Thursday, May 28, 2009

Connections between auctions, wildlife and the land

This afternoon I went to an auction. Not really a big deal but I don’t go to many auctions. When we first moved to North Dakota we frequented quite a few of them that first autumn and the following spring, all with the intent of getting some of the “stuff” we needed to get started with our new home. We played it pretty close to the chest and always went with a list of what we wanted and how much we would pay. Usually that worked out fairly well for us except for the time we went to an auction where the main item to be sold was a Sixties era cedar wood boat. I wanted that boat and got into a bidding war and the price was up to a couple of grand when the guy who was bidding against me walked over and told me that I didn’t have enough money to outbid him. I stayed with it for another hundred then dropped out. Now, I am glad I did. That boat would have been a deeper hole in the water than the boat I’ve got!

There was something that bothered me about this auction—what people were paying. There were some very nice antiques sold at this auction but they sold dirt cheap. I wasn’t interested in antiques but I did have four items on my list and all of them are for my office. I also knew what I was willing to pay providing the quality was there. When I arrived I walked around and checked the items I was interested in, wrote down what I would be willing to pay and then did some shopping, mostly in the boxes of used books. That was a bust.

When the bidding started my first item was a nearly new color TV to replace the little B&W TV in my office. I had finally gotten tired of trying to figure out the weather maps in shades of gray and wanted a color TV. In store price for a like model TV is $200. My cost at the auction was $5. I was feeling pleased and a little surprised but I figured most people had been frightened off by the digital thing and didn’t realize that if they are using cable it doesn’t matter.

My next item was an office cabinet with an enclosed safe. The condition was excellent and it was what I wanted. I dropped out of the bidding for it after a few bids because I realized the guy I was bidding against was more determined than I was willing to deal with. When I dropped out he got it at a steal. I wasn’t worried, there was a nearly new desk that retails for $400 and I wanted to try and snag it because I am remodeling my office, opening up wall space for books and getting rid of this wall desk I cobbled together.

I never open a bid on anything and when the auctioneer tried to start the bidding at $100 I was ready to pack it in, except no one opened. He tried $75 and still no takers. He dropped to $50, then $25 and finally $10. I raised my hand and he tried to get the bid up to $15 for the desk. He couldn’t even get anyone to raise the bid to $11. I had my desk and I was happy with the price but feeling a little guilty. The auction was the selling of someone’s life history and it was going for a song. The only other thing I bought was a box of nice wine glasses for $1. At past auctions I’ve seen a box of quality wine glasses sell for $50. I doubt that at the end of the day the auction brought in a full $15,000. A lifetime of living in that farm house and it was only worth that much? Something is wrong. One of the auctioneers told me that this year sales are off more than he had ever expected. "People don't have the cash to buy," he said.

On the way home I passed by something else that troubled me and suddenly the prices at the auction made sense—land that had once been in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was being put to the plow. I stopped and watched the tractor go over the field and I was expecting to see some grouse flush from in front of the tractor but I guess the birds were already gone and looking for a new home. An auction that didn’t bring any money after a lifetime and a CRP field being returned to the till may not seem connected but they are—both are symptoms of an economy in trouble and those troubles are still upsetting homes—human and wildlife. We don’t think about the economy hurting wildlife except for the loss in revenue for wildlife agencies but there is another cost, one that is unseen, and it is in the wetlands and the grasslands where the wildlife is being uprooted by peoples' need to try and salvage something out of this mess. Something for us to think about the next time we read about the recovery finally starting.

PS I also saw lots and lots of nesting ducks including a half-dozen pair of redheads. That is good. glg

Thursday, May 7, 2009

From a Little Brown Bird

My goose hunting was a bust. When the roads into the areas where I wanted to hunt were finally passable the snow geese had moved on. We do have a lot of Canada Geese and a variety of ducks hanging around the sloughs to nest and raise the broods. Come fall, if the weather doesn’t chase them out, we’ll have a healthy waterfowl population.

There was one casualty of the long, cold winter—I found an LBB—Little Brown Bird—in my yard. It was at the base of the clothes line pole and I found it when the last of the snow had melted away. The bird had sought protection from the freezing cold, probably during one of the early winter storms, by huddling beside the pole. It had frozen to death there and when I found it the bird hadn’t been discovered by any of the neighborhood’s stray cats so it was in the same huddled position it had been in when it was overtaken by the cold and died.

What bothered me about the bird’s death was that it sought shelter beside the metal pole, a pole that would transmit the freezing cold down from above the snow to the ground. The bird had no chance of survival but yet its instinct had been to seek shelter there. I wondered if its instincts have been altered by human manipulations of the world and the reason it turned to the steel pole that was sticking above the snow was because it connected the pole to people. Have we spent so much time altering our world that the wildlife that once depended on their instinctive wits to survive may have turned too much to us? The thinking that set these thoughts in motion came from the essay I’ve been working on for a month or so. In the past century and-a-half, since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the relationship between people and animals has undergone a drastic change. Neither in the Romantic period nor in the Age of Enlightenment was there a concentrated effort to establish a kinship with animals such as exists today, but among some people Darwin’s views have inspired this kinship. When I was holding the nearly weightless little bird and feeling its light, feathery softness, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt. Should I have been feeding the birds around the house more food? Or, was the little bird’s death just nature acting out her own population controls?

Rather than put the bird in the trash and condemn it to the landfill I decided to bury the bird. I dug a little hole in the still frozen ground and buried the bird beside our rhubarb plants. I put it back into the cycle of life. After that chore was finished I went back to raking the yard. For the past two weeks while I have been noting the ducks, geese, grouse, pheasants and partridge I have also thought of the little bird. In a strange, very mental way, the Little Brown Bird made a small part of our world a bit clearer to me. The distance between the game birds I have been watching and the LBB is very narrow. We understand that our support of game, whether it swims, flies or runs, also supports all other species and to prove this we usually offer the habitat argument without really explaining the deep connections between all wildlife, habitat and ourselves. But, the LBB was, for me, proof of the argument. It isn’t Darwinism that has created the kinship but how we have altered the world. The more changes we make the greater our responsibility is to the world and as we recognize that responsibility we develop a deeper relationship with nature. The Little Brown Bird was, for me, a reminder of just how deep our responsibility is. The truly sad part is that the person who condemns hunting (or fishing) is ignoring that relationship and trying to replace it with an artificial Darwinism that is feel good emotion and not science—hard or soft. It isn’t the kinship with animals that insures their survival, whether a Little Brown Bird or a Giant Canada Goose, but is our willingness as people, hunter or non-hunter, to accept our responsibility to the world and to act on it.

Thoughts? Glg

Copyright, 2009 by Galen L. Geer.