Have you ever sat down in a symphony hall and when the orchestra rose to full volume on an especially moving piece, marveled at the blend of instruments that could produce such an overwhelming sound? I guess you could say the same thing about the rock group The Grateful Dead. Now, consider removing the violins from the symphony, or the bass guitar from The Grateful Dead. The sound is not the same is it? When an integral part of any band or symphony is missing, the music suffers.
I believe life on the blue planet we call Earth mirrors a symphony orchestra. John Muir wrote that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” John Muir’s perception certainly makes a person consider the consequences when we intervene in nature to remove a species, or when we alter our environment to the point where whole ecosystems perish. Now, I know this seems to be an abstract something, to which you might nod your head in agreement. But let’s get right down to our backyards. Does this concept alter our daily life or activities? For a moment, think about your reactions to nature. Here is a fairly extreme example of what I mean.
A few months back, I walked out on my backyard deck. It was one of those first really warm summer days. Birds were everywhere, squirrels in the trees, and then I saw it. Out from under our large backyard deck came a big copperhead snake, almost two feet long. Now what would be your reaction? Get the hoe? Get the gun? Kill that snake? When I grew up on a small south Arkansas farm that would have been the automatic reaction. In fact, anything that could be a threat to anybody was automatically killed. And on top of that, anything that posed even a remote threat to our crops, livestock or property was killed.
That thought process in the past gave us an open season on everything from snakes to chicken hawks to beaver to sparrows, and, of course, in previous years, the state Game and Fish Commission had put bounties on wolves, cougars and bobcats. I’m sorry to say that mentality,which prevails even to this day, has resulted in a wholesale destruction of hundreds of species simply because we view them as a perceived threat to us. They are considered undesirable wildlife.
Well, are we actually threatened by wildlife? When was the last time you heard of anybody being killed by snakebite, or how many chickens have you ever seen snared by a”chicken” hawk? I lived on a farm covered up with chickens for years, and I never saw a hawk take even one chicken. But what are your odds of being killed by snakebite, cougars, bears or any other creature? I dare say, the odds are better of you being struck by lightning, dying from an ingrown toenail or being killed by a cow.
So, what should be our reaction to the parts of nature we consider undesirable? Of course, that requires us to classify every part of nature as either desirable or undesirable. Where do you start and where do you stop. How about the snakes, coyotes, sparrows, hawks, wolves, beaver, armadillos and you could go on and on. But while we are classifying, shouldn’t we consider how removing them degrades the blue planet?
Well, let’s go back to my backyard deck again. I watched the copperhead snake slowly move through the azaleas, and as I watched it for another five minutes, it slowly worked its way around the deck, and then disappeared into some leaves. I would imagine I’ll see not only this one but several small copperheads around the deck this fall, and from the looks of it, I probably have an active copperhead den right in my backyard. I may get bitten, but I doubt it. I don’t know exactly what part copperheads play in the harmony of nature; maybe they hold down the toad frog population. I don’t know, but I have become convinced they deserve to live just as much as those beautiful bluebirds who nest in my bluebird box. But copperhead snakes are just a part of what you might call my snaky backyard. A big brown water snake has a den beside our patio, just adjacent to my backyard pond, and this spring, it birthed several little ones. In our front yard, I frequently see garter snakes and green snakes, and in the pond right off our deck, I would venture a guess that I have a water moccasin or two. I’m faced with the choice: how can I arbitrarily try to promote the well-being of one part of our environment while I destroy another part?
But should I have killed the copperhead? I’m sure a goodly number of my readers will say “Hell, yes!” Of course a copperhead is a threat, but should we kill all the pit bull dogs? More people are killed by pit bulls than by copperheads. Tough questions.
Now back to the farm for a moment. When I was eight years old, my Dad placed a bolt action 20 gauge shotgun in my hands. His words of advice still ring clear. “Don’t shoot anything you’re not going to eat.” Back then, we supplemented many of our meals with game I killed and fish I caught. We even ate possum, coon and armadillo. I guess this concept still drives my hunting and fishing. I can’t imagine shooting a duck and not retrieving it, or catching a stringer full of fish and not dressing them. And today, I can’t imagine shooting a hawk or killing a snake or killing anything I’m not going to eat. This concept makes me oppose trapping beaver. Not because trapping is wrong, but because the beaver are being killed and just thrown away because the dams they build may kill a few acres of scraggly timber. On top of that, about 1/3 of the catch in beaver traps are otter. Again, just killed and thrown away. And the much maligned coyotes? Well, send a few more my way, the coons, possum and armadillo are overrunning my place. I’m in the city limits, so if nature doesn’t control itself, we are going to be knee deep in whatever can adapt to the scraps of habitat we have left them.
So the next time you set up a bug zapper, which by the way doesn’t attract the mosquitoes that bite you, think about the harmony of nature. Wouldn’t the addition of a birdhouse for fifty purple martins to eat those mosquitoes make for more harmony than the sizzle of a bug zapper?
Yes, I want the woods to be diverse, and if that means adding a little discomfort and danger, so be it. In life, I have always found that the more varied and diverse life becomes, the more meaningful it is. Our blue planet is rich and wonderfully crafted, and if we want the best life possible we should tread softly on its surface, and put away forever the slash, burn, and kill mentality of another generation.
Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]