Monday, May 7, 2007

Man vs. Nature

I was visiting a community garden yesterday to answer questions about dealing with pests organically. One of the gardeners wanted to know if there was anything they could do about the mosquitoes.

My immediate response was, Don't garden when the mosquitoes are out.

Somehow we've arrived at a point where we humans think nature is something to be controlled and manipulated like the potted plants on our back deck. We reject the idea of invasive plants and wage war against them. We treat threatened species like pets, putting them on display in zoos as if they were objects d'art. Having destroyed or simply overrun most of the natural world, we establish park-like reserves where the remaining species can live out their remaining days.

Yet nature is always pushing back, making itself felt in surprising ways. Like the baby sparrow that showed up on our front steps the other day.

Clearly, this little bird, unable to fly yet, would not survive on its own. We took it inside, intending to make a home for it until it was old enough to make a life for itself.

We created a nest for the bird out of a cardboard box and some straw. We gave it water in a plastic bowl and decided cream of wheat would make a fine sparrow feed.

This little bird was a fighter. It did not want to stay in the box. It would flap its wings and claw its way to the top of the box and perch there. Then, on the second day of its visit with us, the bird disappeared from the box altogether.

"The bird flew out the window," my 7-year-old daughter said.

When I was my daughter's age, I'd gone out into the forest preserve looking for Indian treasures and come home with three baby chipmunks. I set an alarm clock to feed them milk from an eye dropper every four hours. Miraculously, they survived. They grew into adult chipmunks that raced around the house, up and down the living room curtains, and would run up your leg and sit on your shoulder.

They perished one day when the door to their cage was left open and they fell into a sump pump.

I thought raising this baby sparrow would be a valuable lesson for my daughter. We knew it had not flown out the window and I figured it would make its presence known sooner or later. Sure enough, I was tapping away on my computer when I heard a loud "Cheep!" I looked to my right and saw the sparrow sitting on top of my computer router, staring me in the eye.

How, I wondered, did a baby bird that did not know how to fly make its way to a spot three feet off the ground?

But the next morning, there was no cheeping coming from the cardboard box. We'd put a metal screen over the top to keep the bird from escaping. As I told my wife, the bird had no chance of survival until it was more fully grown.

I looked into the box to check on our little sparrow. It was laying on its side, dead.

How did it die? Could we have done more?

There was no way to tell. No note left behind. No way to explain how a little sparrow could be so alive one minute--so full of our expectations for it--and so irretrievably dead the next.

I was sad that we had failed to keep this helpless creature alive. Yet she reminded us that some things in nature are simply beyond our control.

And maybe that's a good thing.


Julie D. said...

So, if I did garden and wanted to follow your comment of "don't garden when the mosquitoes are out" then I would never garden at all. We have what I now think of as "nice" mosquitoes at night and a lovely "imported" Tiger mosquito from Asia which doesn't mind full sun and has a ferocious bite.

Surely there is a difference between letting kindly Mother Nature kill a baby bird (which, as Terry Pratchett will tell you, seems to be Mother Nature's main purpose for baby birds as far as we can see) and making working conditions in the garden a bit better.

Ed Bruske said...

Once you've eliminated all the standing water, you are left with the question of what further mosquito abatement measures exist, organically speaking. The point being that there are bound to be some mosquitoes. They are part of nature's scheme as well. How about hanging a bat house? Long sleeves?

Julie D. said...

True, some mosquitoes are one thing ... however, I forgot to mention that we are living in the middle of Dallas and therefore not in control of standing water ... we have a bat house as well as bats which we see on evening walks, though they don't come out during the day and therefore aren't very helpful against those Asian Tiger mosquitoes.

As for the long sleeves ... I can tell you haven't ever been to Dallas in the summer. :-)

Ed Bruske said...

Have you been to Washington, D.C. in the summer?

Julie D. said...

No contest ... believe me. Check out the distance from the equator and consider the fact that we've got oodles of lakes around. :-)