Preaching to Deniers

Back in college, I had a friend that would believe pretty much anything nature-related I told him. I was the biologist-in-training, after all (I didn’t abuse that trust.  Honest).  When he asked if male white-tailed deer grew a new tine on their antlers every year, I explained how the bone of antlers is covered in fine fur and vascularized, growing from nubbins to full size in the space of half a year.  At that point, the soft tissue dries and is rubbed off, leaving the hard bone.  The antlers don’t grow any more, but stay on the deer’s head until well into winter, when they fall off.  Then the cycle starts anew, and the buck, now a year older, may well grow a larger set of antlers.

Fast forward a decade or so.  I was a biologist at some expo or another; the table was decked with bones, tortoise shells, snake skins, and other bits of natural detritus with which to engage the public in conversations about how cool nature is. A woman came by, looking with mild distaste at my display.  At last, she pointed at the shed antler I’d picked up in the woods.  “Did you kill that deer?” she demanded.  I launched into my spiel on the antler growth cycle with the enthusiasm of a young professional naturalist.  I ended my micro lecture with a verbal coda indicating how interesting I found the whole process.

“Uh-huh.”  Not the reaction I was expecting.  She clearly didn’t buy a word that I said, because I was certainly lying to cover up evidence of my Bambicide.  Nonplused, I showed her the burr, running my finger over the rough transitional surface where the antler detached from the pedicle on the buck’s head; it was obviously not sawn off a dead deer.  Still didn’t matter.  I felt the weight of her judging gaze as she proceeded to visit another table featuring less unsavory characters than government biologists like me.

Earlier this week, I was talking with someone about one aspect of my job: advocating for certain suites of native plant species, a process that often involves removing non-natives as well as native species of a different seral community.  I went on to say that forest thinning and regular regimes of prescribed burning are standard management tools in the southeastern US. Foresters and wildlife biologists are trying to create openings in forests to bring back endangered animals, but ironically those plans are halted by lawsuits from well-intentioned “nature lovers” who think all forests should be climax forests, and that any tree cutting was only for the profit of the timber industry.

My correspondent suggested, “Maybe the scientists could do some educational outreach and turn the nature lovers into volunteers. When folks understand the science, they become great advocates.”

Oh, one would believe so.  And don’t think we don’t do outreach.  Here’s a secret about biologists: we are often very knowledgeable introverts.  One of the things that draws us to a career in the outdoors is limited contact with people.  Further, a biologist often knows that a casual question from a visitor at a booth will have an answer that encompasses an hour’s lecture of foundational background, examples, and counter-examples.  They must mentally distill this into a 20-second soundbite that still sounds convincing to the layman. 

And even if we were all ecological advocates with the eloquence of Carl Sagan, delivery of the message is only half the battle.  The receiver still must accept it, and there are several barriers to overcome.

Let’s start with the power of emotion.  Emotion is immediate and viscerally satisfying, while one must be patient and discerning with facts.  I can point to a browse line and explain why humans must cull a deer herd, but weighed against a photo of a hunter-killed deer I may well lose the argument.  My coworkers can list the plant and animal species endemic to a longleaf savanna ecosystem, but can that compete with the image of the charred, barren forest floor that is periodically  necessary to preserve those species?

The next hurdle is the cognitive bias. Certain members of the public dismiss our voices, particularly in the last couple of decades.  Is it because they’ve been lied to by dishonest authorities? Because they’ve been trained by fringe news sources to assume anyone coming out of a university has a hidden agenda?  We can’t be certain of the reason, but the result – skepticism veering into denial – is evident.

Finally, there is the willingness to change.  This seems to be the highest hurdle.  The ability to change one’s opinion when presented with new facts seems as rare and as valuable as any superpower.  The shed-denier at the beginning of this essay is but one of many I’ve encountered in person or via social media. “I’m entitled to my opinion” is acceptable in matters of personal taste, but too many in today’s society take it to mean, “My ignorance is as valid as your specialized knowledge.”

If you are reading this, likely you are part of the choir I’m preaching to; you’re nodding because you’ve probably had run-ins with the arrogantly ignorant folks who believe their emotional opinion overrules your fact-based assertion. But if I am fortunate enough to capture a pair of fresh eyes linked to an open mind, please believe that I am not getting paid under the table by Big Timber.  My interest in nature began with reading about dinosaurs as a toddler and has never waned.  If I tell you something about the natural world, it’s what I believe to be true.

I have been around long enough to know there are no simple solutions.  Improving habitat for one species may be detrimental for another. One of the more difficult parts of a biologist’s job is to condense this knowledge into an elevator pitch that will enlighten someone who may be happier in the dark.

Pitcher Plant Bog

It’s morning in late April, and spring is in full swing in the southwestern corner of Georgia. The air is warm without being oppressive, but summer is too impatient a season for that state to last long. 

You stand in a broad, open woodland of longleaf and slash pines; a little crowded to be a proper savanna, but open enough to allow a rich mix of groundcover species. This land was clearcut in the 1940s, but unlike most of the land around it, it wasn’t converted to agriculture.  In fact, roughly a square mile (barely a postage stamp on the greater landscape) around this spot is protected as a state wildlife management area.  This is fortunate, for you get to see a remnant of this vanishing ecosystem in a more or less functional state.

When nature-watching, careful attentiveness to your surroundings is key.  A quick sweep of this woodland, and the casual observer sees a broad expanse of grasses broken here and there by clumps of shrubs.  But standing within that groundcover forces a change of perspective. One reason, of course, is that some of the more mobile denizens of the forest don’t appreciate being stepped on and will tell you so, painfully.  Others, more vulnerable, are unable to defend against a boot but still worthy of recognition and protection.  

Without close attention, you would have missed the fingernail-sized puff of pink on the ground between the deerberry and the wiregrass clump.  The sensitive brier has bipinnately compound leaves snap shut and droop suddenly when touched.  Perhaps this serves to startle herbivores or shake off leaf-munching insects, but also entertains a youth with woodwise curiosity. 

The flowers rising between grass clumps host wild bees and bright butterflies as they make the rounds; less noticeable are the beetles, flies and wasps that also sip the nectar in exchange for pollen transport.

Toothache grass

The change in elevation is too slight for a Piedmont hill-dweller to notice, but a close eye on the vegetation reveals it.  Wiregrass gives way to dropseed and toothache grass, and then to rushes.  In a matter of inches of height, the upland has become bog, and a new suite of plants surrounds you.

Looking down, you spot tiny reddish spots the size of a quarter, obscured by pine needles.  These are sundews, which catch and digest insects on their sticky rosette leaves.  Your new vantage point as you squat down to observe these tiny herbaceous carnivores allows you to notice the glistening sand. You didn’t realize how wet the soil was, but now you see your last footprint is filling with water.  There is no water’s edge here, just a gradual gradient that dips and rises between “dry” land and standing water.  A fallen pine provides a precarious walkway for a few yards, yet you will get wet feet soon enough. 


Off to your left, you see what you came for: a cluster of meter-long yellow pitcher plants (aka Trumpets).  Like sundews, pitcher plants are carnivorous, digesting insects to supplement their nutritional needs on poor, wet soils.  Attracted by the scent of nectar,  bugs alight within the leaf tube, where the waxy surface and downward-facing hairs slide the victim deeper in.  Eventually, the insect falls into a pool of digestive fluid, where it drowns and dissolves.  You also see the less lethal flowers among the pitchers; they too lure pollinators in, but allows them to escape after being dusted with pollen.

Your old-timer guide tells you he remembers, back in the 80’s, driving down the interstate and seeing fields of pitcher plant trumpets for mile upon unbroken mile.  But agriculture, industrial logging, and other development made the land inhospitable for these persnickety plants.  These bogs feature shallow, consistent, year-round water supply, and even a tire rut (or repeated human traffic) can alter the hydrology enough to make a spot unsuitable.  This particular woodland is protected from development and burned periodically to keep it open. 

Management burn. Photo by Joe Burnam, Ga DNR

Managers ran a prescribed fire through this bog last June, and already some bays, gallberry, and other shrubs are making their presence known.  A few years without fire would change the plant makeup of this woodland and threaten pitcher plants, sundews, sunny bells, and most of the plant and animal diversity you find here today. 

Your guide says it’s time to head out.  Carefully picking your way to “higher” ground, you find a footpath and say good day to the pitcher plant bog.  As you reach the dirt road you drove in on, you see the highway.  Cars pass by, driven by people with no interest in places like a pitcher plant bog.  It’s sad because they can’t appreciate the intricate, rich, and delicate web of life that still exists.  But perhaps it is also fortunate, because places like these tend to suffer when they receive too much human attention.

Additional Resources:

Longleaf Pine Ecosystem from Wikipedia


Have you ever heard of a Madstone? It’s a bit of old deer lore I was reminded of recently. 

Madstones, also called bezoars, beazlestones, or enteroliths, form in much the same way as pearls in shellfish (due to their rarity, some deer experts consider them even more valuable).  A foreign body, such as a coin, hairball, or even a clump of dirt, remains in the stomach rather than passing through the intestines.  Over time, mineral salts (particularly phosphates) and food particles coat the object.

Madstone from my Dad’s collection

Bezoars come in several different types.  The madstone-type is usually smooth and rounded like a river pebble.  Hairballs coated with minerals are called trichobezoars, and may be either soft and stringy or hard and urchin-like.  Balls of plant fibers form phytobezoars, and may be either smooth or knotty and rough.  A combination of hair and plant fiber may form phytotrichobezoars, which are often soft and velvety.  Size-wise, bezoars can run from smaller than a pea to nearly twenty pounds.  Bezoars are often found in the stomachs or throats of horses, occasionally found in ruminants such as deer, cattle, or goats, and rarely seen in cats, dogs, and even humans.  They don’t present a danger to the animals unless the bezoar blocks the intestine.

Magical power has long been ascribed to these stones.  During the Middle Ages, for example, bezoars were thought to cure epilepsy in children, break fevers, prevent plague, cure rabies, and neutralize any poison from snakebite to arsenic (the word bezoar is derived from the Persian word padzahr, which means “expelling poison”).  Even in modern times, some people collect the stones for their reputed curative powers or for just plain good luck.

Beazlestones are also found in deerhunter’s lore.  Some local traditions say that white or piebald deer carry the stones in their throats, others say that any deer can have them.  According to the folktales, a wounded deer coughs up its madstone, bringing good fortune to the hunter that finds the pebble.  More likely, the stone is found in the rumen when the deer being dressed. In these times when most deer go through a commercial processor, I expect many madstones are never recovered. 

Finding a madstone is a bit of luck in itself. Whether or not they bring good luck is a question I leave to you.

Meet the New Orb-Weaver…

This weekend I received texted photo of a spider, with the question: “Friend or Foe?”  What she meant, of course, is whether the arachnid posed a danger to her.  The picture she sent was that of a Joro spider (Trichonephila clavate). I told her it wasn’t dangerous, but in truth it requires a more complex answer. 

Fat and Happy Joro

Until recently, I could comfortably identify the big spiders around my house as either the garden or writing spider (Argiope aurantia) or the golden silk orb weaver (Trichonephila clavipes).  When late-summer spider season hit and webs were being spun in every available tree and porch pillar, the usual suspects aren’t in attendance.  Instead, the Joro spider, an Asian native, has set up shop all over Athens and throughout our woods in a neighboring county. 

In the Fall of 2014, a fellow in Madison County, Georgia, sent photos of a strange spider to the Department of Entomology at the University of Georgia.  This is the first record of the Joro spider in North America. They probably arrived, as so many invasives do, in packing material for goods shipped across the ocean. Since then, they have expanded their range across the Piedmont of Georgia and South Carolina.  Given that the spiders lay egg sacks with hundreds of eggs (up to 1500!), it is easy to see how they overwhelm the other large orb weavers in the ecosystem.

My ecologically-aware friend was incensed.  “…are we just meant to let them naturalize, or are we supposed to be coming up with ways to get rid of them?”

Golden Silk Orb Weaver

Good question.  If one species takes over a niche from another species, that is cause for a naturalist’s concern.  Unfortunately, unless the usurper causes some economic harm, you aren’t likely to have any of the Powers That Be care enough to devote resources to it.  Not that there is likely to be a way to combat this species that doesn’t threaten all other spider species. 

No, I think we will see the Joro continue to spread and naturalize.  They will capture insects with as much efficiency as their predecessors, and their bites are just as harmless to humans. Whether the transition of arachnid power will impact the ecosystem beyond displacing some species remains to be seen. 


Spiders in Georgia: Identify the spiders you find.

Ghost Pipe

I learned something new! I love it when that happens.

In the last few months I moved from just below to Fall Line to deep in the Piedmont.  As a result the collection of counties I am responsible for have gotten hillier, wetter, and slightly cooler.  I’m seeing a different suite of flora and fauna than before, including some things that haven’t previously been on my radar.

A bowshot from National Forest land in the high hills of North Georgia, something caught my eye beneath the white pines, oaks, beeches, and maples.  Small white stalks rose from the leaf litter, curling over at the top with a petaled capsule like a lamp post for gnomes.  I snapped some photos so I could look up what kind of fungus this was when I got home. 

Monotropa uniflora is known by several common names, including ghost plant, Indian pipe, ghost pipe, or corpse plant. It was much more interesting than I gave it credit for.  For starters, it isn’t a fungus; it’s a plant in the heather family.  Instead of spraying spores to reproduce,  ghost pipe requires native bees to visit its flower and carry its pollen. Unlike heather (and most plants), ghost pipe doesn’t produce chlorophyll, so it can’t use sunlight to make energy.  So how does it live?

That’s the next interesting bit.  There are many fungi that engage in mutualistic association with plants.  These fungi, known as mycorrhizae, colonize the roots of plants. They assist the plant in collecting water or nutrients, and collect carbohydrates created in the plant’s chlorophyll factories above.  The ghost pipe is a parasite of certain mycorrhizal fungi.  This is a switch; usually a fungus parasitizes plants.  But we have a plant stealing sugar from a fungus that said fungus “traded” from a tree that produced that energy in the sunlit canopy 80 feet above. Thus, it can grow in the densest, darkest forests.  Ghost pipe pops quickly up after a rain, and flowers in early summer to autumn; I was fortunate to have wandered the woods at just the right time to see them.

Curiosity is an important trait for any aspiring naturalist.  Knowledge can be gained by seeking answers, but curiosity is the driver.

Encounter With a Shrew

I have a brief encounter I’d like to relate.

I’d just finished a meeting on the northern edge of the state, and I wasn’t entirely ready to head to lower lands.  So I found a pull-off where I could park the truck and ambled down next to the river.  Here the water was deep enough to roll on fairly smoothly, but only lightly clouded compared to the brown waters a few counties south.  I sat here for a few minutes, trying to be present – my mind pushing away the people I’d dealt with earlier and the long drive ahead of me.  Off in the distance rose the high, thin whine of Brood X cicadas.  By my knee, an adult dobsonfly, another short-lived but far quieter insect, twined around a grass stalk.

It’s not hard to lose track of time beside running water, but home called so I didn’t tarry too long.  Back up to the roadside, I paused to take one more look at the river.  I don’t recall hearing anything noteworthy, but my eyes flashed down to the ground.  There, beside my boot, a shrew about the size of my thumb lunged out from under a leaf to grab an earthworm by the middle.  The tiny insectivore backed into the leaf litter with its thrashing prey.  I knelt and flipped over the leaf, revealing a tunnel of sorts in the humus; the shrew was already away to eat and resume its neverending hunt. 

My meetings with shrews are rare enough to make this close encounter notable. I wouldn’t want to handle a shrew, of course, as they are among the only venomous mammals.  A nip from one of these fellers would cause localized pain and swelling for a few days, but their toxic saliva renders worms, insects, and even mice paralyzed and comatose.  Shrews store their captured prey in caches for later use.  Given their high metabolic rate – starving in a matter of hours if not fed – storing ready food is not a bad strategy.

This is a common theme with me, but one which I hope will sink in. Take the time to stop, to be still, to look and listen.  How can Nature grace you with a moment if you aren’t there to appreciate it?

Spider-Snake, Spider-Snake…

Can you climb a tree? 

Can you climb a tree without branches to grasp? 

Now imagine climbing a tree without the benefit of hands or feet!

I found this 5-ish foot rat snake easing up a white oak.  Notice how it bends to find any slight protrusion in the rough bark.  By pressing against many points of contact, it distributes its weight and supports itself as it inches up the trunk.  It isn’t a fast process, but snakes are patient.  Besides bark, I’ve seen snakes on brick walls as well.    

That explains the how, but what about the why?  For the same reason a snake does most things – the quest for food.  The serpent searches for nests, consuming bird eggs or young squirrels.  Snakes may also hide in trees to escape their own predators.  Wetland snakes such as cottonmouths often bask in the branches of trees, plopping back into the water when startled. 

The red-cockaded woodpecker has developed an impressive defense to deter slithery predators.  These birds make their nests in cavities they excavate in longleaf pines.  The woodpeckers smooth the rough bark on the nest trees as well as surrounding pines.  They also excavate small holes (“resin wells”) above, around, and below the nest cavity. Resin flows from these wells, forming a smooth coating on the tree truck that snakes find difficult to cross.

Summing Up with Uncle Ernie

One of the most memorable professors I had at UGA was Dr. Ernie Provost.  He was a tough, leathery S.O.B. who had scars from a katana blade wielded in anger.  He could identify any skull at a glance, feared no rattlesnake, and regularly won national and world skeet competitions until the hand-rolled cigarette habit of decades took his breath away.  He could recite poetry, discuss philosophy and history, and referred to Aldo Leopold as “Our Father who art in Heaven.”  His students called him Uncle Ernie (thought not usually within earshot).

I had the privilege of taking Natural History from Dr. Ernie Provost.  I think the year was 1989, and it was one of the last years he taught. I could tell a lot of stories about this colorful man and the difficult class that I was proud to have earned an A in.  But for now, allow me to share some of the man’s pearls of wisdom.

For the final lecture of the class, he walked in with a tape recorder, gave a brief introduction, and turned on the tape.  I was much impressed and pleaded to get a copy of the tape.  He said no, but after the final exam he relented and handed it over.  What follows is a transcript, first of his introduction, and then his tape.

Introduction (in class):

“I came back to work last night about eight o’clock, and it was about 11:30 before I got home.  And I was kind of tuckered, and I didn’t know what in the world to do with today’s class.  It’s frustrating as heck to get this far and have so much left undone.  So I did something I have done a few times in the past — sometimes it turns out alright, sometimes it doesn’t — but what I do is mix me a tall, cool one, roll a cigarette, put on a tape and start running my mouth off, and now you are stuck, ’cause you got to listen to me run my mouth off here for a little while.  So sit back and relax.”

The Tape:

“I’m all for the man who, having nothing to say, refrains from giving oral evidence of the fact.  In trying to decide what to do with this last lecture period, I’d about decided I had nothing to say, since none of the topics such as zoogeography, bioenergetics, population genetics, hibernation and reproduction, biology of extinction, rare and endangered species —  all of which and many more should be addressed —  none of them could really be approximated in one 50 – minute lecture.  It occurred to me, however, that I might presume to impinge on you for a few minutes with a few philosophies of that most ubiquitous of all vertebrates, Man.  This course, as with most taxonomic subjects, has been primarily factually oriented; and in such courses, there is little time (particularly in the span of the quarter system) to stimulate the imagination and perhaps even the intellectual curiosity of an inquiring mind.  This is regrettable, but I do not say it apologetically.  Our aims this quarter have been to learn to identify vertebrates, and hopefully we gained some insight into what a vertebrate is and how it got that way.  This I think we have accomplished.  But the lessons we’ve learned from the so-called lower animals are frequently applicable to ourselves if we exercise the common sense to apply them.

I make no claim as to the originality of any of the ideas that these ramblings may encompass.  We are all, after all, a product of whatever our particular sojourn in this great big beautiful blue-eyed world has exposed us to.  Some perspicacious character observed that no one can get more out of anything than their previous experience permits them to get.  I suppose this includes life, books, college courses, professors and students.  At this relatively late stage in my own life, I’ve long since lost track of where I picked up what particular thought or opinion I may now have salted away.  But though there may be a lot of plagiarism in what follows, maybe there’s a little bit of originality and perhaps you may find something worth keeping in the conglomerate.

It’s been said that no man’s opinion is any better than his background, his experience, and his general common sense.  Just because a person has a Ph.D. after his or her name doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worth listening to.  As human beings we all have a right to our opinion.   But opinions should be based on facts.  We even have a right to be wrong in our opinions, but we don’t have the right to be wrong in our facts.  This train of thought was prompted by a question that was posed to me a while back.  The question went something like, “What are snakes good for?”  Perhaps the most challenging and intriguing way to answer that question, especially when it is posed by one unversed in ecology and vertebrate zoology, is to answer it with another, much more difficult question: “What are human beings good for?”  That one has puzzled philosophers ever since the first cave man stopped beating the brains out of one of his fellow men long enough to look up at the sky and wonder the same thing.  Man consists of some seven octillion atoms (that’s 7 x 1027) grouped in about ten trillion cells (that’s 1013).  This conglomeration of cells and atoms has some astonishing properties:  It is alive, feels joy and sorrow, discriminates between beauty and ugliness, and distinguishes good from evil.  In many of these, and other things, Man differs from other animals, but is nonetheless a product of the same forces.  All animals, including Man, are adapted to a way of life, to specific habitats and ecological niches.  The ability to adapt resides in the individual, but only assumes importance when it becomes a population characteristic.  Whether or not an individual utilizes the ability depends on circumstances.  Survival or death of an individual is to some extent a matter of chance.  Some will adapt that are killed and vice-versa.  Adaptation leads to diversification, and make no mistake, failure to adapt leads to extinction.  This is a universal law of great big beautiful blue-eyed Mother Nature and it applies to Man as well as to the other critters.

If this course is worth anything — if I’ve been worth anything — it will occasionally have asked questions (and I will have asked questions) or caused you to ask yourself questions which are really big.  And I hope that in some of the biggest I will have had the good sense to have left them unanswered.  If you think about the material in which your training in ZOO 350 allows you to observe — and up to now you may have seen but I don’t know whether you’ve been observing or not — some of the things you learn and observe will provoke and inspire, and irritate, and I don’t know which will be the most advantageous to you.  But learning to ask the questions why, how, to gain an awareness — these are the things that really matter.

When I finally got discharged from the Marines Corps after World War II, I was a very mixed-up, bitter, and disenchanted young man.  Realizing that I had to get my head straightened out or I was going to end up in jail or the booby hatch, I headed for the hills and spent some time trying to sort things out.  I learned a lot in the few months about myself, about life, and some do’s and don’ts, one of which was ‘It’s not prudent to squat in front of a fire when the crotch of your jeans is sewed up with copper wire.’  Anyhow, years later, after belatedly getting my life back on track, I read something written by a man named James A. Mitchner, in which he summed things up perfectly for my own case as well as his, and it went something like this:  This tardy beginning (referring to his late start in life, and my own), one might say delinquency, stem from the fact that I spent a good deal of my early time knocking around the country trying to find out what I believed in, what values were large enough to enlist my sympathy during which I sensed would be a long and confused life.  Had I committed myself earlier, I would not even have known the parameters of the problem.  Any choice I might have made then would have had to be wrong.

Even though it took a lot of years’ work to figure out the real facts, I finally decided that the constructive work of the world is done by an appallingly-small percentage of the population; the rest simply don’t give a damn, or they fail to acquire, when young, the ideas that would vitalize them for the long decades ahead.  I’m not saying that such people don’t matter; they are among the most precious items on Earth.  But they cannot be depended upon either to generate necessary new ideas or to put them into operation if someone else generates them.  Therefore, those men and women who do have the energy to form new constructs and new ways to implement them must do the work of many.  I believe it to be an honorable aspiration to want to be among these creators.  Hence the necessity of education — that’s really what it’s all about.

Way back in 1958 a man named George Walls said that the great questions are those an intelligent child asks, and finding no answers, learns to stop asking.  That’s what’s known as “growing up;” it’s supposedly one of the fruits of education.  Heaven forbid!  Occasionally, a man such as, oh, Einstein asks a few such questions as a child and never gives up asking them.  That is genius.  The human mind is capable of solving every problem that it can formulate if it’s not distracted; but it longs to be distracted.  The great and difficult thing is to ask the right questions.  Their rightness is in their spaciousness; one can grow in them, and they grow as one grows, so they lead ever onward, ancient yet always new, always fresh,  always yielding but promising more than they have yielded.  One might suppose that all of us know some of these great questions and live with them.  This is not so.

In an almost universal habit of intellectual agoraphobia (and if you’re not familiar with that word, agoraphobia means morbid dread of crossing or being in the midst of open spaces) we grow up to avoid these questions.  We like to pin ourselves in with as close and cozy detail that we can manage and arrange.  Most of us are like men with sore eyes — we find the light which permits us to see things clearly, painful, and the darkness which clouds our vision is comforting and cozy.  I’m reminded of the story of Plato’s Cave. It’s been quite a while since I read it, I’ll probably bastardize it a bit, but it goes something like this just in case you don’t remember:  There was a race of people who lived in a cave.  They were chained to the wall; actually, they weren’t being tortured, they weren’t prisoners, it’s just the way they lived.  And, on the wall, they saw shadows moving back and forth, and of course these shadows were caused by the light coming through the mouth of the cave, and things and people passing back and forth across the mouth, casting shadows on the wall.  And these people that lived in the cave figured all this out, and they figured out what the shadows meant, the significance of it, what caused them and all that.  Of course, they didn’t have it right, but they had it figured out anyway.  But eventually, one of their number, a young man, was permitted to go to the outside.  Of course, it took him a while to adapt to the light, but little by little he was able to handle the bright sunlight and he began to see what the real poop, the straight scoop, the facts were.  He realized the real cause of the shadows they had watched on the wall and what it was all about.  And he wanted very much to get back into the cave and explain it to the rest of his people.  And he did, and he went in there and laid the straight scoop on them.  Now, did they hail him as a hero?  Not at all!  This guy was an iconoclast.  He was tearing down images and idols, and they didn’t like it; he was upsetting the apple cart.  So what did they do?  Well, they solved their problem, they killed him.  And they didn’t have to worry about this upstart anymore.

Sort of reminds me of another one of those little poems from Ogden Nash (I’ll bastardize this one, too) that goes something like: For things are frequently what they seem, and this is wisdom’s clown/ Only the game fish swims upstream; the rest of the fish swim down (actually, Ogden Nash said the “sensible” fish swim down, but I don’t like that, so as I said I switched it around).  In other words, when you’re right, you’re right, and even if you gotta pay the bill, you gotta stick to it.  After all, no one has the right to be a parasite on society.  But by the same token, one has to use your head.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Robert Ruark.  He is now dead, but Ruark was a wonderful author, he wrote a lot of wonderful books.  He grew up in South Carolina here in the Southeast.  One of his finest books, I think, is called The Old Man and The Boy, and the old man is the boy’s grandfather, and there’s a lot of nice interplay between these two, but there’s one particular passage that I find intriguing.  The kid is trying to train a goat, and he’s not having much luck training this goat.  The old man finally admonishes him and he tells him something like, “There are some things, some dogs, some goats, even some people that ain’t worth troubling over.  You can feed’em, and gentle’em, and worry over’em, and coax’em and try to teach them, but they’ll stay obstinate.  After a while, the only thing is to give up.  The hard thing is to know when to give up, not too early, and not too late.  If you give up too late, you’ve wasted a lot of time; if you give up too early, you may have lost a winner, and that, we really can’t afford to do.”   Ruark also pointed out that Man becomes immortal only in what he writes down on paper, or hacks into a rock, or slathers onto a canvas or pulls out of a piano.  But the thought, the feeling, the question precludes the immortal result; you’ve got to keep on trying to ask the right questions.  But I’m convinced that each of us should strive to find his or her niche in life whatever that may be, and that takes some doing sometimes.  You gotta thank your lucky stars if you do find it, but having found it, you’ve got to be smart enough to realize that you’ve had some good fortune and found your niche, and stay there; don’t try to be a ladder climber and promote yourself to the level of incompetence (as the saying goes).

This business about giving up reminds me of another old man and the boy, coming down out of some hills of the Northwest in the middle of July in a blizzard dressed only in thin summer clothes, riding obstinate horses, herding a string of granny mules that were absolutely impossible.  The old man rode back along the string, and he saw the young kid, soaking wet from all the snow coming down off the pine boughs all over him, Cold, wet, miserable, teeth clenched hard trying his best not to shiver and sob.  The old man knew the kid was in tough shape, and he said “Son, you may be give out, but you can’t give up.”  Well, the old man was usually right, it doesn’t pay to give up, at least not too early.  Once in a while, once in a great while, one has to give up, but the hard thing is to know when — not too soon, but then again, not too late either.  I guess it’s a matter of establishing your own sense of values and then sticking to them.  A short while ago a group of Georgia bigwigs along with a lot of lesser wights gathered on campus here to celebrate the ground breaking for a $32,000,000 biological sciences complex to be devoted to biotechnological research.  Of course, this building is just about complete now over behind Forest Resources and Ecology, but at the time, ex University president Fred Davidson (who I am pleased to call a friend and whose baby this project really is) was quoted as saying that, and I quote, “Nature will literally be reprogrammed to serve Man,” end of quote.  In view of Man’s record so far, the very population explosion alluded to by Davidson, and the result of Man’s dubious attempts to date to reprogram Nature, I am tempted to ask, along with Billy Shakespeare, “What meat is this our Caesar eats that he is grown so great?”  History records that Conquering Man has always known, in each of his various civilizations, what was important where in the particular artifact known as Society which he had erected at that particular moment.  But the failure of each civilization in turn suggests that, so far, he has been predominately wrong about the whats and the wheres.  So by what colossal bigotry then do we presume to have suddenly found all the right answers in ours, the latest of these artifacts?  As a dedicated doubter, a full-time skeptic and a part-time cynic, I question whether this highly-touted artifact we are pleased to call Society is evolving a better Man or is capable of doing a better job of reprogramming Nature.  With Aldo Leopold, I wonder if we are exchanging such things as two cars under the roof of our neo-colonial garage, multiple TV sets, and all the rest of it, for an awareness of some of the greater values in life.  To get technical for a minute, the Hardy-Wienberg Law, which deals with the relations between gene frequencies in random-mating populations of diploid  individuals, and the zygotic frequencies resulting from such matings, shows that there no intrinsic mechanisms in Mendelian inheritance leading to alterations in gene frequencies in populations.  In other words, there is no tenancy for one gene to replace another and hence no loss of variability in a population.  In other words, Man is a product of the same evolutionary principles as are other critters.  But modern man has a double heritage.  He is a product of biological and cultural evolution, and herein maybe’s a problem.  As I told you before, the concern of man in reality should be not whether his species survives but whether his population line will persist.  It could, if among successful lines, continue in existence, presumably 11,000,000 million years, at which time its representative species could, and undoubtedly would, be far different than that of the present day.  The problem lies in time and the nature of man, and the decisions that he is capable of making.  The bottom line here is, you people are the ones that are going to make the decisions.

I think it well to quote here from Aldo Leopold’s last chapter in his book, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, when he quoted from Robinson’s injunction to Tristram, and it goes something like this:  ” Whether you will or not, you are a king, Tristram.  You are one of the time-tested few that leave the world, when they are gone, not the same place it was.  Mark what you leave.”

Well, now this is getting a little bit heavy, and you’re probably getting a little bit, shall we say, disenchanted with my ramblings.  In any event, before I leave you, I’d like to read something to you.  It’s a poem called “Evolution,” written by a guy named Smith.

When you were a tadpole, and I was a fish,

In the Paleozoic time,

And side by side on the ebbing tide

We sprawled through the ooze and slime,

Or skittered with many a caudal flip

Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,

My heart was rife with the joy of life,

For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved

And mindless at last we died;

And deep in a rift of the Caradoc drift,

We slumbered side by side.

The world turned on in the lathe of time,

The hot lands heaved amain,

Till we caught our breath from the womb of death

And crept into light again.

We were Amphibians, scaled and tailed,

And drab as a dead man’s hand;

We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees.

Or trailed through the mud and sand,

Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet,

Writing a language dumb,

With never a spark in the empty dark

To hit at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived, and happy we loved,

And happy we died once more;

Our forms were rolled in the clinging mould

Of a Neocomian shore.

The Aeons came, and the Aeons fled,

And the sleep that wrapped us fast,

Was riven away in a newer day,

And the night of death was past.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees

We swung in our airy flights

Or breathed in the balm of the fronded palms

In the lush of the moonless nights

And oh! what beautiful years were these,

When our hearts clung each to each,

When life was filled and our senses thrilled

In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love,

We passed through the circle strange,

And breath by breath and death by death

We followed the chain of change

Till there came a time in the law of life

When over the nursing sod

The shadows broke, and the soul awoke

In a strange, dim dream of God.

I was thewed like an Aurock bull

And tusked like the great Cave Bear;

And you, my sweet from head to feet,

Were gowned in your glorious hair.

Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,

When the night fell o’er the plain,

And the moon hung red o’er the river bed,

We mumbled the bones of the slain.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge,

And shaped it with brutish craft;

I broke a shank from the woodland dank

And fitted it, head and haft.

Then I hid me close by the reedy tarn,

Where the Mammoth came to drink,

Through brawn and bone I drave the stone,

And slew him on the brink.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,

Loud answered our kith and kin;

From west and east to the crimson feast,

The clan came trooping in.

O’er joint and gristle, and padded hoof,

We fought, and clawed, and tore,

And cheek by jowl, with many a growl

We talked the marvel o’er.

I carved that fight on a reindeer bone,

With rude and hairy hand,

I pictured his fall on the cavern wall

That men might understand,

For we lived by blood and the right of might,

Ere human laws were drawn,

And the Age of Sin did not begin

Till our brutal tusks were gone.

And that was a million years ago,

In a time that no one knows.

Yet here tonight in the mellow light,

We sit at Delmonico’s;

Your eyes are as deep as Devon springs,

Your hair as dark as jet,

Your years are few, your life is new,

Your soul untried, and yet,

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay,

And the scarp of Purbeck flags,

We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones,

And deep in the Coraline crags;

Our love is old, or life is old,

And death shall come amain;

Should it come today, what man may say

We shall not meet again,

Got wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds

And furnished them wings to fly.

He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,

And I know that it shall not die,

Though cities have sprung above the graves

Where the crook-boned men made war,

And the ox-wain creaks o’er the buried caves,

Where the mummied mammoths are.

Then, as we linger at luncheon here,

O’er many a dainty dish,

Let us drink anew to the time when you

Were a Tadpole and I were a Fish.

And speaking of which, good luck with the tadpoles and the fish.”

Dr. Ernie Provost

I feel sorry for the students of today who will never know a teacher like this one.

Aldo Leopold

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise (Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac)

Today is Earth Day, celebrated across the US and around the world.  But I’m talking about yesterday, which was the 71st anniversary of the death of a conservationist who should have more recognition than he gets.  Aldo Leopold was an ecologist, forester, outdoorsman, and known by many as the father of modern wildlife management.

A graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, he worked with the Forest Service in the Southwest and later Wisconsin.  He eventually became the first Professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin. His writings (hundreds of articles, reports, and essays, plus countless letters and journal entries) document an evolving view of how natural communities work – and how easily and carelessly humans sabotage them.  He advocated the scientific management of wildlife habitat, and the setting-aside of wilderness areas to preserve select lands in a roadless state.

In the course of his career, Leopold experimented with the tools conservationists had available to maintain and create wildlife habitat.   Policy and regulation worked well out west where most of the land was owned by the government;  financial incentives and subsidies were more effective among  midwestern landowners, but only as long as the payouts continued.  He determined that what was really needed was for landowners to develop an “ecological conscience,” a sense of right and wrong directed towards maintaining harmony with the natural community much as our social conscience is likewise directed towards harmony with the human community.

When I was a college student in a natural resources program, A Sand County Almanac was one of those books everyone was expected to read if not quote.  Among the collection of essays is the “The Land Ethic,” laying out the moral responsibility of humans to the natural world.

“A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

This ethic is broadly drawn and would no doubt have evolved and been refined through feedback, discussion, and reflection.  Unfortunately, Aldo Leopold suffered a heart attack and died while fighting a fire on a neighbor’s land.  Thus, the posthumous treatise on the place of mankind in the natural community was his final word on the subject.

Yet his ideas and efforts have produced a legacy that lives on 7 decades later.  Nature-minded folk across the spectrum – conservationist and preservationist, hunter and animal rights activist – wave his words like gospels.  His ideas have influenced conservation policy and college curricula.

If you are an environmentalist of any stripe, I recommend you become familiar with Leopold’s writings.

Visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation

Aldo Leopold and the Birth of the Land Ethic,” on the Voices of the Wilderness podcast

Beauty at Our Feet

Outdoors folks in the South  spend a lot of time with downcast eyes.  This isn’t out of bluets2shame or sadness.  Knowing where you are stepping is of real importance.   Besides the scaly or chitinous critters that might violently object to being trod on, there are other dangers, from stump holes and brambles to rusty wire and glass.  There are prizes as well: arrowheads, coins, antique bottles, shed antlers, and more can fill the pocket or pack of the sharp-eyed observer.

As winter slides into spring, other tiny treasures reveal themselves to those who look.  A particular favorite of mine is the bluet.  This annual sports a quarter-inch  4-petal flower ranging from white through pale blue to purple.  The books say it can grow 6-8 inches tall, but on mowed-but-weedy lawns or road shoulders they hug the ground.  Last month I saw a few scattered around, like early evening stars on a green sky, but this week I enjoyed a regular Milky Way running along a field border.

Another flower catching my eye is the southern woodland violet.  It’s easy to miss on an unmowed lawn, but the little pop of purple draws the gaze and makes you want to take a closer look.

Violet 2There are others coming up these days, but the above two, beautiful but unassuming, are harbingers of the season for me.   Always keep a watchful eye; you’ll be surprised what is going on around you.bluets1-e1551640039489.jpg