Gratuitous Nature

It’s easy to find things to be grateful for this Thanksgiving season if we look with the right eyes and attitudes. For today, I’m going to confine this search for goodness to the realm of the environment – a place wherein we can each day find new things to celebrate.

Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee everywhere at home. There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played.

Thoreau – Walden

My apartment is wedged in among buildings of a similar age on the drastic slope of an historic coal mining town just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The scars of mining are apparent here, the water in the stream down the hill changes color seasonally and the view from my windows is not all that might be desired, aesthetically. Still, I could hear the loud mating vocalizations of more than one species of frog this spring in the chemically challenged flowage down the hill, a place that still suffers from old mine residue but is also a verdant bio-filter with many species of emergent water weed crowding between the banks nowadays. I can see fish here too now and it’s likely that back around 2000 and earlier, no gill breathing organisms could have thrived in this flow. And unbeknownst to almost anyone, there’s a branch of this stream just a bit higher up that’s choked with hundreds of fish, large minnows which complete full life cycles here in clean, clear water.

I wake to bird calls each day. The birds here love buildings and would probably like to see more, if they had a say. The buildings around me are anything but modern and the birds find their way into the walls where they stay warm for the winter and raise young in the spring. A new generation of starlings originated just behind my fishing rod rack this year. People like me set out crumbs and seeds on our windowsills and the birds don’t hesitate. The wrens find “acoustically live” places to call from and the whole block reverberates. They go about their business of searching nooks and crannies of sidewalks, foundations and siding year-round for spiders and stinkbugs. Daily, I see the local mallards perform short diurnal migrations up and down the valley.

Much larger animals patrol the perimeter including all the western Pennslyvania staples: coyote, fox, deer and woodchuck. I strongly suspect that after dark fisher, mink, and bobcat are not far off along with the occasional bear. Down in the polluted brook, I watched a new batch of muskrat grow up this year which is a good sign that conditions are not so bad as its aluminum-ferrous hue might suggest.

The whole valley of Turtle Creek – my polluted little brook – is manifestly greener than it was a hundred years ago, a time when much of the surrounding hillsides would have been strip mines or tailing piles and the trees would have been almost all cut for firewood or simply to clear pasture land to feed cows and horses. The head of the valley is choked with trees today but very few of a hundred years or more old. It’s fairly easy to guess what all this would have looked like a century ago.

I can’t imagine going through life without a perspective of gratitude for all the good around me and I can’t imagine living day to day without a biological perspective on the world. I think my own life would be dim and depressing if my eyes weren’t fixed on all the signs of life, great and small. I can’t imagine being happy without wondering how much rain fell on my watershed overnight, without needing to find new trails to new adventures or without noticing the unique calls of the birds tucked into the knotweed just off the trail. How much better are our lives when we have eyes for the organic? How limited is our thinking when it encompasses only the realm of humans?

And I’ve advanced a lot of good reasons for exploration on this blog, and even for making exploration a way of life, but yet another reason for this habit is simply to cultivate this spirit of thankfulness for the wildness at your fingertips. You just don’t really know what’s waiting out there, the curious specimens or the seasonal fungi, if you’re not making an effort to leave the indoors behind in favor of places you have no idea about – just unexplored realms of possibility. (The concept of exploring random new places is going to become more apparent to readers of this blog in the year ahead; I don’t want to give too much away for the moment though. I’m moving in new directions – you’ll see.)

We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character.

Thoreau – Walden

And I think a spirit of thankfulness and appreciation precedes a better kind of environmentalism too – one that eschews the darkness and doom-saying of  our classic 20th Century environmentalism in favor of an ecological optimism, a perspective broad enough to see beyond the imperfections to long-term encouraging trends and all the little reasons to celebrate the resurgent wild around us. In so doing, we stand to not only see nature in a clearer light, we stand to free our minds from imposed paradigms.

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and
wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely
civil–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of
Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an
extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there
are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school
committee and every one of you will take care of that.

Thoreau – Walking

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