I have two beliefs, one rational and one not, and strangely it is the rational one I fear most to share, for it is dark and forbiddingly hopeless. It is a belief born from an unfortunate choice of professions. I am an ecologist. Had I read Aldo Leopold earlier, perhaps I would have chosen differently, for he warned that an ecological education is a painful one, leaving an ecologist living in a world of wounds, like a doctor who sees symptoms of illness everywhere in a patient blithely unaware of their own condition. As a result, landscapes that for others evoke peace and tranquility, often bring unsettling glimpses of an ecological system cracking under a massive and insatiable human population.
Decades ago, my father and I drove across Kansas playing a game I had known since childhood, competing to see which of us would be the first to spot and identify the next roadside animal or plant. Unbeknownst to either of us, this game turned our car into a rolling classroom, a museum on wheels that ignited my youthful curiosity. On that short trip across the Kansas prairies, we surprised ourselves by counting over 50 different hawks. This summer I drove that same stretch of highway. I had no illusions of repeating that day, but as mile passed mile without seeing a single hawk, I became increasingly desperate, searching every tree top and telephone pole to no avail. Others traveling that road would have seen a Grant Wood’s view of America’s heartland, green fields and woodlands stretching away to a hazy blue horizon. But for me it was like driving through a ghost town, with every empty tree limb and fencepost the vacant window of a deserted building. I kept recalling images from 1996, when thousands of Swainson’s hawks were found dead on their wintering grounds, inadvertently poisoned when they ate grasshoppers laced with pesticides. It was probably a fluke that I saw no hawks that day, but a lifetime of watching natural areas degraded or gobbled up by development, of native species replaced by exotics or not replaced at all, has left me nervous and on edge.
I began to wonder whether I should teach my young son the game my father and I played. Perhaps it would be kinder to spend cross-country drives talking about sports or video games and ignoring the landscape outside our window. But that is when my irrational belief asserts itself. For I also believe that to share with him the unfathomable beauty of a hawk in flight is worth the price of living in a world of wounds. And so, the next time I see a hawk perched along the roadside, I will stop and point it out. And I will tell my son about the day his grandfather and I saw 50 in one short drive, and that someday, he and I will do the same. This I must believe if my son is to live in a world of hope.
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