the mouse, rodent and deer populations in check in America’s urban and suburban areas.

Maybe it’s not a crisis, but it deserves more than just a cutesy little once-a-year story with video of stumbling falcon chicks on the local news.

Predators are here, just not in high enough numbers. Just this spring, I found the remains of two baby rabbits that had clearly been chomped by a predator the previous night in our garden, and we saw the flying feathers as a Cooper’s or Redtail hawk swooped down in a quiet Zion neghborhood and plucked a sparrow out of the recently-mown grass. And I actually did see a coyote in my neighborhood once, nine years ago, at about 2am. Where he lived, and whether he was just passing through, I don’t know. But weigh that one coyote, and a handful of hunters with severe restrictions, against the number of deer we see around (not that I have a problem with deer… they’re just a sign that something’s out of balance ecologically).

On a good day, I experience all this “circle of life” stuff as a great gift. Yet usually I’m so distracted from gratitude for that gift –partly because I am pummeled into numbness by a culture that’s forgotten what to look for, that cares in only the most general and uninformed way about nature, and that doesn’t make room for the natural wonders that genuinely want to fluorish in our midst.

We paved paradise and put up a parking lot… indeed.


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