Living or Livid with Nature?

Black bear chew marks
Black bear chews the shed (again)

We weren’t always doggedly efficient extirpators—of insects for eating crops and stinging, of moles for spoiling perfect lawns, of predators for preying on livestock, and so on and on …

Not so long ago, humans tolerated annoying wildlife with a shrug. Further back, I expect we thought ourselves part of nature instead of dominating it. It has taken the toll of recent and projected extinctions to value biodiversity, and let’s be honest, more out of self-interest than awe. We want all kinds of bees to pollinate our crops and deer to satisfy our hunter instinct. It takes a leap to appreciate mosquitoes, although they are important in the diet of birds and amphibians we love. As they say, no gain without pain.

Do you remember my post on June 4 about an encounter with a bear ‘treed’ by hounds? I don’t condemn hunting per se (only the methods), but I took the victim’s point of view that day.

It’s likely to be the individual caught on internet video when it later stepped on our front deck. The camera died soon afterwards. I suspected flat batteries or power outage from a storm. But next time I came home I found the visitor had ripped out the cable connecting our satellite dish. This was the third such ‘attack’.

Rural living introduces us to more wildlife conflict. I have stories of woodrats chewing plastic water pipes, deer treating flower borders as salad bars, mice nesting behind the car radio, and woodpeckers hammering roof flashing. None were one-off. You have your own stories, and funnier when they happen to others!

Bears are like naughty boys. Not satisfied with disconnecting us from the digital world, our visitor overturned flowerpots, tore a game camera off a tree, and left a calling card on the shed. We might understand getting its own back after an ordeal with dogs but this time it alienated an ally. I consoled myself it didn’t break into the house, like bears raiding a fridge. There’s no ice cream to tempt in our home, but I worry about chocolate!

News of a rascal in the district tests even the poise of an ardent nature lover, much less others. Bruins on our mountain have broken into chicken coops, knocked over beehives and trashed apple trees. “Too many ‘barrs’ around here,” folk say in West Virginia, happy if bear hunters sweep across their land.

Policies that try to reverse the retreating tide of wildlife populations generate grumbling about government and conservationists bulldozing personal interests and rights. There is no better example than the row over gray wolves after the withdrawal of federal protection. It’s easy to take the side of charismatic creatures when viewed on a screen, but building a more tolerant relationship with nature starts at the porch door, and bears.

Next Post: Great-crested Flycatcher

Songbirds Taste Sweet

Hummingbird feeder

Hummingbirds don’t visit feeders to quench a thirst. They have a taste for sweetness, like us, although different receptors on their tongues (T1R1 + T1R3).

Now, we learn that songbirds taste it too. Several avian ancestors emerging in Australia 30 million years ago evolved it independently (convergent evolution) and kept it as they radiated across the world. The receptor is a modification of the savory receptor (umami), not so surprising considering dinosaur ancestry. Sugar packs calories. That songbirds represent 40% of all birds today suggests the adaptation contributed to their success. That’s a sweet excuse for us to cover embarrassment at a sweet tooth.

Time flows down Powhatan Creek

Powhatan Creek Bald Cypress
Venerable Bald Cypress growing in Powhatan Creek

Time flows down Powhatan Creek

As I lowered my kayak into the creek, I knew the water wasn’t the same as before, nor am I the same man. Hardly an original thought. People have pondered the river as a metaphor of time for umpteen centuries, probably even before Heraclitus.

I paddled as far upstream on Powhatan Creek as a rising tide allowed my draught to avoid obstructions in water the color of brown tea from the swamp’s infusion of tannin.

Letting imagination drift in headwaters cast me back to before the infant colony of Virginia when Native Americans chose waterways to navigate the coastal plain. As the creek narrowed, I passed under overarching branches, swamp rose and blooming cardinal flowers beloved of hummingbirds. Water rose ankle deep over the feet of Tupelo and Chestnut Oak trees. Bald Cypresses, the iconic trees of southern swamps, still bared their ‘knees’ as ramparts against hurricanes.

After resting my paddle to enjoy stillness, an Orchard Oriole sang and a Pileated Woodpecker laughed. A Green Heron stalked the margins and a Prothonotary Warbler flitted across the stream, perhaps the last golden flash of the season. Turtles hauled onto logs to sun themselves in dappled sunlight and beavers left evidence of their presence on gnawed tree stumps.

I found a place to turn for taking the current as the tide changed, conveying youthful water downstream where it empties into Sandy Bay and washes around Jamestown Island before dying in the mighty James River. When the creek widens to meander between mudflats I know I have reached early middle age. Beds of pickerel weed and arrow weed dangle seed pods and wild rice reach above the green blanket for birds to glean, no longer plucked by the Powhatan tribe.

After paddling for a mile, I greet an old friend where kayakers from the James River Association stopped to stare. No one knows the age of the gigantic Bald Cypress standing on its own little island. Resurrection Fern clothes some boughs, an epiphyte that can revive from countless cycles of dehydration. I feel a fragile, mortal creature beside this mother tree and her foster fern.

The cypress was already elderly when Pocahontas and Captain John Smith paddled here over 400 years ago. Famously strong and slow growing, the rot resistance of this species makes it prime lumber. Outstanding in every way, male or female and the only one of its kind to shed fall leaves, its green mantle turns russet before winter when it stands among other bald trees whose lives retreat inside the wood like beavers hibernating in their lodge until spring calls.

We shall never know how many seasons and what history the tree has witnessed. A storm long ago tore off a side from its massive bole, losing the rings that recorded its antiquity. Perhaps it is the oldest in the eastern USA, though the official record is held by a Bald Cypress in the Black River of North Carolina, a spritely youth when Daniel prophesied, and still waits for the Apocalyse.

When I join midstream the retreating tide carries me through a changing landscape. Vegetation that thrived at the start of my journey cannot tolerate saltier mudflats. But far from barren, cord grass and fiddler crabs abound, frogs croak and an osprey plunge for a bass. I love drifting in these middle reaches, wishing they had no end.

Next Post: Songbirds Taste Sweet