Lesson #5: Appreciate Nature

The goal of life is living in agreement with nature.                         Zeno (335 – 263 B. C.)

 

pines-min“It looks like you’ve had a fire come through here,” guests on my wagon often observe. They are noticing the blackened trunks of all the mature pine trees that dot the landscape.

“We burn this property every year,” I reply, much to their surprise.

This is where I give a very brief summary of a very complicated concept. Without the regular destruction by fire, this ideal bobwhite quail habitat would not exist. Fire is a natural phenomenon that some ecosystems require. If we suppress it, those ecosystems will cease to exist.

Pine trees have evolved to withstand fire. Everything else pretty much burns to the ground. But within days, a miracle happens. Shoots of green begin to appear from the blackened soil. In a few weeks the ground is a carpet of greenery and in a few months, evidence of the fire has been replaced by lush, wildlife-supporting vegetation.

I often wonder as I sit on my wagon and watch the hunters stalk the broomsedge and wiregrass hoping to flush another covey what this landscape would look like without quail hunters paying for its preservation. My guess is that the wide open, pine-wiregrass habitat would be swallowed up in a scrub oak forest. The quail, gopher tortoise, and other savanna-loving creatures would disappear.

The longleaf pine savanna—the signature ecosystem of the American Southeast—is said to have once covered more than fifty percent of the land across thousands of miles of nine states, from Virginia to East Texas. In the Sierra Club Magazine’s January 2016 issue, the famed biologist E. O. Wilson wrote an essay titled It’s Time to Strike a Fair Deal with Wild Nature. In it, he identifies twelve of the “best places in the biosphere”—places like the Amazon River basin and the Serengeti grasslands. These places, Wilson suggests, are some of the best places to see a living natural environment. Wilson listed the longleaf pine savanna of the American Southeast as one of the twelve. It is, I believe, quail hunting that has preserved enough habitat to make this list.

 

For those who seriously and actively care about animals there are, I believe, several types of animal lovers. They include animal activists, animal care professionals, and sportsmen. It is the sportsmen—hunters and fishermen—who are usually left out of the conversation when it comes to a love of animals because they express their respect by harvesting and consuming the very things they love and seek to protect.

Much of society, it seems, is disconnected from the source of our food. Deep down we know that if we eat meat, some animal had to provide that meat—but it is not something to be talked about in polite society.

This was illustrated recently when my wife, an elementary school librarian, was speaking to a first-grade class after reading a story about what animals eat. She explained the differences between carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores but when my wife asked the kids what category humans fall into, they became confused. Many did not realize that humans eat other animals—that when eating hamburger they are eating a cow or when consuming bacon they are eating a pig. This urban generation is being raised on shrink-wrapped food from the grocery store. I wondered if some parents might be upset that their children were being told otherwise.

Why the disconnect? Perhaps it is because we don’t want to think about the fact that animals are killed to supply our meat. We are content with an illusion.

This reminds me of the story (probably untrue, but a good story none-the-less) about a display presented by showman P. T. Barnum early in his career. It was called The Happy Family, and it is said to have featured a lion, a tiger, a panther, and a lamb—all in the same cage. After the exhibition had been running for a while, a friend asked the showman how everything was going. “Oh, fairly well,” Barnum replied. “I’m going to make a permanent feature out of it, if the supply of lambs holds out.”

The guests I meet on my wagon are, for the most part, enthusiastic sportsmen. They love shooting the way some people love golf, even to the point of cheering the well-placed shot. Most of them are more like me than I ever suspected. They are naturalists at heart. They may fly-in on private jets and carry shotguns that cost more than a new car, but they still marvel at the vultures that soar overhead, ask about the prescribed fire that maintains quail habitat, and get excited when a cooper’s hawk swoops in to steal one of their birds.

They are as knowledgeable about what quail eat as they are what size shotgun shell will bring them down and they believe in giving the birds a sporting chance to get away. Most will not shoot unless their target is well into the air and flapping madly in the opposite direction.

Author, Temple Grandin, uses her autism and her expertise as an animal science professor at Colorado State University as a platform to advocate for the humane treatment of the livestock we slaughter for food. In her 2009 book Animals Make Us human, she suggests that our relationship with the animals we use for food should be mutually beneficial. If we are going to take animals for food, then we should provide those animals a good quality of life prior to that use.

The birds that are killed in our operation are dropped in a box on the wagon and placed on ice after each hunt. They are then cleaned, packaged, and frozen—ready for consumption by our guests. They are harvested at least as humanely as the billions of chickens who are slaughtered every year to provide our chicken nuggets and many more quail escape than are shot. I know because I see them fly into the distance and later hear them mock us with their calls as we drive in at the end of the day..

Perhaps the people who oppose hunting as cruel and barbaric might see the end of hunting as a victory but, from where I sit on the wagon, it would be a hollow victory indeed.

 

My own affinity for the land began as a boy growing up in Florida dodging rattlesnakes as I wandered among the palmettos and pine trees in the woods behind my house. My adult adventures have seen me slogging through northern hardwood forests in knee-deep snow, sleeping in a tent on the Serengeti grasslands where hippos brushed the side of my tent at night, and searching for the elusive resplendent quetzal in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. I have been blessed to observe thousands of wildebeest crossing a river in Africa, to swim with fur seals in the Galapagos Islands, and to hear the calls of Beluga whales in the Arctic.

In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv coins the term Nature-Deficit Disorder to link the lack of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as rises in obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and depression. He claims that by the 1990s the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam on their own had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970. Today, Louv says, average eight-year-olds are better able to identify cartoon characters than native species, such as beetles and oak trees, in their own community. Environment-based education dramatically improves standardized test scores and grade point averages and develops skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and decision making.

There is, I believe, no substitute for being in nature and no reason we can’t find nature—even in the most urban environments. Whether it is in a park, a hunting lodge, or our own backyard, nature is in our genes and we need nature as much as it needs us to save it.

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