Love in the Time of Extinction

For the past few weeks, Rob’s been spending his weekend days clearing the immense nonnative laurel trees from our new back yard, opening up their shadowed land to light it hasn’t seen in decades. We can now see from our living room and deck all the way into the adjacent protected wetland.

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

He’s also been giving the ancient fruit trees—apples and pears, lucky us—a much-needed pruning. Freed from having to support suckers that shoot unproductively up toward the little light that had been making it past the laurels, the trees can now direct that energy into blooming and fruiting, benefitting both them and us.

The fruit-tree trimmings are neatly stacked at the trees’ bases, awaiting transport to our city compost, where they’ll become mulch for future gardens. But one pear branch has been lying by itself on the lawn, and I was astonished a few days ago to see it blossoming its little heart out, cut off from the trunk’s nourishing sap and water supply, but nonetheless somehow able to send its remaining sustenance up to those buds.

Cut pear branch, flowering anyway

Cut pear branch, flowering anyway

Pear flowers on cut branch

Pear flowers on cut branch

Looking more closely at the flowers, I finally noticed the little fly who was combing her way through the stamens, inadvertently collecting pollen on her legs for later delivery, perhaps to the other of the pear pair to inseminate offspring, perhaps to an uninterested apple or lilac. New life may yet spring from this branch.

Pollinator on pear flower

Pollinator on pear flower

* * * * *

Yesterday I indulged myself in a long walk in the park, in a midmorning still ringing with the last voices of the dawn chorus. With my naturalist skills rusty from the disuse of a too-busy working life, it took me a while to register that the repeated trill coming from high in the Bigleaf Maples along the bluff trail was that of an Orange-crowned Warbler — the first of the year. Surprise: the warblers were coming back already! I finally found the perky little yellow bird, well-camouflaged as it hopped among the maple’s new yellow leaves and pendulous racemes full of tiny flowers, searching for grub sensu stricto.

First Orange-crowned Warbler of the year, who has just caught a grub (small caterpillar).

First Orange-crowned Warbler of the year, who has just caught a grub (small caterpillar).

When I got back home, I checked my photo records: this was indeed early for them. In 2014 and 2013, they first arrived two weeks earlier, on April 10 and April 11. Of course, in those years I may have just missed seeing them when they breezed into town—but my sense of their earlier arrival is in line with the observed and predicted effects of global warming.

After a long wet work-filled winter, my spirit needed the thrill of trilling, the new music in the forest announcing a spring full of these little feathered flowers who bring a new form of aliveness to the woods. But my heart sagged again as soon as I thought, oh, this is too early for them, they shouldn’t be here yet, will they have enough to eat? When birds migrate too soon, they can get to their summer homes before the preparation is complete; if the right plants haven’t yet flowered enough to bring in the right bugs, there may not be enough food in the cupboards.

* * * * *

Our world is inexorably changing, and the natural patterns that have sustained our spirits like the apple’s sap are getting pruned and tossed aside, destined for the compost heap of human history. How can we ethically find beauty in these signs of environmental changes that are costing so much in fruit foregone, birds hungry, species lost? Dare I delight in that warbler, early though she is, even though she shouldn’t be here yet? How about in the Barred Owl who hoots in the wetland near my home, sharing a little nachtmusik while he outhunts the smaller, shyer native owls hanging on in the city for dear life?

Barred Owl stretches foot and wings

Barred Owl stretches foot and wings

In our desperate passion to salvage as much of the earth’s natural heritage as possible while we peer over our shoulders at the abyss of extinction, we environmentalists can be pretty righteous, both toward nonbelievers and toward each other. We’re not supposed to love invasive species, even if they do have lovely big brown eyes and sweet round owly faces; we’re supposed to tsk-tsk at the early warbler who’s yet another clue to doom.

What our minds know asserts privilege over what we see with our eyes and feel with our hearts. Our awareness of the unfolding tragedy of climate change and other human-caused catastrophes, whose devastation is sweeping inexorably past our feeble protests like an Indonesian tsunami through palm fronds, instructs us to be rigorous in our disapproval of inappropriate species, to turn our faces from the evanescent beauties of our contemporary days, to scold the Western Tiger Swallowtail for its temerity in foraging on—heaven forfend—a Buddleia. Of course I’d rather see the swallowtail nectaring on a native thistle, but look! There it is in all its glowing stripy glory, brilliant yellow and black against those soft pink-purple blossoms! I submit, letting it go ahead and fill my depleted beauty-reservoir.

Western Tiger Swallowtail aiming for Buddleia

As we strive to be good enough, self-disciplined enough, sustainable enough, wise enough to redeem a few centuries—nay, millennia—of human environmental shortsightedness, whom, then, are we to love: only those select native organisms who’ve evolved with enough gumption to make it among us? And where shall we allow ourselves to find beauty? In only the purest species, at whom we wave our tear-drenched handkerchiefs as the train of anthropocentric destruction bears them away into fossilhood, condemning ourselves to noble loneliness rather than open our hearts to new companions stained by a bit of sin?

Or shall we allow ourselves affection for our everyday neighbors, the impure, unchaste, complex, beautiful ones who may nectar at the wrong plants, run their gasoline-powered leafblowers on an otherwise peaceful Saturday afternoon, vote the wrong way, stumble a bit trying to make their way along their paths? Keeping only the company of the impeccable, the righteous, condemns us to desolate isolation. And to self-hate—for which is the most invasive, damaging species on the planet?

Cut off from the sustenance in which we were once rooted, we bloom in our too-soon dying, invite absurd pollination, dine with sinners, hold onto the strange beauty in the aging, wrinkled, sublime face of the only world we’ve ever known. You have to love the earth you have, the people you have, love them until death do you part and beyond, for as long as your one wild and precious life may last.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

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10 responses to “Love in the Time of Extinction

  1. Trilling, while I yet exist!!! Happy Resurrection Day!

  2. Beautiful meditation, Trileigh! Love the the Mary Oliver reference.

  3. Loved. Hope does rise. Sending love across country to you.

  4. Does not all life bring beauty? Great meditation.

  5. Oh this makes me want to clutch my heart and exhale in the bittersweetness of it all. Such a soulful, lovely essay/rumination. Thank you!

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