- In Plain Sight
No method or discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?Henry David Thoreau, Walden
A great blue heron pumps slowly across the empty sky. It is headed toward the small river that is the eastern boundary of our land. Last month, five pairs of herons flapped back to our farm, as they have for the last four years, to repair their great prickly bowls of sticks and lay their eggs. The nests are about three feet across and set 90 feet off the ground near the top of a huge sycamore tree. The tree drapes over the Galien River—which is 25 miles long and sprouts tiny branches all over southwest Michigan before draining into the lake. Thirty years ago, the Galien was loaded with fish and was a favorite swimming hole for those who didn't live on the lake. But today it is very sick. Last year the Department of Environmental Equality declared it unsafe for even partial bodily contact. A sample taken at a bridge just down the road contained 40 times the acceptable level of E. coli bacteria.
Though herons are not endangered, and rookeries with dozens of nests and hundreds of birds are common, the return of these birds to this 50-acre patch of woods and meadow gives me hope. And the hope is deeper this year, as there are seven new nests in an even taller sycamore tree on the other side of the river. These birds may be the offspring of the first year's hatching, as they often return to their parents' nesting site two or three years later. I'm not sure if the herons' thriving here is due to a new conservation [End Page 17] program to clean up the river and control soil erosion, or simply their own adaptation. Either way, if they can find enough fish and frogs to feed themselves and their offspring, it is a good sign.
Our land, like much of the central Midwest, has been wrecked by agriculture, unfettered industry, and new development (half-million-dollar vacation homes have started popping up just down the road). Thus, the animals that live here are the tough kind—raccoons and possums and coyotes; starlings and grackles and turkey vultures—species that could quickly adapt to the ravaged habitat, to erosion and fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides, and to a river that has absorbed them. Their abundance, and the rapid extinction of a myriad of other species, is primarily due to my—to the human's—inability to belong to the ecosystem, to imagine enough of anything.
The E. coli level in our river exemplifies this human "never-enoughness." Feeding cattle people food (corn) rather than cow food (grass) plays havoc with their digestive tracts (too much starch) and creates the dangerous strain of bacteria. The justification for grain-feeding is economic: grain-fed cattle reach slaughter weight in a little over a year, rather than the four to five years required for grass-fed cattle. The process is also accelerated with growth hormones. And antibiotics are needed to offset the traumatic effects of corn on the cows' intestines. All of this finds its way back into the woodland stream and the human bloodstream.
This afternoon I walk along the river carrying both the reality of the human role in its slow destruction, and the hope of the returning herons. I don't think a writer can ever resolve such conflicts, though it is worth considering how one writes about nature. Broadly speaking, it seems some writers seek to discover the unspoiled, the exotic and wild, which they fly to in jets and bush planes. Other writers may seek to recover the spoiled, the non-wilderness. They observe and analyze and reflect on their own towns and cities and suburbs and backyards. Certainly there is...