The Master Gardeners

Looking forward and back

Bill Meredith

The sea was wet as wet could be, the sand was dry as dry;
You could not see a cloud because no cloud was in the sky.
No birds were flying overheadÖ there were no birds to fly.

             ĖĖLewis Carroll

The year 2001 is gone, and I guess many would say, "Good riddance," on the assumption that beginning a new year means having a chance to start over. Itís a nice thought; would that it were so. Unfortunately though, as someone has said, the past is prologue; we can make New Yearís resolutions, but in order to achieve them we will have to overcome the consequences of a lot of goofs and misjudgments we made last year and before. And even if we overcome our own foul-ups, we are still limited by the effects of what other people have done. Thatís one of the consequences of living in an ecosystem; weíre affected by what others do.

The passing of an old year and the beginning of a new one should be a time of retrospection and an occasion for optimism. So far, Iíve managed the retrospection part, but the optimism is proving to be harder to achieve. I spent the first 67 years of my life writing dates that began with 19__, and now before Iíve even begun to get used to starting them with 20__, here it is, 2002. To anyone older, thereís no need to explain the confusion this causes, or the sense of disorientation that goes with it; and I suppose itís not possible to explain it to anyone much younger. My generation survived the Great Depression, World War II, the cold war, Viet Nam and Watergate; and having made it through all those times, we thought we had earned the right to be optimistic. But so far, the new millennium hasnít offered us much encouragement.

I didnít accomplish much in 2001; the only saving grace is that, being retired, I didnít have to accomplish much. I managed to meet the monthly deadlines for the Dispatch, although usually at the last minute; I made some music with the Mountís jazz band; the garden did well in spite of the drought; I planted some trees, and my average golf score dropped by two strokes. I added one species of bird, a snowy owl, to my life list, which should qualify as an accomplishment; the longer the list gets, the harder it is to find species that arenít already on it.

On the whole, though, birdwatching was not a success last year. I saw only 124 species of birds in 2001; and while that number might impress people who are not knowledgeable about the subject, for a birdwatcher of any experience it is a disappointment. To put it in perspective, there have been several times in the past that Iíve seen over 100 species in a month, and I can recall two times when I saw 100 in a single day. In part, age is the explanation; I canít hear high-pitched sounds as well as I used to, my visual reflexes are slower, and I donít have the energy to get out into some of the habitats I used to visit. These factors probably explain why I recorded only 10 species of warblers, even though many of them are getting scarcer. Part of it was the weather; because of the drought, I saw only 19 species of waterfowl in the area, and those in fewer numbers than in previous years. 

But weather and decrepitude are not the entire explanation; a worrisome part is symptomatic of the ecological problems facing a distracted world. Bird populations are declining everywhere. For the first time since I started keeping daily records, I did not record a yellow-billed cuckooó a large bird, with a voice you can hear half a mile away, that used to appear every day on my summer lists. I saw only one pheasant, and no bob-whites; both used to be common in the field behind my house. The yearís lists show only two sightings of the indigo bunting, a brightly colored, noisy little bird that I used to see on every walk in the summer months. Red-eyed vireos, Maryland Yellowthroats, towhees, wood pewees and tanagers were seen and heard less often. All of these are declining throughout the country; my observations simply corroborate the national trends.

There are some well-known explanations for the declines in bird populations: habitat destruction and toxicity from industrial wastes and pesticides are obvious problems. But it is easy to oversimplify and potentially inaccurate to generalize about such things. From the times when canaries were used to detect gases in coal mines, birds have been available as a warning that we ourselves are in danger. All of the reasons for their present decline in numbers can be lumped under one heading: their ecosystem is becoming unbalanced and is losing its stability. And the root of our own problems lies in the fact that we live in that same ecosystem; if the birds are in trouble, we are too.

Things couldnít have come to a head at a worse time. The political establishment that came to power a year ago had an anti-environmental bias to begin with; and now, with politically motivated tax cuts followed by an unexpected war, the budget surplus we were told would last 20 years is gone. At a time when we should be spending money to improve food distribution, reduce the emissions of industrial pollutants and curb population growth, we are forced to divert it instead to pay for blowing up caves in Afghanistan and flying fighter planes in circles over Catoctin Mountain 24 hours a day.

It is inaccurate to say that Nero fiddled while Rome burned (the violin wasnít invented until several centuries later), but it is true that underlying problems got worse because he ignored or didnít recognize them. We are in a similar situation now. No one can deny that we have serious immediate problems, but we seem to be dealing successfully with them; the Afgan war so far has gone better than anyone predicted. But while finishing that task, we must not repeat Neroís mistake by ignoring the more serious underlying problems that ecologists have been warning us about for decades.

My only basis for optimism now is that the war on terrorism may teach us a larger lesson. The 3,000 or more lives lost on September 11 were not trivial, yet many times that number are lost each year in auto accidents, to say nothing of the murders that occur daily in any large city, while life goes on as usual. And yet the loss of those 3,000 lives, plus four airplanes and three buildings, produced major disruption in an economy valued in the trillions of dollars, in a nation of over 280 million people, with ripple effects extending throughout the entire world. The lesson is to remind us how fragile our social and economic systems are; and the hope is that somehow we as a voting public may come to realize that the world ecosystem is equally fragile. If the birds can help teach that lesson, perhaps there still may be time for optimism.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith