In the process of shifting the contents of a moving van into my pickup truck, load by load, back in July (since the half-mile stretch to our front door was unnavigable for large vehicles), I managed to pull something behind my left shoulder. It nags me from time to time. I apparently re-aggravate it every other week without knowing precisely how. The weather may be implicated this time: our autumn’s first genuine cold front has wrung the moisture out of my body like water out of a rag, and mild dehydration never helps sore muscles and joints. A doctor would tell me to slow down and give me some pain pills, without coming any closer to the specific cause of aggravation. I can buy Tylenol and save the deductible: just need to pay closer attention to what I’m doing.
It was Tiberius, of all people, who once remarked sagely that a man in need of a doctor after the age of forty is a fool. His intent was that we should get to know our bodies better and better as we age. Now the formula has been reversed. Aging people run to the waiting room with every nag—and demand that Government foot the bill. Result: nags continue, doctors are overwhelmed, waiting rooms overflow with coughing wrecks, and the tax man forces you to purchase crappy insurance like a crooked sheriff exacting extortion money so that Medicare may be supplied to illegally resident drifters (in the hope that they vote—illegally—for a certain party). You see? Tiberius was right!
As I lay gingerly in bed this morning, at any rate—dreading the instant when I would have to lift myself—I heard a coyote’s yowl. I had heard it yesterday, too, at about the same time: maybe an hour before dawn. Then, however, it had puzzled me. Today I had no doubts: solid confirmation that the rumors of coyotes in the area are not just more yarns spun by my brother-in-law, the self-styled wit.
Like my body’s protests against incidental abuse, this 25-acre tract of hilly woods has confronted me with a lot of “teachable moments”. I don’t necessarily profit from every lesson the first time. I’d already decided, though, that having a small pet running loose about the yard would only invite tragedy. The image of a coyote wandering around beneath a red sky as the temperature flirts with freezing tells me I made the right choice on that issue. And I needed only one lesson on the inadvisability of hacking down summer undergrowth with wild abandon. Having scythed my way into the middle of a yellowjacket nest back in August, I emerged with the healthy resolution that there would be no more such hacking until after the first freeze.
That time draws near—and much of the underbrush, as a bonus, is dying on its own. I can see farther into my unexplored acreage every day. Natural paths appear where I had never expected anything but wild blackberry and other creeping, stabbing desperados. A nice spot to the northwest of the house actually receives a generous portion of daylight, though I had previously written it off as unusable land. (The builders had felled so many trees and dumped so much spoiled lumber in the patch that I had subconsciously marked it a “no go” den of snakes and scorpions.) Now that leaves are falling—and now that I have begun peeling away the tree corpses one by one (mostly for use in bridging a stretch of road that always goes muddy in any sort of rain)—I can see a new home for several fruit trees. I’ve just piled up a mound that waits to receive an apricot tree—a unique kind bred by Stark Brothers whose almond-like kernel within the seed has no significant cyanide and is good to eat, along with the fruit. That’s killing two birds with one stone (though I have no plans of killing any bird at all, despite the family of nine turkeys that struts in and out of the road in incredibly foolhardy confidence).
Most productive trees must root where water can drain: that was one of my more anguishing lessons. I managed to murder a pecan tree, and probably an apple tree, by digging them up and transporting them from Texas. The deracination process would likely have killed the pecan, anyway; but the apple was doing fine until, as I realized too late, rainwater began clinging to the clayey soil where I had bedded it down. My latest nurslings have been nestled into an airy framework of deadwood over which I poured good, loamy soil: two pecans and two apples, beneficiaries (hopefully) of their unhappy brethren’s tragedy. One of the new apples was sagging a bit before I removed a pine that was monopolizing the midday sun. It already looks better, though the pine (sorry, old girl) has ended up bridging the mud slick.
All of the new trees have netting around them to keep the deer at bay and sevin sprayed liberally upon them to repel grasshoppers—a species of plague that the local birds have decided to overlook, for some reason. The construction activity, noisy and horribly destructive from an avian point of view, probably sent some of the more timid species into exile. Maybe I need to erect a few bluebird houses next spring. I hear robins occasionally, but I don’t see them putting in any insect-slaughtering labor around the house. Note to myself: research which species of bird loves to chow down on grasshoppers and “stink bugs” (the local name for an exotic Chinese import).
Sometimes I pause to think about how very un-PC my new life has become. Killing trees, killing insects, killing snakes… I killed my first serpiente a week ago. He was curled up on the back doorstep. I knew that he might have been a benign rat-eater—and anything that eats rats around here is at least as welcome as anything that consumes grasshoppers and yellowjackets. I couldn’t take the chance, however, that I might let something poisonous slink away and hide next to the house as I went running to the Internet in an attempt to identify its scaly arabesque. Sure enough, I’d decapitated a rat snake, as it turned out. Sorry, again.
The grief may be mine today, and a tree’s or a critter’s tomorrow… but grief is ineradicable from life. If the snake had lived, many rats would have died (and I hope its offspring pick up the slack). Where rats or their suburban cousin, the bushy-tailed squirrel, abound, bird’s eggs and hatchlings are at grave risk in the spring. Too many birds of the “wrong” kind, and fruit never reaches the ground nor berries the table. The horrid blackberry vine exploits the space cleared by bulldozers with such greed that no new hardwood can ever grow naturally in its tangle; yet if a forest is left entirely to its own ways, old trunks maul new saplings and ruin broad spans for generations when they fall—or they half-tumble, occasionally, into bizarre postures where they somehow stay alive and equally deny prosperity to everything for yards around them.
Conservation means husbandry: it means that some must endure stress so that others may survive. As old Seneca wrote, Nulli accidit impune nasci: “Nothing lives without paying a cost.” The conservator attempts to maintain a healthy balance. Where I removed some trees, I planted others of a different species. I will not eat all of the fruit produced by these latter: the birds will get some, and their populations will enjoy a modest statistical bump. The feathery friends that depredate my trees will themselves, as potential prey, draw more hawks—and the hawks will consume rodents, as well. To some extent, I can assist such balance. As I grow older in this task and learn more, I can assist it better.
Throwing open the forest to all comers will mean that the prolific and the voracious drive the modest and the frugal to extinction. It will create a desert waste within a few generations—for the ravagers will themselves end up with nothing to eat, and will starve miserably. Showing “mercy” to some cute/cuddly species that plays upon the heartstrings by feeding it artificially from the back porch means that said species forgets how to thrive on its own; and the free bowls of manna will also likely draw unforeseen competitors that not only overpower everything cute and cuddly in the universe, but quickly devour the back porch itself and go after the house.
There is a kind of dumbfounding stupidity that has taken possession of those among us who never live in and with nature, day in and day out. Their imbecilic utopian agenda is likely to kill us all, themselves included, by the time nature laces her tendrils through every key, string, and pedal of the orchestra. No grand symphony will result—only cacophonous screeches and rasps. Yet the visionary imbeciles stop their ears when one tries to explain life to them, and lately they have even begun freeing a hand to sling projectiles.
Those who have ears, let them hear.