Some local birds, visiting Old Salem, off-roading in Uwharrie, and a few thoughts on biodiversity
by Rob Tiller
I’ve been getting up early to photograph the birds at local lakes in Raleigh. The Canada Geese start flying right after sunrise, and most have gone elsewhere or settled back down for breakfast within 45 minutes. It’s fun to hear their discussions and to see them gathering and taking off.
After the birds have flown, I take a run around the lake, which is about 2 miles. Later I check the photos to see if any seem to say something non-obvious about the birds, and experiment with processing to see if that unusual element can speak any clearer. Here are a few that I liked.
Last weekend, Sally and I took a short holiday trip to Winston-Salem to see old friends and have a look through Old Salem, the restored Moravian town founded in the 17th century. We enjoyed seeing the town and learning a bit about colonial life there. A brass band played traditional carols in the square.
Although the dominant narrative of Old Salem depicts a harmonious and innovative religious community, I figured there must be some dissonant notes that were worth hearing about. We had a chats with a couple of the docents about difficult subjects, including slavery and subjugation of women. They were friendly and knowledgeable, and readily acknowledged that not everything was sweetness and light in the early days.
We were fortunate to get into the Candle Tea at the Single Brothers House without a reservation. There we had a nice time singing some Christmas carols, which were a happy part of our childhood, and hearing once again the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth. I’m not a believer any more, but I like that part of the Bible, in which all agree that a new baby is a miracle.
On a different note, a couple of days later I did an adventure driving trip to Uwharrie National Forest. It’s a large (50 thousand acre), mountainous (well, small mountains), green place in piedmont North Carolina. The Forest Service maintains trails there for hiking, horseback riding, and off-road driving. I wanted to test out my new Subaru Forester Wilderness, which claimed to be able to run off road with rugged 4X4s, at least to a certain point.
I stuck to the trails marked easy or moderate, which were a lot more challenging than I expected. There were various spots where big rocks, mud, and trees had to be negotiated while moving forward, sideways, and up or down, sometimes all at once. It reminded me of skiing black diamond trails — a lot slower, but similarly demanding and absorbing.
I used my Subaru’s special off-road gearing system, called X Drive, and made it back to the paved road with no substantial damage. I was proud of my Wilderness! The Uwharrie trails were closed for the winter on December 15, but we’re looking forward to more adventures in the spring.
It was good to see the NY Times prominently featuring a piece on biodiversity. As you may know, but many don’t, human civilization has caused enormous damage to other species. Per the Times, “a million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.” Biodiversity is declining at the fastest rate in human history.
The Times piece made the case that humans should be concerned about the loss of other species, because it is likely to harm humans, including affecting food and water supplies. While that’s true, there’s more to it than that. Ruthlessly exploiting and destroying the non-human world is horrific and wrong under any definition of morality.
The threats to many species are caused by loss of habitat. This problem is separate from, but in places connected to, climate change. Humans have been gradually taking over huge areas where animals and plants once lived. One of the big problems is destruction of forests to create more areas of agriculture, with much of that agriculture related to feeding farm animals that are then slaughtered for food.
The Times piece noted that 200 nations have been holding a large meeting in Montreal with a view to addressing the biodiversity crisis. Just this past weekend, the gathering (uncharmingly nicknamed COP15) came to an agreement on the 30 by 30 solution: saving 30 percent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030. This sounds like progress, certainly, though it doesn’t seem quite fair that one species (us) among millions would consider itself entitled to 70 percent of the planet.
Almost all of us have been taught that humans are a unique species that is superior to all others, and that we’re entitled to dominate and exploit other species in whatever way we like. This idea is so deeply embedded that it seems like part of nature, rather than just an idea. But some are starting to see that it’s a poisonous idea, almost impossible to defend in terms of reason or ethics.
Alternative conceptions of human life are possible. Life can be approached in terms of ecological systems, with the multitude of life forms having many interconnections with their environments and each other. Our human lives are connected in many ways to the lives of other species, and those connections are key to survival and happiness both for us and others.
For example, humans and other animals could not survive without plants that capture energy from the sun, and many plants could not survive without the insects and other creatures that pollinate them. The principle is simple, though the details are endless. The starting point is becoming aware of the diversity of life and the need for that diversity. That should make us less heedless. As we realize that our human wants and needs are not the only thing that matters, we become less miserable, and cause less misery.
Our current political problems, including extreme polarization, are closely related to our hierarchical view of the natural world. We put humans at the top of the pecking order, and rank animals and plants at the bottom. Most of us are taught that non-human life forms are worth thinking about only if they can be exploited or pose a danger to us. Thus we don’t know very much about the rest of nature, or even see the point of knowing more. This ignorance is part of the source of our biodiversity crisis.
This kind of hierarchical thinking also separates human groups, with the same result. That is, in our culture, we normally rank males over females, white over non-white, native over non-native, and so on, in an unwritten but intricate caste system, with privileges accruing in the top-most ranks and getting scarce in the bottom ones. The more privileged castes are taught to keep separate from those less privileged, and they come to fear those considered lower. The fear is understandable, as extreme inequality can make the less privileged angry and resentful.
Adopting an ecological approach to animals and plants could help us begin to overcome the worst of our human hierarchies. Under an ecological approach, we’d notice more of our interconnections, and the value of considering differing customs and viewpoints. Our polarized politics would be less polarized, because we wouldn’t be so fearful of our differences in appearance and culture. We’d likely find that, just as with the different ethnic foods we enjoy, our physical and cultural differences can be something to relish.