LESSONS ARE ALL AROUND US
by Whit Gibbons
April 22, 2002
The prospects look good for something productive finally coming out
of my workshop. For the last week, two Carolina wrens have spent each
day bringing tasty insects to their babies through an open window
I forgot to close last month. If the babies fledge, the parents will
have accomplished more in the workshop in a few days than I have in
several years. To clarify one point, the shop is really just a small
room with shelves where I keep the hammer, pliers, and screwdrivers.
Hence, it is simply "called" a workshop, so I have no shame
that a pair of parenting wrens will out produce me.
These birds are truly amazing. Such industry. Continuously one or
the other arrives at the windowsill with baby food. The first few
times each favored me with a look of annoyance suitable for an intruder
such as myself. The look from an aggravated wren with a bug in its
beak can be disarming. I see why wrens are so popular with people
who get to know them.
These wrens make a powerful ecological statement about environmental
attitudes. That is, the strongest support for a species or a habitat
is derived through familiarity. I have become familiar with and fond
of the two little birds as I've worked outside at a table beside the
open window. I actually saw them building the nest last month, in
an old hat lying upside down on a top shelf. Because of my growing
attachment to the wren family, should a rat snake decide to visit
the workshop for a supper of wrens, I would feel compelled to remove
the snake--despite my being a herpetologist who appreciates snakes.
Lesson: increasing someone's awareness of and familiarity with a species
leads to a sense of ownership and protectiveness.
Last week I saw another neighborhood phenomenon that left me staring
for several minutes. Early one morning I noticed our dog entranced
with something in the front yard as he watched through a glass door
pane. A gray fox was casually strolling around the yard, picking up
acorns and eating them. The fox did not once look furtively around
to see what might attack it. In fact, its unconcerned attitude, before
it finally ambled across the street into a neighbor's yard, was notable.
In the spirit of looking for meaning and significance in both unusual
and commonplace observations of any plant or animal, I pondered why
a fox would forage in such a lackadaisical manner in broad daylight
in a front yard. The lesson became obvious: we now have leash laws
that keep free-ranging dogs off the streets (and out of our front
yards). A fox no longer has to keep on guard, constantly being ready
to escape or fight. Why not stroll around in our front yard and enjoy
an acorn or two?
Another Discovery Channel moment came when I glanced toward the top
surface of the vine-covered stump of an old oak tree and realized
that two enormous lizards called broad-headed skinks were basking
side by side. The bigger one was a male, with a shiny brown body and
bright red head. The heads of males turn red during the spring courtship
period. The female was drabber, but young ones, male and female alike,
have metallic blue tails and bright yellow stripes. The female will
lay eggs in a nest in a hole in the stump. Lesson: remove trees in
the yard as necessary for safety, but leave the stumps to serve as
homes and habitats for a variety of critters.
Spring is the ideal time to look closely at the sides of trees, in
heavy vegetation, or in dark places to enjoy an endless parade of
tiny insects and spiders. Check out the plants in your yard and neighborhood
in a search for the smallest flowers you can find. Chances are you'll
encounter some plants and animals you have never seen before. Be careful
what you touch, but getting up close and familiar with living things
is the best way to appreciate nature.
Also, don't forget the lesson about leaving workshop windows open
and turning an old hat upside down.
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