Category Archives: Nature Awareness

D-Day Every Day

Nature, Warfare, and the Illusion of Self

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these mangrove seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.

I often wonder what it was like for the Allied soldiers to step off the boats into a hail of bullets on the beaches of Normandy. As an empathic person, I get emotionally entwined with other people’s realities. For our soldiers on June 6, 1944, there was nowhere to hide. Allied forces took the beach through sheer numbers, by putting enough bodies on the beach that the Nazis couldn’t shoot them all, that enough soldiers would survive to overtake the German positions, enabling the Allied forces to get a toehold in France, put down roots, and slowly reclaim the European continent. I cannot imagine the horror of advancing across the beach that day. And I can’t help but notice the curious parallels among nature, where D-Day happens every day, and wonder what we might learn from it all.

Landing on another beach on the other side of the world in New Zealand, I was fascinated to discover a legion of army-green seeds amassed on the sand, deposited there by the tides. Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

The seeds shed their outer seed coats, and the folded seed leaves had begun to spread. A few had grown short roots, although the roots were fully exposed to the mid-summer sun. One was several inches tall. The prop-roots on the sides tipped me to the identity—mangrove seedlings. It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

I soon discovered that the mangroves lived in a nearby estuary, well adapted to the brackish water where slow moving river water mixed with salty tidal water from the ocean. They rooted easily there, growing in dense profusion within the sheltered backwater. But the seeds on the beach were doomed. The lack of previously established mangroves on the beachfront implied that the odds were against them, that nature could send battalions in wave after wave to take the beach and each seed soldier would try its utmost to sink down roots and unfurl its leaves, only to be bounced around in the tide, doomed to slowly desiccate in the sand, salt, and sun. Yet, nature doesn’t stop sending in more troops and trying again, because that’s what nature does every day, everywhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Apricots produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity.

Closer to home, I see the same story played out again and again. Thousands of inch-high plant seedlings carpeting otherwise barren ground in early spring when the soil is moist, only to whither and die as soon as the sun dries the soil. Perhaps one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand, survive to carry out their mission. I’ve seen it with feral apricot trees, too. They produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity. It isn’t just about plants either, because every year there is an explosion of new life, new baby birds and cuddly little mammals, and by the following year there are, on average, no more of any given species than there was the year before.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road?

Being empathetic, or rather sympathetic, I cannot help but think that it all seems unfair. Seedling plants, baby birds, newborn fawns, nineteen-year-old soldiers; their lives cut short before they’ve begun. How many mothers lost their precious teenage sons as “cannon fodder” to use up the Nazi bullets? How many soldiers trained for battle, yet took a bullet in the choppy surf, dead before they reached the beach or even fired a shot? How many baby birds are devoured alive by snakes or rats or raptors while their parents helplessly watch and scream in protest and pain? How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road? How many newborn seedlings have given their utmost to put down roots and send up leaves, only to be desiccated in the sun or starved out by more established vegetation?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes.

We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes. On the beaches of Normandy, there was no significant advantage for seasoned war veterans over new soldiers seeing their first tour of duty. All were equally exposed to the unrelenting hail of bullets screaming across the beach. And so it is with plants and animals. The seeds that survive to grow into plants or trees are not always those with the strongest genes, but rather those that are lucky enough to find bare ground to take root, yet not so much sun that they dry out too quickly. The shadow of a small rock may provide the magic microhabitat that allows a seedling to take root. If it isn’t grazed off or stepped on then the plant might survive to maturity.

Reaching maturity doesn’t necessarily provide any guarantee of survival either. Many birds have over-wintered in the tropics and flown thousands of miles back to mate, nest, and raise a family, only to be eaten by a house cat upon arrival. I cannot help but sympathize and anthropomorphize with ground squirrels that wake up from hibernation and excitedly run about in a celebration of spring, only to be flattened by a passing car.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world.

What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world. The ground squirrels that are instantly flattened are perhaps the lucky ones, at least compared to the deer that are mortally wounded by cars, hunters, or mountain lions, only to die a slow, painful death alone in the brush.

Spend much time in the woods, and you will notice that there are bones everywhere. Everything dies, and frequently in the most painful ways imaginable, such as for a mouse that is repeatedly tossed into the air by the claws of a cat or carried off in the talons of a raptor, often eaten while half alive. For the soldiers, too, I suppose the lucky ones received instant death from a killing shot, while most were just brutally torn apart, gut shot, or totally incapacitated by an exploded femur bone, bleeding to death in agony.

We live in a society that is highly insulated from death and the realities of life. People feel no twinge of pain when they buy a beefsteak neatly shrink-wrapped on a Styrofoam tray, or a head of cabbage decapitated from its roots yet very much alive, even while being finely chopped and mixed in coleslaw. We euthanize our pets or “put them to sleep” as we say it, to mask the reality that we are killing them, indeed murdering them. We hire morticians to embalm our deceased loved ones in lifelike form and display them in pretty boxes. We are so detached from death that we don’t understand what it means to be alive.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock.

As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock. It feels like murder every time, as it should, because that is the reality of living. As Buddhism teaches, “life is suffering.” The nature of existence is inherently painful, yet we can have compassion for all living things.

Whenever I kill an animal, I find myself wondering who might be left waiting back at home. Did it have a mate? Did it have a mother or father that was still watching over it? Did it have young ones hidden away in a nest or burrow, forlornly waiting for a next meal that will never come? What was it like for women back home, waiting for letters from the war front, never knowing which letter might be the last?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things.

In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things. Every plant and animal is a unique individual with its own genome, and with animals at least, a unique “personality.” Yet they are nameless and therefore selfless, celebrated as part of the interconnected web of life, rather than as individuals with personal biographies and self-importance.

The soldiers of Normandy were also selfless and that is difficult to appreciate in a world of selfie sticks and Facebook profiles. I see the names of fallen World War II solders engraved in plaques in city parks across our country. Each one was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, or maybe a father, their lives cut short by warfare. Collectively, they were bodies who selflessly threw themselves at the battlefield, much as the mangrove seeds tried to storm the beach with sheer numbers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty.

Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty. The same could be said about the Allied invasion of France.

Our world would be a much darker place today if the Allied forces had decided to accept a Nazi Europe, knowing that the price for taking back the continent would be so high. But a great many young men understood that being a body for the cause was more important than being an individual.

I think about the selflessness of that generation and wonder what we could learn from that today. We live at a time when life is more imperiled than ever before, and the cause is arguably the rise of the self and self-importance. We are a consumer culture, consumed with ourselves. It is the ego of the self that drives people to bulldoze a mountaintop or riverfront property to build a house with a view. It is the self that wants a trendy new car, a big flatscreen television, and organic coffee imported from the other side of the planet. It is the self that cares only for itself, celebrity news, and who wins or loses the Super Bowl.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago.

We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago. Yet we are consumed with trivial things like getting a job and buying useless stuff, as if saving the planet were somebody else’s responsibility. But the reality is that there is nobody else, and the only thing that will save us from ourselves is to lose ourselves, to recognize that our lives do not belong to us and never did. Our lives belong to the earth and we are here to serve future generations to the best of our ability.

Halting the destruction of our world and creating a sustainable future will require a selfless commitment equal or bigger than the commitment that took back Europe. For it wasn’t just soldiers on the front lines that made a difference, but all those back home who worked to grow food, build equipment, and recycle metals needed for the war effort. At this late juncture, healing our world will require similar selfless commitment, coordination, and camaraderie of everyone working together towards a single unifying goal: Life. If we pull together towards the common cause, we can make the world a better place for all.

            Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit.

 

Interesting stuff?
Challenge your preconceptions about reality:
Roadmap to Reality

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservation, Nature Awareness, Sustainability, Wilderness Survival, Wildlife

Robins Barking at Owls and other Bird Language Basics

Book Cover: What the Robin Knows

Jon Young’s newest book on bird language.

I never knew that sitting and listening could be so fascinating. Parked there in the evening twilight, it was evident that the nearby robins were agitated, while those farther away were not. In retrospect, it seemed that the robins were barking, much as a dog might bark at something or someone scary, but in a shrill, bird-like way. I had often heard this behavior in the evening, and never made any sense of it, nor really tried to. But then this great horned owl swooped by overhead, and the “barking” followed it. The robins didn’t follow it themselves, but the barking did as robin after robin sounded the alarm in sequence along the owl’s flight path. I felt as if the door had just been opened to a whole new experience of nature.

            The following day, and again a couple weeks later, I encountered barking robins and stopped to investigate. In each case they were barking at an owl. I do not know if that call is always associated with owls, but I definitely know to look, listen, and pay attention now when I hear the robins barking.

            Interpreting bird language is a skill I’ve wanted to learn for the last thirty years, but somehow never figured out how to get started with it on my own. Back in the early 1980s, in junior high and high school, I devoured each one of Tom Brown’s books as fast as he could write them. I constantly practiced my fox walking, stalking, peripheral vision, intermittent attention, basic tracking, and survival skills. Brown also talked about the “concentric rings of nature,” how disturbances, such as a person walking, sent ripples of alarm out through nature. If you could learn to read these disturbances, he implied, then you could know what was happening beyond your field of vision. It was a skill I desperately wanted to learn, but somehow couldn’t figure out how to begin. Brown’s advice was basically to sit in one spot and observe nature until you figured it all out.  I admit that I never really did. I got restless. My mind wandered. I didn’t have any tools to decipher what was going on around me.

            I was completely stymied for twenty years, until Jon Young described learning the language of the birds in his Seeing Through Native Eyes audio series. Young outlined the five voices of the birds (song, companion calls, territorial aggression, juvenile begging, and alarms). Somehow, merely having definitions of these calls made it possible to begin to hear them for the first time.

            In retrospect, I wonder if I might have been more successful if I had spent more time in the bird-rich riparian areas of the valleys, rather than in the hills and mountains. The whitetail deer of the valleys, for example, are hypersensitive to bird language. Sometimes it seems like you cannot walk ten feet through the woods, even quietly stalking, without spooking out a bunch of whitetails a quarter mile away. It is very different experience than in the mountains, where an absent-minded person can walk around a bush and nearly bump into a mule deer. The mule deer are either not as attuned to bird language as whitetails, or there is much less bird language to listen to. I suspect it is the latter. 

            Nowadays I take junior high kids out camping each spring in the bird-rich riparian zone along the nearby Jefferson River. I am in that busy part of my life where I have not yet been able to prioritize a sit spot on a daily basis, but we at least try to spend a few days in the field before the junior high kids arrive, tuning in, practicing bird language, and evaluating potential means to incorporate lessons about bird language into the experience for the kids.

            This year I eagerly watched Jon Young’s new video, Bird Language: How to Interpret the Behaviors and Patterns of Nature, and learned several new tips for interpreting bird language. Most helpful was the journaling/mapping procedure, to record pretty much everything that is happening, as it is happening. Instead of randomly hearing bird song without meaning, and ultimately drifting off in thought, this method provided a clearly defined mission for my admittedly very busy Western mind to tackle and accomplish. Almost immediately I observed events that I may not have paid much attention to in the past. It opened up a whole new channel of experience. For example, while walking along the slough one day, I saw a common mallard duck shoot out of the water like a bullet. I recognized that it was not the usual, agitated, quacking rise and departure associated with my own approach, but rather that the duck was more like a missile fired straight out of the water. It reacted precisely to the arrival of a bald eagle flying in over the trees. It was utterly obvious, yet I probably wouldn’t have noticed the connection had I not just watched the bird language video. Somehow, writing it all down and making a map brings the bird world directly into my consciousness.  It is pretty basic stuff, but it is a start!

            Right on the heels of the video, Jon Young published his newest book, What the Robin Knows, which I also eagerly devoured. It is a veritable encyclopedia of bird language tips and tidbits, fleshing out and clarifying many of the themes he introduced in Seeing Through Native Eyes and the Bird Language DVD.  The book is definitely not just about robins, but also describes bird language in detail across numerous other songbirds, as well as water birds, such as geese. Young also clarifies some previous statements, such as, “You cannot trust the corvids.” While the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays do not necessarily play by the rules of the five voices of the birds, they nevertheless have a lot to talk about in their own way, as Young expounds on throughout the book.

            My only complaint about Young’s book is that it isn’t organized in encyclopedic fashion. The information is excellent, just so scattered through the text that it would be difficult to relocate and review a specific tip about any particular bird. The book wasn’t apparently written as a book per se, but condensed by editors from 200,000 words of other text and speeches given by Jon Young over the years then peppered with notes from bird biologists. No matter, the book is worth reading again and again and again. 

            A purist might argue that it is “cheating” to have such great resources to work from at all, rather than just sitting out in the woods and figuring it out from scratch. But on the other hand, even the best resources still just outline what is possible. It is ultimately up to the individual to go out and see firsthand some of the bird language patterns described by Jon Young, and from there to build one’s own library of observations about bird language and bird behavior.  A person can still spend a lifetime listening and learning.

            Having spent the past week visiting a friend, I couldn’t help but notice a particular robin singing on and off throughout each day.  We were busy, so I didn’t have much time to sit and study bird language. But in the middle of a conversation one evening, I did notice the robin “barking” away at something. When I walked over to take a look, there was an owl sitting in a tree. It was a real thrill to recognize the same kind of behavior yet again. The door has definitely been opened to a whole new kind of experience in nature!

Leave a comment

Filed under Nature Awareness, Reviews: Books & Videos, Uncategorized