Getting real.

“Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.”                                                                                                                                                                                       generally attributed to Will Durant

“And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”                                                                                                                                                       Ecclesiastes 4:4 (NIV)

My wife and I have created a virtual environment in our back yard. One feature of that artificial landscape is a bird feeder (I know, I know – it’s a taking – mea culpa), positioned so that we can see it while we take breakfast and morning coffee. It is a plain affair — a small, square wooden platform, not particularly well designed, and certainly not pleasing to the eye. It rests atop about ten feet of several sections of lead pipe that lift it high enough above the ground below to keep it out of reach of squirrels. Of course, that is a fantasy, because the squirrels can shimmy up the pipe with ease. I found out after I built it I would need to add a baffle.

We’ve been operating this bird feeder long enough that several baffles have come and gone, ravaged by sun, wind, ice, and snow. It’s getting more difficult to replace the baffle as the years go on and the pipes corrode. For some time, the squirrels have enjoyed free access.

From our small back porch we have a fine view of the birds. We particularly favor the cardinals that are regular visitors. We like the nuthatches, the chickadees, the titmice, the blue jays. Occasionally we’re visited by finches, by cowbirds, by a red-bellied woodpecker, by wrens. These are always especially welcome. They’re also the most skittish — hardly able to eat while looking out for danger, real or imagined.

More often than not, however, daily transactions at the feeder are dominated by other, more aggressive species, working as a group. Some years ago, these had been the crows. They used to swoop in on the feeder like a gang of leather-jacketed thugs. They didn’t hop or perch so much as swagger; they brutishly intimidated all other would-be comers. Then the West Nile virus reduced their numbers. Once or twice I found dead crows in the back yard. Only in the last year or so have the crows started to come back.

In a lesser way, starlings and mourning doves have the same impact. For me, the mourning doves hold a special interest. First only one or two come, but then more, until they cover the entire platform, packed in close like commuters in a crowded subway train. They can barely find room to peck at the seed, and they are terribly anxious they may be losing out in the competition. Their entire universe is embodied in that virtual environment of the feeder. Most days, it isn’t long before the supply of seed is exhausted; the doves are then quick to leave.

But the doves interest others as well. At least twice over the years when I’ve been watching (and doubtless other times as well), as the feeding frenzy is in full swing, a hawk will strike from above.

Amazing. One moment — total dove obsession with each other, and the economics of the feeder – scarce resources in conflict with unlimited wants. The next moment – disruption of the whole dove order, a breakdown of dove society, and death. Just as quickly – a stillness. No hawk. No doves. Only one or two dove feathers, still circling and swooping, the way feathers do, tracing their delicate, irregular, slow fall to the ground.

I wish the doves and crows didn’t remind me so much of the human race. But, like them, we suffer from a fatal envy of, and preoccupation with, each other, oblivious to just about everything else. We cooperate, but largely to drive the other species from the feeder. Then we compete. We strive to matter, not in the larger scheme of things, but just in the eyes of others around us. Darwin gives a good account of the origins of this competition, and its benefits. Nonetheless, our tunnel vision blinds us to threatening developments in the larger real world – stressed water resources, increasing exposure and vulnerability to hazards, habitat loss and environmental degradation.

We tend to define our success in terms of day-to-day ups and downs in the virtual world of our making, versus in terms of how effectively we anticipate, and head off, longer-term, emerging problems in the larger real world on which our virtual world depends. This predilection has a lot to say about the kind of world that is likely if we take no deliberate action.

More in the next post.

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