hearts and minds

August 6, 2006

Observing a Quiet, not quite Silent Spring

Filed under: Development,Environment,Toxins — Hearts & Minds @ 9:18 am

A pair of Great Horned Owls, two feet tall with a four and a half foot wingspan are rearing two fluffy fledglings in the vacant nest built last year by the high-soaring similar-sized Red Tail Hawks to raise their young. Earlier this spring the carcass of a Coopers Hawk was discovered in the old barn where it had evidently pursued a pigeon through the silo. The hawk perished when it was unable to find its way back to the sky.


A coyote claiming territory contests the trespass of my black Lab. When the coyote realizes I’m along, he vociferously objects and I imagine he believes the world would be better off without me and my kind. What an amazing ventriloquist is Coyote – and with startling agility and speed. You have to admire the resourcefulness and tenacity of the coyote in the face of centuries of efforts to kill every last one. Coyote is the reason the wild turkey, once successfully eradicated here by human activity, and now making an assisted comeback, spends so much time in the trees.

I recently opened the crop of a wild turkey that, before it’s sudden demise, had been browsing through a field of alfalfa. I found it packed full of grasshoppers, and nothing but. Now if the alfalfa hasn’t been poisoned by something, then the grasshoppers won’t be poisoned and the turkeys won’t be poisoned by the grasshoppers. Furthermore, whoever eats the turkeys who eat the grasshoppers… won’t be poisoned either. You are what what you eat eats.

Many man-made chemicals are persistent and bio-accumulate, and the higher up the food chain one eats, the more concentrated the dose of cell function disrupting chemicals one gets. There are a lot of similarities in the cells of all forms of life, right down to the specifics of DNA structure and the chemistry of cell reproduction and metabolism, and a potion that can successfully alter or attack the cell of one life form can do wrong to the cells of another life form. We’ve got a lot of cells, but if the form or function of enough cells is disrupted, or if there’s a particularly sinister disruption of even one or a few cells, the entire organism suffers. The effect may be limited to some aberrant behavior or development, and the organism can’t quite live up to it’s true potential. Or it may be catastrophic and fatal. The disruption may be manifest only in succeeding generations. It may affect only one in a million or one in a thousand organisms, but if you or someone you love is that one, your world is transformed.

One chilly spring day, the smoke from a smoldering refuse fire offended my nose with the unmistakable acrid stench of burning plastic. All plastics, especially vinyl, including furniture foam and modern fabrics, when burned with wood or paper in a trash pile, burn barrel, incinerator or a house afire produce the highly toxic carcinogen “Dioxin”. The stuff doesn’t break down into safe compounds; it does more harm than “just” cause cancer; and it’s already in all our bodies in amounts sufficient to cause bad health consequences. Some people think I should get out my rifle and shoot that coyote. But frankly, I think dioxin factories, whether little homegrown accidental versions or big smokestack industries, are a more serious threat to us all in the 21st century.

The spring buds have swollen so you can’t quite see through the twigs in the woods anymore, and there’s a green aura about to overwhelm the variations of brown and gray that dominated a remarkably dry winter. The delicious woodland leeks have burst forth! Why not try a mess of cooked greens using tender emergent nettle leaves? Now’s the time to see and appreciate the marsh marigolds, violets and bloodroot. Soon the swamp cabbage and the may apple will bloom. Maybe you’ll stumble on a morel. Garlic mustard makes an early spring appearance, but we should be no more pleased to spot a patch of this Euro-invader than we are to encounter buckthorn brush.

Do you too wonder what this land looked and felt like 175 years, just two (long) human lifetimes ago? No way to tell anymore, except for exceedingly rare, tattered, postage stamp size remnants as clues.

The construction of trails, bridges, boardwalks and structures in one such remnant sandwiched between two land fill dumps in the town of Cedarburg should be halted. A town survey showed that respondents’ highest priority was to “preserve and protect” existing pristine natural areas. But some among us are afflicted with an irresistible urge to “develop” everything to the extent possible, and a later query, presented at a public meeting, omitted the preferred option of leaving it alone and protecting it. This second survey only asked what kind of development was preferred. A trail has since been opened complete with signs and arrows leading to and through a small but previously unmarred very special wetland and glacial feature. The trail inevitably exposes the esker and moraine to rapid erosion. The boardwalk transforms the fen from a tiny remnant of the ancient wilderness to an exercise path used by joggers and bicycles. And a structure is planned. Trails for exercise and casual ambling shouldn’t have been directed into the rare and fragile features bordering these two closed dumps. The trails and structures should be confined to the extensive open meadow areas. Those persons who really want to see and learn and be inspired by the fen and creek and esker and moraine would find their way. There’s no need to damage them with trails and buildings. We cannot improve upon them, despite attempts to rationalize and justify our intrusion. Now there are plans to extend the boardwalk and trail and “improvements” even further. Too much has been done already, and the people’s original mandate to “preserve and protect” should be heeded and not ignored.

May, 2003

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