Not Nature Apart

There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.”

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

The herd of elk had come down from the mountains to feed on the golf course and adjacent rough. Browsing and resting just off the road, they delighted the commuters and other drivers. As always, I got a huge thrill from seeing them, from being reminded that I lived in a community that was wild enough to include elk and other critters.

I live in a town on the cusp of a metropolitan area, in a 140-year old house and a neighborhood settled in the 1850’s. Newer developments (urban sprawl?) partially surround my community, but natural features have prevented total encirclement. Overall, it’s pretty urban, with pedestrian and bicycle traffic, dogs and cats in many yards, and kids playing outside when the weather allows.

Deer wander through occasionally, fox and raccoon are common, and, of course, rabbits, squirrels and geese are ubiquitous. Beaver hide in the creek through town. In spite of the number of house cats around, we have a thriving and diverse bird population, due in part to the numerous backyard bird feeders. Rarely, we’ve had a wood rat show up inexplicably in the attic, bear and moose have been seen, and evidence of mountain lion and coyote are found on the edge of town.

Our house sits a block south of the creek, but as the first two-story building and with the slope down to the creekside, has a pretty clear view to the north. Geese frequent the ball fields across the creek and when they fly off, they soar over our yard, seemingly only a few feet above our roof. They talk to each other as they fly, and we can hear them from our bedroom as they pass. It’s an evocative moment.

Strangely, one morning we heard not geese, but a loud whooshing sound and a muted, rumbley roar. Upon hearing the voices right outside our bedroom window, I looked in time to see a hot air balloon pass just a few feet above the house. A second appeared, part of a hare-and-hounds race requiring touchdown across the creek before sailing further south. Geese aren’t the only denizens of the air in our neighborhood.

How do we reconcile this urban human versus natural environment? I guess I don’t see the conflict. Sure, it’s a pain when the raccoon gets into the birdseed or when something eats the tomatoes. But in general, I really like being part of a community that includes nature, as well as human.

At the recent Colorado Environmental Film Festival I saw Dancing with Thoreau about the healthy effect of nature on us humans. Stress levels in offices were reduced in the presence of houseplants. A walk in the fresh air improves mental function. It’s not just the outdoor exercise that’s good for us, but the nature experience. It doesn’t require a pristine wilderness – any nature will do.

It can cut both ways, too. Studies have shown an increase in the numbers and varieties of birds in suburban areas (John Marzluff, Welcome to Subirdia). The Great Horned Owl pair that work the neighborhood in the evenings remind us to keep the cat in at night. A Sharp-shinned Hawk has picked a House Finch off of our feeder in a remarkable display of aerial dexterity. Other species (raccoon, fox, coyote, rabbit, squirrel) thrive as well. Before the old maple finally collapsed the bee hive was rescued and relocated. For many years a swarm in early summer was a real treat to see, and provided new hives for the local beekeepers.

A community can be defined as an interacting population, a group with common interests in a given area. I believe that my community consists of the people and creatures in the natural and developed environment. We share space and resources, and suffer each other’s infringement. We don’t necessarily share common rules; not everyone brakes for squirrels, and the house cats disrupt the birds. We knock down the swallow nests under our bridges, and spray herbicide and pesticides in our yards. Someone eats my tomatoes; the squirrels chewed my pumpkins; and the flicker knocks holes in our eaves and drums on the vents. Somehow though, we mutually exist, if not thrive.

While we spend a huge amount of money, time and effort to preserve nature out there in the wild, we don’t seem to spend much worrying about nature in our communities. There are programs for improving backyard habitats for birds and other wildlife that I have heeded in my own yard. But the human plus nature community I am a part of transcends my own property, encompassing my town and the surrounding area. My town is a Tree City, and puts a lot of effort into the urban forest, but that is limited to street rights-of-way and public lands. Property rights are taken seriously around here, so each landowner has primary control over their own property, and not everyone appreciates the intrusion of nature into their lives. (“It’s okay, bug zappers only kill bad bugs”. “There’s goose poop in the park!”)

But communal resources require some controlling entity; otherwise the resource is depleted. Zoning and easements can trigger ‘takings’ legal action and I doubt a consensus on inviting nature in. The Tragedy of the Commons has been played out with the buffalo, and is currently demonstrated in ocean fishing. So as with many environmental issues, education and awareness is the key.

Sitting at my breakfast table I can watch the birds at the feeder, the geese flying overhead, the squirrels dancing on the lawn and in the trees, and the hummers and bees reveling in the flowers. I suppose it balances the stress of the headlines and helps prepare me for the day ahead. It’s not a wilderness, but for this time and place, for me it is enough.

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