Empty Land?

March 30, 2012

We were driving back to my dad’s place, my sister and me.  To the north, the towering Mount San Gorgonio, tallest mountain in Southern California, hovered over us, with lines of snow descending its steep canyons.  Next to the road, cows grazed in a seasonal green pasture, ignoring the dramatic scenery that surrounded them.

“Isn’t that sad,” my sister said, “they want to put five thousand homes on this empty land.”

I turned to her.  I could not believe in these challenging times for real estate of all kinds, that a development like that would make it to completion.

“Really,” I said.  “Are you sure, Kathy?  There are thousands of homes around us in this little town alone that are vacant or foreclosed right now.  That doesn’t make sense.”

“Well, Dad and I read it in the newspaper.”

This statement from her, I know meant that it must be true.

Empty Land.  Empty?  Just because it did not have roads and underground utilities, sidewalks, and homes with manicured lawns and fire-retardant roofs, dogs in the front yard behind chain-link fences barking at every stranger on his morning walk?  RV’s up on railroad ties with their wheels removed because gas was too expensive?  ADT signs posted near the front door warning visitors to keep their distance?

Empty land, indeed.

I thought about that comment as I took my brisk walk up the road toward the “empty land” on the edge of present day development.  On my way – in just one morning walk – I spotted a flock, six or eight to be precise, of western bluebirds frolicking in a small pine wood next to the open pasture.  The females twittered and the deep blue males followed.  Then, several bright yellow American goldfinches burst into their canary-like song.  Further along, in a part of the subdivision that had not yet been built on, I was treated to a contest of meadowlark song between two brightly colored males sitting in opposite corners of a prematurely built cinder-block wall – a signature of Southern California privacy shields.

I walked further up the road, past the Baptist church and the old Morongo Indian reservation well.  Four beautiful horses grazed in the “empty land” that stretched from the other side of the road up toward the high country beyond.  I witnessed four large hawks – or maybe they were eagles, too far in the distance to be sure, screeching and circling their two nests on consecutive Edison high voltage towers. This was a land of contrast for sure.

Empty land?  The native grasses had gone to seed and blew back and forth in the cool spring wind – the waves of grain of our national songs.  Ground squirrels scurried about in the field at the end of the road, where civilization yielded, finally to the (empty) land.  I walked on a little way, but felt more and more like I was out of my element.  That I was trespassing into a natural scene that had done just fine by itself for hundreds of millions of years – without our homes and RV’s and roads – thank you very much.

I turned around and headed back to my dad’s small mobile home, where I sleep in his living room and dread the next administration of morphine for his pain.  I look forward to the morning when I can go on my walk and once again experience the abundance of this “empty land”.

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They’re All Dead

December 19, 2010

On December 18, 2010, I once again lead the Christmas Bird Count for the Mount Diablo Audubon Society.  My count circle encompasses Black Diamond Mines Regional Park and for the last 10 years the park has remained relatively unchanged.   There’s a saying that in foul weather there will be two types of people braving the storm:  birders and golfers.  I started birding after taking a class in The Biology of Raptors in college and got hooked on bird-watching.  I guess the best analogy is alcoholism:  I may not be drinking (have binoculars in hand), but the desire is always there.     

Something strange happened during the count this year, I found myself going through the motions without much enthusiasm.  It wasn’t the weather and it certainly wasn’t my fellow birders, who are all fabulous people.  It wasn’t the birds we saw or missed, since we managed to see most of the highlights.  It wasn’t until later that I realized the problem started several weeks ago in Kauai.

I had the unexpected opportunity to hop on a plane and go to the Garden Island at the end of November.  I had not been there since my honeymoon over 24 years ago.  To my delight, for the most part, this little piece of paradise has survived the last quarter of a century unchanged.  Except for one thing, despite a wealth of habitat in Waimea Canyon Park, the birds have disappeared.  The only ‘apapane I saw was a beleaguered, fading specimen in the Kauai museum.  The display described the bird as the most common bird on the island.  I didn’t see a single one during the six days I was there.

Over the ten year plus years I have participated on the Christmas Bird Count, I have witnessed first- hand the decline of bird species.  Each year it seems there are fewer and fewer numbers.  It occurred to me that if I visited the same cage every year and each time there were more dead birds cluttering the bottom, it would become less desirable to take a look in the enclosure.  It would be even more frustrating if I had no idea how to fix the problem.  Is that why I was so unenthusiastic yesterday?  Was it the depressing story one birder told me about how she’d witnessed two birds attached at the neck by fishing line?  One of the species was a diving bird and every time it went underwater it pulled the other species down with it.  Try as I might, I couldn’t get that horrible image out of my mind. 

This fellow Christmas counter also told me a story about a conversation she’d had with another birder.  He’d said that if you count birds in the spring and go back in the fall and do the same tally and the numbers were lower, it was because the missing birds were all dead.  I started thinking about the “canary in the mine.”  Miners used to take caged birds down the shaft with them.  If the bird died, they knew there were poisonous gasses and that the needed to leave.  What if the birds are disappearing from our planet and we need to leave?  We have nowhere to run.

I feel as powerless as that poor bird attached to the diving bird.  Of course, both birds are suffering.   The diving bird has to work very hard to catch its food.  Neither knows how to fix the problem.  When one dies, the other one is surely doomed.  I wish the issue was simple. Rachel Carson watched the birds die after crop dusters spread pesticides over their produce.  Her book Silent Spring was instrumental in launching global change in part because the cause and effect was clear.  Rachel Carson showed us that writing can be a powerful tool.  Writing can change the world. 

The problem is we don’t even know why the bird populations are declining.  We don’t know why “they are all dead.”   Is it global warming or something else?  Even if scientists were to find a way to prove that climate change is the issue, the solutions would most likely require cooperation and sacrifice.  The head of the Rainforest Action Network once told me that if all that people needed to do was to give up eating a hamburger to save the Amazon, a lot of people would not follow through.  I fear he was right. 

I feel like the bird attached to the fishing line and that powers much larger than me are pulling this planet underwater.  Yet, if only I could understand that if by cutting a string, I could produce a solution where everyone would be better off, then I could write a book that could instigate a call to action.  But there reality is that the cause of the bird declines is unclear and most likely there are multiple aspects.

Maybe my heart wasn’t in birding yesterday because I understood that I can continue to count the birds every Christmas at Black Diamond Mines.  I can record the declines year after year.  I can continue to do this until they are all dead.   But if I can’t write a book like Silent Spring that triggers a solution, what have I really accomplished?