Tuesday, December 15, 2015

‘Tis the Season

No, not the Christmas season. Campaign season! And with all of the, er, dissatisfaction being expressed these days about the current lineup of politicians vying for office, I thought it would be fun to blog about the forefathers and their campaigns - for nature.

I’m reading a fascinating book entitled Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf (New York: Knopf, 2011). It turns out that, while George Washington was fighting the revolution, he was dreaming about getting home to his garden, making notes about what he would plant, consulting gardening books and catalogs from the continent. Once home at Mt. Vernon in Virginia, he set about designing grounds that reflected the wild natural beauty of the United States rather than the more manicured beauty of the trendy English garden.

Many of the forefathers (including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson) were fascinated by plants in terms of their cultivation value and felt the future prosperity of the new country lay in the hands of farmers, a place where, as Washington put it, “our Swords and Spears have given place to the plough share and pruning hook” (16). But Washington found an aesthetic value in plants and trees as well, and he wanted his grounds to express the beauty of American nature. Beginning in 1784, he ordered the following trees from friends around the country: balsam trees and white pines from the Northeast, hemlocks from the East, and live oaks and magnolias from the South (21-22).

He was also interested in native local species, plants that the fashionable set considered weeds: ash trees, pines, cockspur hawthorns, sassafras, crab apples, and flowering dogwoods. Washington liked plants that provided berries during the winter and fragrant blossoms come spring. He experimented with planting times, relying on slaves to dig into the frozen ground in winter and work in the hot sun in spring. But Washington was known to strip off his coat and labor “like a common man” as well, much to the surprise of visitors (27).

Then he turned his attention to his fields, experimenting with organic pesticides such as seaweed and fertilizer in the form of manure and gypsum. Today, I can imagine Washington as that retired guy who moves out to the country to take up farming in his later years, hawking his produce at the local farmers’ market. “Oh, look, General Washington has such nice arugula today!” I can imagine myself saying.

It's clear that Washington wanted to make a political statement with his planting. This new country didn’t need English gardens or English anything else; it needed to turn inward and explore and appreciate its own natural heritage. A general and future president who envisioned his nation’s greatness through trees and flowers - imagine how different our presidential debates would be today if that kind of vision were on the table.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Hunt for the Dusky Flycatcher

The first week of November, the word got out: a Gettysburg College Wildlife Ecology class out birding on campus one morning identified what seemed to be a Dusky Flycatcher (Empidonax oberholseri). This is a small, rather nondescript little bird that lives in Western North America and migrates to Mexico for the winter. The poor little guy (maybe an inexperienced juvenile?) got blown off course and ended up all the way over in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

And with the news came the birders. According to one count, some 100 birders came to Gettysburg to see the bird over the course of the weekend. The identification still has to be confirmed and has proven controversial, with some saying that it may actually have been a Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus). If the Dusky Flycatcher identification stands, it will be the first one identified in the state of Pennsylvania.

I’ve been a bird lover for most of my life, so naturally attracted to birds from an early age that I apparently came in from kindergarten one day and tearfully begged my parents to let me have a pet budgie. I grew up watching birds in the yard, reading about birds, watching bird documentaries - and having a succession of budgies that were the center of my world. But I only recently became a birder, in part because I somehow felt that documenting birds, checking them off on a list, quantifying them, would take away from their beauty and mystery and all around wonderfulness.

Why are humans so drawn to birding? Now I’m beginning to understand. For one thing, to recognize them is to begin to know them. You don’t just check birds off your list and forget about them. The process of identifying them is the process of understanding them. The process of understanding them involves falling in love with them again and again as you read about their habitat, their migration paths, their parenting skills, as you listen to the variations on their song, as you begin to recognize how their plumage changes over the seasons. After that, seeing a bird you know well is like seeing an old friend.

For another thing, humans love to be on a hunt for something, and birding feels like such an accomplishment. I tried to see that Dusky Flycatcher for several days, without success. If I had, it would have marked a special day in my life and I would have always remembered the story. With birding - or appreciating nature more generally - you always have the sense that there is a world around you that you’re not seeing or hearing or smelling at that particular moment. To identify a bird or an animal is to extract it momentarily from that unacknowledged and mysterious world always surrounding us.

And then, as with anything else, you can tell all your other birding friends what you saw. Numbers and types of birds you’ve sighted become a form of prestige. I’m a novice, with a less than 100 life list (list of how many birds I’ve seen over my lifetime). The stars of the local Audubon Association loom large in my eyes, and I hope someday to have the kind of respect and knowledge that they garner, quantified in part in the number of birds on their life list, their ease of recognition, their ability to tell you exactly where in the surrounding area you can find which kinds of birds at what time of the year.

Might birding also be a form of control or ownership? I’ve thought about that, too. When you make a list, check birds off, talk numbers and species and places, you’re coming to know the world around you. Classification is a human instinct. Knowledge can provide a feeling of comfort, safety, even power over the natural world. But, hey, we’re humans. Control is what we do with nature. And, if we’re going to control nature, it’s best that we know it well and appreciate its details. And birding is a great way to get there.