My friends David and Linda live in the desert north of San Luis Obispo, California, a prettier place one cannot imagine. People commute to San Luis, their drive taking them through mountain canyons down to the sea. When I’m there, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of place—it never gets old. But does it get old if one lives there?
My father once owned fifty acres of wooded Jersey County, a place he called Baldwin State Park. It was remote, wild and peaceful. He didn’t last three years, telling me that his dream of sitting on a back deck overlooking a wooded valley was… meh.
Perhaps because I am a writer, perhaps because I possess a singular ocular enhancement— archaeologists call it “the eye”—wherein I see arrowheads in piles of stone in creek beds, camouflaged animals, morel mushrooms and the like, perhaps this also enables me to not take anything in nature for granted. I see the way great baseball hitters “see” the ball.
We denizens, of the Mississippi River Valley, are presented year-round with amazing sights. The Confluence, the mating site of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers, is within our territory. The American Bottom, that pregnant, fecund soil nourished by limestone, blankets the spaces between the river sloughs.
And there are the animal residents, thirty or more species of bird, muskrats, river otters, coyotes, red and grey fox, bobcats, reptiles including the astounding alligator snapping turtle and blue racers and stunning copperheads and king snakes.
The other day, mid-afternoon, I was walking down a wooded trail when suddenly a high-pitched scream erupted above me. “Wooooooooo—oooooooo-ooooooo (high note) oooooo!” It was like a tornado siren, starting low and long and rising to crescendo. Then came another scream, then another. Then tens of coyotes began yipping, the pack moving parallel to where I was standing. It was broad daylight.
We hear them nightly in our fields, the alpha coyote and the pack, driving the local dogs mad. The other sunrise, Farmer Orville and I were finishing carrying some brush, and I stopped and listened. “It’s just coyotes,” Orville said. There is no such thing as “just.” A coyote song is a miracle.
Today, I was driving home after an MRI exam on my knee, from St. Louis. The rivers were flooded. The trees were budded. As I drove over the Missouri river bridge, I saw a white tornado: perhaps thirty pelicans swirling counter-clockwise, the sun lighting their white underwings, the languid, liquid, lazy flying formation, a ballet of aeronauts.
I couldn’t even pull over to worship, with the flood reducing the highway to two lanes and cars lined behind me.
Pelicans are miracles. Hummingbirds are miracles. Rivers and river creatures are miracles. Ants are miracles, and so are spiders.
None of us could live in a world without ants and spiders, yet we treat them as predators. We imagine them as enemies. We fear them and our fears are groundless. I’ve been bitten by a black widow spider, a scorpion and a brown recluse. In each case, I was the intruder. My punishment: discomfort. Period.
Oh yes. My tribe fears the black tribe. Read my new book.
Do not drive or walk the Great River Road and say, “Pelicans,” to your kid. Say, “That is a miracle. We must help preserve them.” We all know some overzealous naturalist who is compelled to identify every little flower—but not meditate on that flower, not Van Gogh that flower, not breathe in the flower.
As I write, robins are scurrying about and plucking worms. Do you think about worms? Do you know the American earthworm is nearly extinct, that our robins are eating foreign species of worms which have evolved and driven the natives away? Sound familiar?
Take life, teeming life for granted, and condemn your children to stare at smart phones. Oh wait—we do that already.
Look up. Look down. Listen to your blood. Lie among the ferns and sing the frog song. There is plenty of frog song—for now. 70 % of frogs are now extinct.
Look it up on your smart phone.