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carpet of ferns

March 12, 2012

Spouse has been really busy lately with work, but yesterday he made time for us to go hiking in one of our favorite places: Gunpowder Falls State Park. There are trails on both sides of York Road but we began walking on the trails west of the road. We were hoping to see more early spring wildflowers than we have seen in our local woods. But there weren’t any flowers at all. As we climbed the hilly trail, we saw only a carpet of ferns amongst mid-sized beech trees. Then Spouse and I started to see beech trees that had been girdled by chewing, almost like a beaver, but surely no beaver would clamber halfway up the steep hill, when there are so many more trees along the river. I suddenly recalled reading an article that talked about what “a carpet of ferns” means: deer have ‘browsed’ (eaten) everything else. So not only are there no wildflowers, but there are no saplings either. As Spouse and I were talking about this, I wasn’t just looking around, I was cocking my ears to hear any normal woodland sounds — but there weren’t any of those either. I remembered the article I read mentioned that when too many deer eat all the understory plants (except ferns) that drives away all the ground nesting birds as well. Sure enough, there were no bird calls at all. There were no barking, scratching, or scurrying sounds of squirrels or chipmunks, or any other small mammals. The forest was completely silent, except for the noises we and other human hikers made. It was actually kind of spooky. Once we realized that, we turned around and retraced our steps, then crossed York Road, to trails on the east side (where we have usually seen more flowers anyway). But it was the same story there: no flowers, no birds, no small mammals.

Deer ‘overpopulation’ is a common problem in our area. Our area newspaper runs stories and letters every year from people both advocating deer hunts, and other people protesting them.

Instead of entering that debate, my thoughts went in a different direction. What if there were some way to talk to deer? What if we could tell them that they need to stop having fawns every year? That they need to pay attention to what’s going on in their environment, and they need to do things differently because of phenomena such as: carrying capacity, r-selected vs. K-selected reproductive strategies, loss of top predators, etc., etc.

Those deer could turn around and say to us:  All of those phenomena apply equally well to human beings. And yet somehow, human beings keep having as many kids as they want, on an individual basis, paying no attention to their local environment’s needs. So what gives you the right to tell us what to do? You’re not following your advice to us; so why should we listen to you?

Is this any different than people in developed countries telling people in developing countries, “yeah, we cut down all of our forests, and drove to extinction all of our megafauna – but all of that was thousands of years ago! And anyway the world wasn’t as bad off back then! But now we’re all in crisis!! So you have to stop doing everything that might get you to where we’re at, because there isn’t enough to go around anymore!!!”

I’m not sure there ever was “enough to go around”, if that implies ‘wantonly wasting everything, because we can — no one can stop us!’

No one wants to hear, “The abundance party is over. Now we have to deal with a new reality of austerity.” First, we point fingers, and blame everyone but ourselves. Second, we whine and bleat about how “we deserve better! We deserve more!”

I’ve never met anyone who questions the idea of “deserving”. I’ve often wondered what it is supposed to mean, really. Because no one ever feels like they have enough right now – they always ‘need’ more. No one seems to say, “I deserve less” or “I don’t need as much as I have.” Fixating on “deserving”, though, gets us right back to cascading effects of too many deer and too many human beings eating and/or consuming everything around, as if no one else matters.

I don’t know if deer can choose to have fewer offspring, or choose to consume fewer resources. But I do know that human beings can do that. We have things like contraception and abortion and family planning. Some people are homosexual and won’t have children. Some people are asexual and won’t have children. We humans can choose to consume less than we do.

But we don’t like anyone telling us what to do. We want to be individuals, making our own choices for our own reasons. I’m not advocating any different; I’m suggesting adding considerations to how we make the choices we do.

Being alive means things are always changing. And to me, what’s important is thinking about here and now, in this moment I’m living, what can I choose to do that can ‘make a difference’? Here are some things I’ve done, and am doing:

I didn’t have children.

I refer to every being I encounter as my ‘cousin’, so I remember that they matter for their own reasons, and our lives are entwined. They are not tools that exist to be used by humans.

For many years I wore contact lenses. When ‘daily wear disposables’ became available in my prescription, I thought about how they would all be ending up in a landfill, and probably aren’t biodegradable. And then I stopped wearing contact lenses altogether.

When I’ve changed eyeglasses prescriptions, I’ve donated my old pairs to a charity.

Old cellphones can be recycled, as can floppy disks.

Whenever I’m outside, walking on dirt (especially on inclines), I step mindfully to minimize erosion.

On walks, I pick up trash and recyclables and dispose of them properly, which keeps them out of my local waterbodies and Chesapeake Bay.

I try to minimize the water I use:

  • I collect rainwater to water my inside plants with.
  • I always wash clothes in cold water with a cold rinse. I use a fraction of the recommended amount of detergent.
  • We often handwash dishes with little water, and air dry them.
  • I have deliberately not taken up new art forms that require lots of water usage (dyeing in large batches; paper-making).

I pull certain items out of our recycling box – glass bottles and metal cans mostly – for use in art projects like small-scale dyeing.

I have avoided artforms that use materials made from petroleum (polymer clay; various fabric technologies).

Most of my reading material comes from my local library. When I buy books, I look for ‘used’ copies first. I have them shipped from the location closest to me.

I minimize driving, and carpool whenever possible.

I’m downsizing my possessions, mostly by giving them away, donating them, or recycling them.

I don’t use pain relievers, unless I’m in agony and can’t function.

I’ve been ingesting the smallest amounts of medication that I can, so that fewer highly-concentrated synthetic compounds with long half-lives are entering my neighborhood’s soil and water table.

When I have control over pieces of me flaking off (hair, skin on my lips, finger and toenail clippings), I deposit them outside, so someone nonhuman can make use of them.

As a kid, I didn’t learn how to eat healthy food in the right amounts (that is, ~2000 calories/day). I ‘made do’ on much fewer calories, not because my family was too poor to feed us, but because I was essentially copying my mother, who was always on a diet. That, and I tended to lose my appetite when I was upset or depressed, which was most of the time. I felt hungry fairly constantly, and didn’t even realize it. Several years ago, I worked hard at getting healthier by gaining the pounds I should’ve weighed all along. But now that I’m there, I’m back to eating fewer than 2000 calories on a daily basis. Partly because it’s too hard to sustain, but also partly because I like experimenting with finding the optimal amount of calories that will allow me to still do the things I want to do. I’m mostly vegetarian, and am now trying to add more grains that are not wheat. I’m trying different vegetables and fruits. I believe I’ve also read of studies that say eating less is healthier.

At the last job I had where I made a lot of money (2003-07), I kept increasing my 403(b) withholdings, until they were a significant fraction of my pay. Of course, I was saving for the future/my retirement, but I also expected some kind of cataclysm to occur long before I would be retirement age. In other words, I thought somehow the money might evaporate over time, without me first putting it to use. I still thought withholdings were a good idea, though, because they forced me to ‘make do’ with less money, and not to get used to feeling entitled to an ever-increasing paycheck. (Just as well, too, as in the job I had after that one, I earned 1/10 as much money. And I haven’t earned any money in almost 3 years.)

I fairly continuously rethink my priorities, and re-evaluate what my ‘legacy’ might be. It seems fairly clear that I’m not going to become famous, or earn a lot of money, or ever have an ‘impressive’ job. In some circumstances, I seem to have been memorable, for all the wrong reasons; in other circumstances, no one even noticed I was ever there. As far as I know, I’ve rarely inspired anybody. And yet … by my own standards, I’ve lived an amazing and fulfilling life, that far surpasses what I imagined was possible for myself. I’ve been blessed with wonderful friends, interesting travels, and I’ve fallen in love with people and places everywhere I’ve been. I’ve learned to love myself, where I live, and those who live here with me.

Maybe after I die, no one will remember my life. But, eventually, that happens to everyone. In the meantime, I want to live mindfully, caring for those who matter to me, and for the world we all share. That means ‘making do’ with less than we’ve come to take for granted, but I can live with that.

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