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Stories

Breakfast

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It was a lovely early spring morning, and after the sun had been up for an hour or so I decided to walk to the top of the hill above the house to see what the populace might be up to.  A couple of bluebirds flitted from place to place along the power line, perching for a moment, then fluttering on for twenty yards or so before landing again, and warbling softly.  Their song is more of a short call, a quick low chee-urr that is hardly noticeable unless you know what to listen for.  Members of the Thrush Family, a group made up of such notable singers as the Robin, the Hermit Thrush, and the Veery, the Mountain bluebird is hardly a songster.  Seen in the right light the Mountain Bluebird’s brilliant blue color is stunning, but the bird doesn’t sing worth a hoot, so to speak.sisk007

    I noticed two starlings inspecting a bluebird house nailed to a fence post not far away, but the bluebirds paid them no attention.  They were unconcerned for the moment, but will not be so tolerant of this intrusion once they are ready to nest.  The starlings are a constant source of aggravation for the bluebirds, and much energy is expended by the latter to keep the former at arm’s length, or perhaps I should say at wing’s length.  Starlings are birds that are roundly hated even by those who love birds.  They are aggressive, noisy, and congregate in large flocks that quickly become a nuisance.  In this they are like humans, but bird lovers love to hate starlings.  Millions of dollars have been spent to eliminate, or at least moderate, the impact of starlings.  These efforts have been largely unsuccessful.

The hill above my house provides an open view for some thirty to forty miles to the north and east, a perspective that is shortened to as little as three miles when one turns to the mountains that lie immediately to the west and south.  It is a good place to keep track of the doings of my fellow citizens, human and otherwise, but things were mostly quiet this morning.  Sunday morning is a good time for my bipedal neighbors to have an extra cup of coffee before heading out to feed their cows.  A Northern Flicker was drumming on an aspen above the upper beaver pond, and a collection of crows were worrying about something in the middle of the big hay meadow.  Even with binoculars I could not figure out what it was that had them so agitated.
Crows, it seems to me, spend a good deal of time stressed out about one thing or another.  Maybe they are like some people, and are never quite content unless they are in a dither.  Perhaps they too had an extra cup of coffee before daylight, and then found themselves too frenzied to do anything besides hop about and flap their winds while screeching at one another.

About two hundred yards below the crows three Bald Eagles sat serenely in some trees near a dozen Red Angus bulls who were snuffling about in the remnants of yesterday’s hay.  The crows might as well have been in another state for all they seemed to care.  The eagles appeared content enough to sit and look regal, and the bulls to dawdle about in the hay, and wonder, perhaps, how soon they might be put out with the cows.

Despite the protestations of the crows, all seemed well in the peaceable kingdom, and I had started down to the house to fix another cup of coffee for myself when I heard the big birds.  Two Sandhill Cranes were crying loudly from the vicinity of a marsh a mile up the creek.  Winter’s persistent grasp on the countryside had made the cranes reluctant to venture far up into the snowy country, and this pair was the first I had noticed so high.  Apparently they had not liked what they had discovered there for when I found them with the binoculars they were high-tailing it down country, and their squawking reverberated from the surrounding hills as they flew toward me.

They were flying in tight formation, one slightly behind the other with the inner wing of one overlapping that of the other.  They looked two large cargo planes.  As I followed them with my binoculars the sheer north wall of a mountain three miles away loomed into view, and the birds were for a moment transformed into a glorious image of wild nature.  It was as if I were watching a show on the Nature Channel.  Cranes, along with with such creatures as the Canada Goose, the Bald Eagle, the cougar, grizzly bear, and the wolf loom large in the popular image of untamed nature at its best.  Why any of these critters should be of more importance than a mosquito, I am not sure, but they are, at least in our imaginations.  I have never seen a sculpture of a mosquito in an art gallery.

Sandhill Cranes #2The cranes, blissfully unaware of any of this, continued their flight from the snowy country above, and then as they passed behind the house began to set their wings in preparation for landing.  For a moment I thought they might decide to plop down in the middle of the crows, thereby increasing those birds already heightened anxiety.  I thought that might be fun to see, but the big birds passed over the crows, swept past the eagles, cleared the bulls by about five feet, and landed in the middle of four months accumulation of manure where they immediately began to peck about for food.  Wild nature, it appeared, had decided to eat breakfast at the Bullshit Cafe.

It is true, as the philosopher and historian Giovanni Vico pointed out, that the reality we conceive in our minds is more powerful than the one at which we look.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in mankind’s many and varied religious faiths, but it is also true in our political convictions, and in our views of nature.  Sandhill Cranes are held by many to be the essence of wild nature.  There is a nearly religious quality about this kind of affection for certain animals which does not reflect the reality of their lives.  The animals become spiritual icons, relics to be worshipped and protected.  To see them in behavior that does not meet certain preconceived ideas of what they should be doing is dismaying.  To see two Sandhill Cranes tossing shit around in a cow pasture is not exactly what people think about when they think about cranes.  Cranes are, to most folk’s way of thinking, majestic creatures, and majestic creatures are not supposed to do such things.  To see two cranes grubbing among the turds looking for breakfast is like watching the Pope bolt down four Egg McMuffins with catsup after celebrating Sunday mass at St. Peter’s.  Our cherished notions of what ought to be take a beating in either case.

Sandhill Cranes are majestic creatures to my way of thinking, but they seem not to have a clue that this might be so.  The reality for them is that they need some food, and apparently they have figured out that food is available where there are cattle.  The fact that cattle are not wild creatures, or that the birds themselves are dining in a toilet does not appear to be a factor.  The cranes live with their own reality, and food is food wherever it is found.  They live uncontaminated by human concerns of right and wrong or good and bad.  We humans should be so lucky, I think, but such thinking does a disservice to the crane’s reality.  Their lives are, I suspect, just as complex and difficult as those of humans, and they can no more ignore their reality than we can ignore ours.

I enjoy seeing animals do things that confuse our precious notions of what they ought to be doing.  Our ideas about nature reveal far more about our ways of thinking than they do about that which we observe.  We learn to love and hate the things of nature with little understanding of that which we have chosen to admire or abhor.  We love bluebirds and loathe starlings.  Both lives are of equal value from nature’s point of view, but not from the human perspective.  We have chosen to describe one as beautiful, and the other as a filthy abomination.  Our reality is based solely on what we think is good or bad for ourselves.  We work to save the bluebirds while spending millions to destroy the starlings, and think we are doing good.  It is possible that we have no idea what we are doing, and have forgotten that the rain falls on the good and bad alike.

I suspect that much of our current wisdom concerning nature is a muddle of wishful thinking.  Humans, more than any of the other creatures with which we share the earth, are the master manipulators of the environment, both physically and theoretically. The more we manipulate the physical environment the farther we move from the fine edge of survival, and the more likely we are to concoct images of nature that, though they are lovely to contemplate, are less than realistic.  There is a bit of Walt Disney in all of us, I suppose, and always has been.  Though many of us prefer to see nature as an entity apart from ourselves in which all creatures play the role we have imagined for them, the creatures themselves will do what they wish.  Like Sandhill Cranes who dine in the shit, they are beyond the control of the human imagination.

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