Of Ponds and Whippoorwills

Recently my wife and I went to my family’s cabin in the Ozarks of southeastern Missouri. It was our first time there together, and I was eager to show her an important place from my childhood. This cabin has been in my family since my great-grandfather Hermann bought it in 1932, and much of it remains the same as it was when he bought it. There is electricity and running water (although no shower or bath), but the only heat comes from a cast-iron stove in the living room.

As a youth I spent many weekends here, as did my father and his father, my Opa. My brother and I would often bring friends down here for birthday parties or Boy Scout outings or weekend adventures. Each season had its own treasures. Fall gave us a splendor of color, leaves crunching underfoot as we walked through the woods. Winter’s cold taught the value of a warm fire in the stove. Spring brought bursts of green and sound and life, crescendoing into the symphony of summer.

Most of our time spent there was during the summer months. We would pass our days swimming in the dammed-up creek, playing games in the fields, walking the creek looking for turtles and crawdads. If there were enough of us at night we would play epic games of capture the flag, sneaking through dark woods trying to grab an old rag and run it back into our own territory. When we tired of that we would retire to the cabin and play games or talk late into the night.

It was at our cabin where I learned how to shoot a rifle, to see in the woods at night, to overcome my fear of bugs (sort of), to identify different trees and birdcalls. I have so many memories from my time there, and I can’t think of a single one that is negative. Surely this is due in part to rose-colored glasses, but in many ways my upbringing was special. As my wife and I talk about starting our own family I think of how I can create experiences like the ones I had for my own children.

One of my favorite memories from our nights in the cabin was being serenaded to sleep by the whippoorwill. Its sing-song call (whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL) was one of the signature sounds of the Missouri woods, and I always knew where I was when I heard it. Sadly, in recent years the whippoorwill has stopped singing in that part of the world. When I spoke with others who have lived in the Ozarks their whole lives, they lamented the loss of that beautiful singer in nature’s choir.

Whippoorwills live in the margins: swampy edges of ponds, borders where trees meet fields. Over the past few years several human forces have caused those areas to disappear. In an effort to squeeze every last penny out of their land farmers have been draining ponds and cutting down trees. People hoping to recreate the oenotourism model so successful in places like California’s Napa Valley have bought up land, turning dairy farms and corn fields into vineyards.

On the surface these actions seem relatively harmless, even beneficial. With more land used for crops, farmers can make more money. And the vineyards have increased tourist dollars and property values in the region. But the surface is where the benefits stop. Inebriated patrons now careen down country roads and attempt to take shortcuts through private property, disturbing the bucolic tranquility of the area. (It doesn’t help that the wine they produce is atrocious; perhaps if it were good my gourmet sensibilities would override my other concerns.) And yes, farmers can make more money from the land they own, but at what price?

There is no better metaphor for what is lost than the whippoorwill. Both these actions leave very little room for those wonderful birds to nest, but so much more is lost. I was fortunate to live in Spain for a time, and when I traveled through the south of that country what struck me was the absence of any wild areas. Every square inch of ground was covered with olive trees evenly spaced over the dry brown soil. No visual break, no space for wild animals to live or roam. Humans covered the whole of the world with their tracks.

Sadly I see the same thing starting to occur in America. I grew up in Missouri, and in summers we used to drive through the cornfields of Iowa. I would be fascinated by the endless symmetrical rows of corn, how the precisely planted corn stood in straight lines even when viewed from different angles. Yet those fields of corn and soybean were separated by stands of trees or even small forests, and hills were often left unplanted. As corporations buy out more and more family farms, and increase their yields by removing all natural features that don’t help reap profits, those Iowa fields are looking more and more like the Spanish olive groves to me.

We need to learn from the mistakes of those in Europe. A few years ago I had friends visit from Spain. They wanted to travel across the United States and see as much as they could in a few weeks, and were planning their trip according to which cities they wanted to explore. But I told them they were mistaken; if they really wanted to see the United States, what distinguished us from Europe, they needed to see our wilderness areas. Thanks to the good stewards who lived here before Europeans set foot on this continent, we still have large swaths of relatively unspoiled natural environments. Places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon don’t exist in Europe, partly because of geographical differences but mostly because enough Americans saw the value in saving those jewels from people whose only idea of green is the kind printed on bills.

I do not wish to give the impression that all greed is bad, and that business interests should always take a backseat to environmental ones. After all, I am a practicing capitalist who fervently believes the free market provides us fantastic benefits. The question I wish to pose is, to what extent do we need to pursue the furthest of capitalist ideals? At what point is enough enough? Is it really worth it to gain a few cents more profit on the dollar if we despoil everything else that is good?

Just as competing forces in nature always end up finding some sort of equilibrium, so should we strive to achieve a balance between the desire of businesses to make the most profit and the desire of individuals to preserve entities that are not entirely economic. In our society price, speed and efficiency have in many ways become the sole determinants of quality. They are not. There are things worth making, preserving and striving for that have nothing to do with those attributes. Sometimes slower is better, and sometimes costs and value are measured in more than dollars and cents.

We need to start reassessing our priorities. We need to take a look at the things we value and hold dear, and ask ourselves if we are willing to lose those things for the sake of a mild cost savings, a slight increase in profit, a slightly faster gadget. I, for one, am not. My father always says a dollar is a vote. Well, please cast my vote for the whippoorwill. Life is much more enjoyable, much more valuable with them, and I would be happy to pay a premium to hear their voices echoing through the Ozark woods again.


Copyright Axel Schwarz  2011


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