Category Archives: Environment

Cosmopolite Geese (plus swans)

By Corinne H. Smith

“Why not keep pace with the day…and the migration of birds? … The wild goose is more a cosmopolite than we; he breaks his fast in Canada, takes a luncheon in the Susquehanna, and plumes himself for the night in a Louisiana bayou.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, March 21, 1840

The Austrian Alps may be alive with the sound of music., but today in the farmlands and suburbia of southeastern Pennsylvania, the skies are alive with the calls of waterfowl. It’s “Goose music,” as Midwestern nature writer Aldo Leopold once called it. The Canada geese and the white tundra swans fly (and chatter) over us in Vs, in straight lines, and in disorganized and dynamic swiggles. They use the mile-wide gray ribbon of the Susquehanna River as their North Star. Our leftover cornfields and fine-trimmed farm ponds make good touchdowns and rest stops. Then, after a time, the birds take off again, in a whirl of whipping wings and whoops and hollers.

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The geese could probably stop anywhere. The tundra swans, however, are heading for the shorelines of Hudson Bay and Canada’s Nunavut territory. They’ve still got a long way to go before reaching their summer home.

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans

Our friend Henry Thoreau used exaggeration for effect when he claimed that a Canada goose could cross the north-to-south width of our country in just one day. (And why he had the bird flying south in a journal entry written in March is a mystery.) One online source I found said that Canada geese travel north at about the same rate as the season advances. 34° Fahrenheit is the key temperature they use to move. No wonder we’ve seen and heard many migrants recently. Our recent daytime temperatures have averaged around this mark or higher.

Whenever I hear the distant honks and whoops, I have to go outside and look up. I need to catch sight of the birds, hurrying on their way to wherever. I want to follow them someday, I think. I could just get in the car and keep an eye out and drive as they fly. The birds tend to take overland routes and to go “cross lots,” as Henry used to say, where no roads lead. Following them could be tough. And if they stopped to rest with other flocks, how would I recognize which batch was “mine” upon take off? I would have that pesky they-all-look-alike-to-me problem, at least at first. Darn.

For now, I guess I’ll have to watch the geese and travel with them vicariously. I’ll imagine the sights they’ll see along their journeys, both from the air and then on land. I’ll admire their instinct and tenacity.

When I return to the writings of Aldo Leopold, I find that he was also fascinated by seeing these guys in spring. And he imagined their later lives, too.

“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring. … By this international commerce of geese, the waste corn of Illinois is carried through the clouds of the Arctic tundras, there to combine with the waste sunlight of a nightless June to grow goslings for all the lands between. And in this annual barter of food for flight, and winter warmth for summer solitude, the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March.” ~ Aldo Leopold, “March,” in “A Sand County Almanac”

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Roadentia

As noted in a prior posting, we’ve been on the road lately, and the miles of wheeling south have made me think about, well, roads. Always, as we drive, I am aware of bisecting some landscape, of riding right through it at a speed that outpaces perception. Some of that thinking crystallized this morning when I read a posting – What Have Roads Wrought – on the New Yorker’s website.

As often happens when I read studies of ecological observation and effect, I thought of Henry Thoreau and the roads – both highway and railway – that passed by and, at times, animated his stay at Walden Pond. The pond’s east end is skirted by Route 126, and, famously, its west end has 1844’s Fitchburg Line as a tangent.

In the “Sounds” chapter, one of my favorite sections of Walden, Thoreau considers the complicated realities and possibilities of the train: it is both fearsome and expansive: “We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside (Let that be the name of your engine)…I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles by me…I feel more like a citizen of the world [at the sight of the passing freight from around that world.]” The railroad is tireless and relentless and not subject to Nature, but it carries with it a broader sense of the world.

So too these other roads, the highways on which we drive.

Michelle Nijhuis’s New Yorker post – http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/roads-habitat-fragmentation?intcid=mod-latest – summarizes decades of some of the Manaus [Brazil] project’s research on habitat fragmentation brought on by our development of roads on which we drive our own “iron horses.” Chief among its findings are precipitous declines in species – flora and fauna – that arrive with roads; that seems especially true along the edges that line our roads. And, of course, the more roads we build the more edges we create.

What caught my eye (and returned me to Henry Thoreau) was the following statement from professor Nick Haddad of North Carolina State University:

The study also demonstrates, using a high-resolution map of global tree cover, that more than seventy per cent of the world’s forest now lies within one kilometer of such a [roadside] edge. “There are really only two big patches of intact forest left on Earth—the Amazon and the Congo—and they shine out like eyes from the center of the map,” Haddad said.

Two thoughts floated up from memory. The first took me back to Estabrook Woods, in my mind Thoreau’s north pole of Concord. In the early 1960s Concord businessman Tom Flint was flying back into Boston and doing what we all do when given a window seat – he was watching the strings and blobs of lights that show where we live. He noticed a large dark patch. “Where’s that undeveloped forest/land?” he wondered to himself. Flint discovered that it was Estabrook Woods, which turned out to be the largest contiguous patch of undeveloped land within the Rte 495 belt. Flint’s discovery launched a 30-year effort to keep Estabrook Woods intact, which, despite a Middlesex School intrusion for athletic fields, it mostly is today.

In Estabrook’s deepness, back from the roads that ring it, a walker can find goshawks, pileated woodpeckers, and Thoreau’s favorite bird, the wood thrush, all species that require uninterrupted forest.

Far (or not so) from the Madding Road

Far (or not so) from the Madding Road

The other thought is a common “game” for wilderness walkers – how far from a road are we? Or, put differently, what’s the most remote spot we can walk to (remote being defined as farthest from a road). It is – surprisingly or unsurprisingly – hard to get many miles away. In the lower 48 states, for example, the point of greatest remove from a road was tracked by Backpacker writer Mark Jenkins in 2008: “Astonishingly, in the entire continental U.S., coast to coast, Mexico to Canada, there is only one place left where you can get more than 20 miles from a road: in the greater Yellowstone region.” (See more at: http://www.backpacker.com/trips/wyoming/yellowstone-national-park/destination-nowhere/2/#bp=0/img1)

In “Sounds” the train goes by, and throughout the night Thoreau rides his most expansive vehicle, that of his imagination. The chapter ends decisively with an image of unfragmented Nature: “Instead of no path to the front yard gate in the Great Snow, – no gate,-no front yard,- and no path to the civilized world.”

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Back on the asphalt paths, I’m thinking again of Nijhuis’s post and this note: “Roads scare the hell out of ecologists,” William Laurance, a professor at James Cook University, in Australia, said. “You can’t be in my line of business and not be struck by their transformative power.”

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Like Roosters

Guest Post by Kayann Short

“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”    –Thoreau, Walden

On a trip to Cuba a decade ago to research sustainable agriculture, I arrived too late at the guest hostel in the southern, rural part of the island to see much of the palm-treed hills surrounding us in our small valley. Early the next morning, however, I got my chance when I was awoken by not one, not two, but what sounded like hundreds of roosters crowing all around me. I dressed quickly and went outside to find that roosters roamed freely in this village, strutting as lustily as Thoreau’s chanticleer. Roosters are undoubtedly more intent on alerting other roosters to their territory than on signaling transformation, but in El Valle del Gallo, as I called this place, I experienced the power of roosters crowing in unintentional symphony at the dawn of another day.

Recently I heard a story on National Public Radio about two women who own a small boutique in a Tehran mall. The women’s best-selling items might not seem radical: shirts, mugs, and pillows with roosters on them. Yet their roosters feature feathers drawn from the words of a Persian poem celebrating a new dawn. Like an earlier t-shirt the women offered with the word onid, or hope, the rooster items draw mixed reactions. According to the report, some customers don’t believe there’s hope for their country right now, while others want to believe in a new future for Iran.

These women were hopeful because they remembered a more open time in their country; the items they sold offered the possibility of a brighter day. These women’s belief in renewal touched me because I, too, retain an optimism that often seems naïve in the face of the world’s problems, a hopefulness based on the idea of a better future that was once voiced by young people of the 60s and 70s. “All we need is love,” sang the Beatles, “Love is all we need.”

In the early 1970s, Stonebridge Farm on Colorado’s Front Range was home to a small commune of hippies. Living in a tipi, bus, barn, and old farmhouse, they raised cows and chickens and sold milk and eggs to the small town nearby. Their back-to-the-land experiment was short-lived, but their work contributed to the farm’s organic stewardship. Twenty years later, my partner and I started a community-supported farm on the same land. For the last 24 years, we’ve been building the kind of future we’d like to see, one based on a reciprocal relationship with the land and community-based support for organic food production.

We raise chickens at Stonebridge, but since we don’t breed our own chicks, we don’t need rooster services. Last spring, we bought six chicks that were supposed to be egg-laying hens. But almost from the beginning, I suspected that one of the blue-green egg-layers would grow up to be a rooster. Its legs were longer and feathers more pronounced than the others; it looked regal, as if it were wearing a pair of 18th-century pantaloons and a tapestry jacket, just the type of braggart Thoreau had imagined. “ER-er-er-ERRR,” it crowed one day as I passed by the coop, making its intentions—and gender—clear. Luckily, chicken-loving friends were willing to adopt Ajax to replenish their breeding stock.

Ajax considers dawn Photo: Peter Butler

Ajax considers dawn
Photo: Peter Butler

I love my hens, but since hearing the story about the Iranian shopkeepers and their rooster t-shirts, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the louder fowl of the species. Metaphorically, as Thoreau knew and wrote, we need roosters to arouse the sleeping into action, voice inconvenient truths, and lead the call for change.

Today, social networking provides roosters more perches from which to crow than in Thoreau’s time. That may not make it easier to be a rooster – the risks of raising an unwelcome alarm will always exist – but more roosts means more roosters crowing together about the big things we’re facing like climate crisis, violence in communities and nations, and an ever-deepening gap between the have-mores and the have-lesses.

We roosters may be individualists, but with so many crowing at once, a collective message forms and surely it rises above the cacophonous din. Like the roosters of El Valle del Gallo, we raise our voices together with hope for change. By pairing personal acts with collaborative action, we establish that “hope” can be more than a slogan on a t-shirt. If we care about the day, the future and the world we’ll leave behind, we need to be like roosters and wake each other up.

Kayann Short, Ph.D., is the author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography (Torrey House Press). She farms, writes, and teaches at Stonebridge Farm, the first CSA in Boulder County, Colorado.

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