I’ve been noticing lately that the pace of nature is very slow. I started to understand this in the past few years by watching one of our cats, Lemmon, hunt mice in our house. When she detects a mouse, say, behind the stove or refrigerator, she will sit in that part of the kitchen for hours and even days at a time, waiting for it to move. She knows the mouse will come out eventually, and she’s in no hurry.
A few days ago a toad moved into the rotting old stump near my flower garden. There’s enough erosion underneath to provide room for a toad to sit in the cool mud, a happy spot that benefits from water trickling down from the bird bath that sits on top of the stump. And there’s tall grass around the stump to make for good bug and slug-hunting territory. So the toad seemed happy to be there, and I was happy to watch it for hours at a time, fascinated. One morning I sat there reading for three hours, and the toad moved one inch in all that time. Like Lemmon, it was waiting patiently for bugs and slugs to come its way.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about reproduction and loss in nature, and that speaks to another kind of slow pace in terms of the endurance and rise and fall of population sizes. This year I’m fascinated in particular by the killdeer. Our resident killdeer pair have their second nest of the season in the garden right now. The first nest, as is typical, produced four chicks. One of the chicks survived the dangers of our neighborhood and is now as big as the parents, and we await the hatching of the next four eggs. A 25% yield is pretty darn good, but knowing that 90% of baby birds don’t survive their first year makes me realize that the little chick isn’t safe yet. It’s also likely that only one or none of this next brood will survive after hatching.
In other words, successful breeding is a slow business. Over the course of their lives, these two killdeer may produce anywhere between eight to eighty eggs, and for population maintenance we can really only hope that two will survive and reproduce. That means six to seventy-eight eggs and chicks may be lost. Similarly, I saw a mallard mama in our neighborhood start spring with nine little ducklings in tow. By the end of a two-week period, they were all gone, probably because of a combination of the red fox I’ve seen in the area, the barn cats at my neighbor’s horse farm, and the enormous snapping turtles in the creek where they swam. Now she’s on her second nest, on the edge of a neighbor’s house. Yesterday he came over to tell us that rat snakes had gotten into the nest and eaten all but three of the eggs. Such a sad loss of nine-plus lives so far, with little chance that one of the remaining three chicks, if hatched, will survive and grow to adulthood. But mallards are one of the most successful species in the world in terms of expanding their range and increasing their population, so obviously Mother Nature knows what she’s doing in the end.
So the lesson learned is that nature moves slowly, producing lots and lots of young over time so that a tiny minority will survive to reproduce. But, in the meantime, that “waste” goes to feed lots of other animals so that their young will survive to reproduce as well.
All of that is hard to grasp from my human perspective, especially given that I come from a society that values speed, efficiency, and immediate gratification. The hours I spend watching wildlife are painfully slow and bearable only if I’m reading or making to-do lists or something else so that I won’t be “wasting” my time. I don’t understand why Lemmon even bothers to hunt mice, knowing that there will be a bowl of food set down in front of her three times a day by busy, efficient me. But there are age-old lessons in the slowness of nature that we should heed.
First, slow, careful work yields a lot. One day I noticed a growing pile of teeny wood shavings at the bottom of that old stump. Finally I looked for the source and realized there are ants inside, digging out passageways; each ant works hard to dig out the wood and bring the shaving to a crack in the stump to dump it out. It’s amazing how the pile has grown in a few short days! Likewise, tons of research on writing shows that a little bit of writing every day produces many times more pages over the course of the year than a fast and furious spurt of occasional writing. The tortoise and the hare principal applies in nature and in our lives, otherwise Aesop wouldn’t have bothered writing a fable about it.
Another lesson is the importance of patience. Lemmon and the toad eventually get what they want (although we always take the mouse away from poor Lemmon and release it in the field across the street), and they do so by waiting patiently, saving themselves a great deal of exertion. Needless to say, developing that kind of patience is a tough one for all of us. But how many self-help books advocate patience and endurance, setting and working toward long-term, important goals, rather than chasing after short-term goals, urgent matters, and immediate gratification? We know that kind of patience is better for our emotional, mental, and physical health.
And there are other lessons, perhaps less satisfying, about the inevitability of death and loss and grief, but also about moving on, laying the next nest, hatching the next brood, trying again, optimistic that all of those efforts will produce much over the long haul.