When it Rains it Pours
I can feel the wind biting at my cheeks today as I brace myself against the cold. I begin my trek from my car to my sanctuary, taking in the smell of crisp fall air. We’ve just had heavy rains, and I can still feel the dampness of it lingering in the air. A gust of wind sweeps my hair across my face and raises goosebumps on the back of my neck, so I wrap my arms around myself a little tighter and hasten my steps, grateful that I brought a blanket with me today.
Leaves of red and brown are scattered across the ground, tumbling through the grass on the breeze. I alter my steps every now and then to try and catch that satisfying crunch beneath my foot as a crisp brown leaf is squelched, but they are all too damp for any crunching and they merely spring back up and tumble away as my foot passes over them. I reach the gravel path – the final stretch of my walk – and I pause. It has been a few weeks since I have been here, and my, has it changed. I no longer hear the rattle of leaves in the wind, but rather the clapping of bare branches. A squirrel here and there scurries about, with treasures to sustain him through the winter clamped in his jaws. I can hear the beating of a bird’s wings speed past me just overhead, but he does not sing. The colors and songs of my sanctuary have changed, but the beauty remains the same. I wrap my blanket around my shoulders and perch on my stone bench, settling in for my hour of peace.
Except peace does not come. Instead, a monsoon of thoughts and emotions crashes through my mind, stealing any hope of peace and quiet I had hoped to enjoy. I have grown to have a deep love for my sanctuary and its inhabitants, from the hydrangea bush that I’ve watched flaunt its colors to the warblers that sing to me from the cattails to the egret that has become a friend I look forward to seeing every week. Reading The Sixth Extinction has left me wondering if I have not done enough to protect places like my sanctuary and those that live in it, not just for my children, but also for the sake of the egret’s children, and the hydrangeas and the bees and all the creatures that go on living with or without my appreciation. I look around at this little piece of heaven that has taken such good care of me over these past months, and I think of how there are so many pieces of nature in the world as beautiful and precious as this one, and how they are all in danger. I think of the state of the world, and one question comes to mind: what have we done?
Elizabeth Kolbert quotes a line from Essay on Man by Alexander Pope in chapter two of The Sixth Extinction, and this prompted me to research and read Essay on Man in its entirety. I found a portion that spoke to me deeply, and encapsulated (for me, at least) the direst of issues raised in Kolbert’s book. The section of Pope’s work was this:
“Each beast, each insect, happy in its own:
Is Heav’n unkind to man, and man alone?
Shall he alone, whom rational we call,
Be pleas’d with nothing, if not bless’d with all?”
The importance I find in this quote cannot be understated. Particularly since the industrial revolution, humankind has sought to dominate and control as much of nature as possible. Harnessing fossil fuels (and destroying our planet, both through extraction and use of these fuels) for ease of energy use, killing off entire species like the passenger pigeon for sport, poaching beasts like wolves and buffalo to near-extinction – all of this and more has occurred on man’s unending journey to finding how to be the happiest he can possibly be, yet happiness evades us still. We leave destruction in our wake and curse the heavens when the balance of nature is disturbed, failing to see the blood dripping from our own hands.
I look around me, and as if on cue my egret friend comes emerging from the cattails across the river. He ruffles his feathers and settles in for his hunt for dinner. The sun is dipping lower in the sky, painting the horizon in pink and orange and sending sunbeams rippling across the water. I become aware of the notion that the beauty that exists before me does not exist for me; I am simply blessed with the ability to observe this moment in nature. It is moments like this that the people of this world need in order to remember that not everything can (or should) be dominated and controlled. Can we learn to be happy only with what we need, or was Pope right in asking if man has become a creature that appreciates nothing if he does not have all?
There is fear in my heart for places like my sanctuary, and for the future of my egret friend. The future of our planetary home lies in the bloodstained hands of man, and my only hope is that we stop cursing the heavens for disaster and instead seek to wipe our hands clean of the blood we have spilled. It is a scary time we live in, indeed. Welcome to the Anthropocene.