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Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on August 13, 2011

The hawk appeared late in the afternoon of a recent day when the heat index topped 100. I’d hiked to the ridge land via the hill road, a tractor-wide, fern-lined path canopied by oaks and hickories. The road circles the eastern shoulder of Helgersen Ridge and in the afternoon is cool, even on a hot day. It ends at the edge of 10 acres of hay meadow surrounded by forest.

I’d also gone up there to scout the south slope of the ridge for the terminus of a trail leading up from the farmhouse to an oak opening I discovered our first summer on the farm. There, a large white oak dominates a camp-sized area clear of brush. Staying out of sight there is easy in any season while only a few steps east afford a view of the entire valley descending to the Kickapoo River.

The opening bears no signs of habitation; no indentations or mounds. There is only an ethereal quiet there, something the poet William Wordsworth called a spirit in the woods.

I walked from the opening to the eastern tip of the meadow, a freeform pie shape, the crust side forming the broad western edge, and was about to step onto open ground when I noticed a hawk skimming the meadow and headed directly toward me. I stopped, still in the cover of woods, while the hawk swept onward.

At the tip of the meadow it banked sharply to its left and the whole expanse of its wing surfaces were visible. It was a Broad Winged, a light adult, distinctions somewhat beside the point here. Because the bank it executed was a magnificent, tight, perfectly balanced maneuver held expertly through every degree of the meadow’s tip.

Then the hawk leveled, headed westward in its hunt and disappeared and reappeared with the undulations of the meadow. At the western end of the meadow it banked again, performed a gorgeous chandelle, and headed back to me. I was witnessing artistry no human aviator will ever replicate.

We use language to force our beliefs onto Nature. A cloud looks like an elephant, the sun is a chariot traveling east to west, an escarpment is a facial profile, a hawk performs banks and chandelles as if it had gone to flight school to win its wings. This is a mostly harmless trait, our way of explaining away and classifying the curiosities and unknowns that confront and confound us. Our ability to do this—to make language—is, according to essayist Lewis Thomas, the thing that separates us from ants, hawks or any other living thing.

 In short, we act as if hawks would not exist if we hadn’t arrived in their world to name them. It is that tendency that makes our ability to build language far from harmless because it then becomes, at base, an exercise in power. Language has the power to change a hawk  into a predator, a varmint, a critter, and, thus, an enemy. It is not unusual, for example, to travel the West and see dead hawks and eagles tied to barbed wire. And stories shared with me have the previous owners of this farm calling them targets. On the other hand, studying a guide to the birds or watching them in flight erases the power of terms like predator and target.

 The hawk repeated its tour of the meadow twice more before disappearing after one last chandelle away west, where the afternoon was taking light. I stepped out into the open convinced that the power of our language is best used to limit our reckless expansion into the realm of hawks or any other part of Nature that was here before we named it.

 Copyright 2011 Karl Garson

 Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal

 http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/opinion/column/guest/article_76912c70-c54a-11e0-82be-001cc4c002e0.html

 

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Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on July 14, 2011, titled:

Honor what came before the houses

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The Undeniable Arrogance of Houses

It’s mulberry season again, and the bush along Johnstown Road nearest our house in Crawford County is dropping ripe berries birds haven’t managed to pick first.

During the day they accumulate on the road. During the night they disappear. The cycle repeats until mulberry season ends.

In the city, mulberries are a mess on the sidewalk. In the country they’re food for the usual suspects: deer, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and skunks. If I didn’t see berries ripening on the mulberry, skunks would announce their arrival by the faint scent that greets me as I go out to water the gardens.

This morning I left the house at sunrise to set out a sprinkler to water the last thirsty section of the gardens around my wife Peggy’s cottage. What is mulberry season to the bush along Johnstown Road is bee balm and larkspur season in the cottage gardens. They’re in full flower, having taken over from the fading foxtail lilies and the peonies.

The sun was well up when I finished watering, climbed back to Johnstown Road and began walking west toward the house. The sun was up and so was a skunk amid the berries on the road. No problem. I walked to the mailbox, leaned against it and watched the skunk clearing the road of berries. Then it ambled up the bank, passed close by the house, crossed the drive and disappeared into the forest at about the place where the resident raccoons appear every evening with their young that are now the size of puppies.

The daylight appearance of the skunk was slightly unusual. Like raccoons, they appear to prefer to move about at night. Still, the raccoons come out during the day to mix with the rabbits and chipmunks gleaning under the birdfeeders. What was more unusual within the natural order of the land this farm occupies was my appearance there to observe the skunk and the habits of the other life — not wildlife, life.

Peggy’s cottage was once the farm’s hog house. Before that it was probably the first farmhouse because its interior has the remnants of plastered walls, a brick chimney and a tiny loft. What Peggy and I call our house was the successor to the cottage. But like the current house, barn and other outbuildings here, it is an intrusion on the life of the land, as is Johnstown Road. And because of that, this morning I did not quietly walk into the house, uncase the rifle and walk back out to shoot the skunk.

In the 10 years we’ve owned this farm we’ve shared our house with mice, a number of persistent groundhogs, snakes, wrens and sparrows and bats, bees and the usual smaller flying things.

Except for the mice, we’ve managed to help this life with what it wanted most, a way out of the house. Just like football players, given the choice, they will run or fly to daylight. They all knew they were better off outside.

In truth, so are we. But most of us have lost the capacity to exist comfortably without houses, and so we build them to wall off the outside. We do this to provide ourselves with comfort and a place to raise our young. Nevertheless, the building of houses within the natural order is our arrogance on display; the bigger the house, the broader the lawn, the greater the arrogance.

Do we have a house, buildings and lawns on our farm? Sure. But when I go out in the morning to water flowers, I do keep in mind that most of them are not native to the region, that the cottage and house did not spring naturally from the earth, and that the ancestors of the skunk eating mulberries this morning from the paved surface of Johnstown Road were there, doing fine, before the road, or any of us, were here.

Copyright 2011 Karl Garson

Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal:

 http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/opinion/column/guest/article_00f252e4-ada0-11e0-a9d9-001cc4c03286.html

 

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