Sunday, October 14, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 10-21-07
Jeff Gill

Ah, Wilderness!

Henry David Thoreau and John Muir and Terry Tempest Williams, nature writers and essayists, all tell us about the necessity of a little wilderness to temper our civilized lives.

Orion Magazine and the Audobon Society and the National Parks and Conservation Association each try to get us involved in the story of preserving natural preserves and wilderness zones. The Lovely Wife and I support the work of groups like The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Education Council of Ohio to that end.

With global climate change on the radar screen for political parties across the spectrum and in nations around the globe (and hey, congrats, Al, on that Nobel Prize), there’s a key role for each of us to play in supporting and safeguarding special places from the Licking Park District properties to UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

This all shouldn’t make us forget that we live in an ecosystem, right now. Your lawn is growing and respiring and decaying, the ditch down the road or over the fence may be an unintentional xeriscape or pocket tallgrass wetland, and that overgrown bush on the corner is harboring a flock of migrating songbirds.

The idea that all of the outdoors can be neatly divided into man-made and natural is the source of a great deal of confusion. Licking County can be limned into myriad zones of naturalness, from the pristine – well, maybe not – to the paved. In between is a spectrum, with gradations subject to the eye of the beholder.

One such zone that needs more awareness and understanding is “Edge.” An edge is a transition from one natural type to another, so a woods edge is one, and a pond edge is another. We don’t think of “Edge” as a natural location the way we do “Swamp” or “Prairie,” so we discount it.

One way we do hear about edge-ness is in the old-growth forest debate, because animals like the infamous spotted owl live in vast, unbroken tracts, and a Hundred Acre Wood with a road driven through the middle of it is now not only two fifty acre woods, but neither is as welcoming a habitat for Owl, Eeyore, and Pooh, or I should say their natural analogues.
More to the point, there are animals that prefer “Edge” as their habitat, just as owls need deep woods with aged trees. Can you guess some?

Of course you can! Yep, deer go for forest edge, and Canada geese go for pond edge. Increase little pockets o’ trees with lots of edge, and you get plenty o’ deer. Put in drainage ponds hither and yon across the landscape, and put an aerator in to keep the ice from freezing right across, and the Canada geese don’t migrate south for the winter.

Aby Johnson, one of the stalwarts of Camp Falling Rock for the Boy Scouts, reminds us that deer were non-existent in Ohio from before 1900 to about 1950, and through the 50’s, the Newark Advocate always ran reported sightings of white-tails on the front page of the sports section, until 1960 when they became a bit too common.

Now, they regularly put on the front-page stories of how villages and cities are working on plans to shoot deer.

We have a glut of deer because we’ve created an ideal habitat for them, in reproductive terms, anyhow, and we helpfully plant seasonal foodstuffs for them like tulips and petunias and day lilies. They thank you by having more children, and doubtless naming them after you in gratitude.

Plus, we forbid hunting. Out in the townships where they plant corn, they also carry carbines in the combine and rifles in the pickup gun rack. They have many deer, but not quite so many even with more and better food.

So the deer will be shot, and then . . .

What will happen next? The only thing I’m sure of is . . . something will happen. Nature abhors a vacuum, said Spinoza, and we live in nature, whether suburban, rural, or urban alley.

What defines your local ecosystem? Ditches that funnel run-off, nearby streams, lines of trees surrounded by knee-high growth of, stuff, a slope here, a clump of bushes over there. Where do rabbits come out of, and how many bird-feeders get pillaged by masked bandits (another edge fan, by the way)?

Mountaintops have their allure, but just as Thoreau said “I have traveled widely in Concord,” why not get more familiar with your own piece of nature? It may help us figure out how to manage it more wisely.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher who has traveled widely in Licking County; tell of your travels at

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