Updated: Apr 16, 2021
In springtime, we relish the revival of life, the buds, the leaves, the bird songs, the croak of frogs, the flying V’s of geese overhead, the furtive possum crossing the road in mortal danger, but like all living things, pursuing life intensely. One time while we lived in a high valley west of the divide, we saw three small foxes, playing near their den, which was actually a culvert under a driveway. More than once, we stopped to watch them wrestle and tumble, eager adolescents testing their muscles, their readiness for the challenges of life. So much more off nature remains out of sight, the larger animals that roam the night, the coyotes that howl, seemingly distant, but probably not so far away in the woods or swamp. Spring time brings back some of my favorite birds, like the red-winged black bird and dozens of others. Their special calls delight me when I sit quietly out on our deck. Last night was so clear the stars’ light pierced the dark sky like street lights beckoning one to the highways of far off galaxies. “All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.”
Yes, sometimes the world and life seems in such harmony that I am astonished. But, on the other hand, things sometimes seem to be performing a different kind of melody. A week ago I observed a majestic bald eagle busily dismantling a fresh piece of road kill, so determined to have its meal that as I slowed almost to a stop, my car crept up to about 30 feet before the creature flew to a nearby tree. I was thrilled to see it happen. The eagle, so impressive, stoops to devour an accident victim. This habit helps clean up some of those mishaps from besmirching our roadways. But this collision of beauty and ugliness points to a truth not so comfortable to consider.
While I can hear harmony and songs, and marvel at the wonders around me, there is another tune playing. It is the swoop of predators following their well worn paths. For some of these, again, I am grateful. I heard just yesterday that bats devour about a quarter of their weight in mosquitoes or other flying things in one night. That makes me happy. (I wish the bats were not losing ground so fast, their numbers declining mysteriously.) They are my favorite predators. And the red wing black birds I watch love to perch on slender reeds at the waters’ edge, because there they find small creeping insects with which I am not well acquainted, and they gobble them with swift efficiency. Likewise purple martins fly in sweeping patterns over the lake water, scooping up vast numbers of insects. It’s amazing.
But as I lift my eyes to a higher level, I realize that many of my favorite small birds are just the kind of meal some raptors, hawks, or others, love to grasp and make a meal of. Most of that happens outside my view. But happen it does. And there are the wise owls who listen and see with such precision that they swoop down from above on the unexpecting mouse or vole who happened to wander within their purview. And so it goes. The bigger predators might like to make a meal of our house cat. Our cat loves to pounce on other living things, sometimes the birds we love. You know the story. The majestic lion is a great master of killing. The Bengal tiger, likewise is beauty and beast which none of us would want to face in the wild.
So, while I hear the music of songs sung sweetly, there is another grinding noise, it is made up of the cry of some cute, small rodent being caught in the owl’s beak, the final crunch of breaking bones when the lion tears its living food apart, the last howl of pain as a rabbit feels some hunter’s teeth pierce its neck. That cacophony of pain, despair, wretched agony and death is part of the ugliness Tennyson called “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”
Why don’t I think of this more often? I can let it go because I am at the top of the food chain. I am a civilized predator, managing to let the sweet obedient cow’s face be my source of food, harvested out of sight by others whom I pay to do the ugly work. It’s enough to make one consider becoming a vegan.
But today I simply want to think about the perspective. That lovely song I hear, that beautiful picture of nature I celebrate is part of a strange, painful symphony of disharmony, whose song I cannot fully understand. It all depends on my perspective, the angle from which I look at life.
© 2021 Stanley Hagemeyer