A friend recently circulated a newspaper account by someone who has learned to make a living by traveling the world, observing its wildlife, and writing about it. Lucky guy.
I pointed out that this had been my life’s approach also. Whatever the details, the commitment involves appreciation of what Darwin called the marvels of existence observable in almost any quiet, reasonably “natural” environment, say the cut-bank of a brook. My favorite example is A.A.Saunder’s little book on the Birds of the Quaker Run Valley, Allegheny State Park, N.Y. Henry David Thoreau chronicled such in Walden and other writings. And Aldo Leopold’s posthumous Sand County Almanac was a more recent example. Unfortunately, I never wrote my own.
But it is timely to remind everyone that such “tangled banks” still occur in most neighborhoods. Adults can find fascinating involvements in simply observing these remnants of nature in our mostly urbanized landscapes, and children especially need to be introduced to this complex “other” world, so that they may grow up aware that our man-made world is still largely dependent on the natural world.
Our predecessors, especially the more ancient hunter-gatherers who roamed the planet for some one hundred thousand years before we came along, knew this natural world intimately. They needed to know in order to make a living harvesting the surpluses. They obviously did this well enough to provide the leeway that allowed us latecomers to become specialists, thus beginning to think of ourselves as civilized.
What reminded me of all this was a short walk I took last spring. I live in an apartment house along a main thoroughfare that serves as traffic artery for the exchanges that keep New Haven livable. Daily, hundreds of trucks bring food into the city, and then take away the wastes that would otherwise accumulate to the point of choking those of us who live here. Thousands of automobiles and busses move tens of thousands of people along this same route daily.
Surprisingly, behind my residence, parallel to Whitney Avenue, is a quiet abandoned city street, Lake Road, itself paralleled by the long, narrow reach of Lake Whitney, above the waterfall in East Rock Park. Lake Road is a quarter-mile-long shaded road available for quiet walks, from Putnam Avenue to Davis Street. All this within two-miles of downtown New Haven.
On June 1st and 7th I spent a morning hour watching the birds of this pleasant lane, curious as to how many birds are resident.. Robins are the most conspicuous, running a yard or two, singly or in pairs, to pick up insects, flowers, or buds that fall from the overarching trees. They also shelter or feed on either side of the road, on the steep bank of the lakeside, or the equally steep bank behind the buildings on Whitney Avenue. They are at first difficult to count, because they crowd ahead, then exit, if you walk toward them.. But waiting quietly and watching the length of the road through binoculars I decided that there were four pairs of robins.
The same was true of Bronzed Grackles. They are less territorial, thus range more widely, and bunch more here and there. But there was a total of nine birds. A pair of Gray Catbirds left the shelter of tangles on the lakeside to feed on the road briefly. So did a pair of Cardinals, and a pair of Song Sparrows. A single Northern Flicker flew in, checked the macadam driveway, but saw that it held little promise of food, so flew off again.
I left it to some other visit to check the nature of the food supply that allows these eleven pairs of birds to summer here. This would round out my basis for calling this a tangled bank. I know what to expect, but won’t just guess. A yellow Swallow-tailed Butterfly and a chipmunk rounded out my list this week. The chipmunk came from the lakeside, sheltered along a fence that closed the road, and came upon me quite unaware as I stood motionless next to a fence post. It smelled my left shoe, then my right shoe, and moved on, apparently oblivious that I watched its every move. Happy day.