Friday, July 18, 2014

What is the last thing . . .?

     Last weekend, I was camping in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I was enjoying the park -- fishing, birdwatching, hiking, and trying to stay clear of the thunderstorms.  For the most part I was successful in my enjoyment (although the fish mocked me, and the rain/hail was indiscriminate).  One thing surprised me at the outset, and the surprise grew throughout the weekend.  There were a couple of birds that I expected to see, that are very common in mountainous areas like Rocky, that I did NOT see at all:  Clark's Nutcracker and Gray Jay.  Almost anyone who has picnicked or camped in the mountains has had one or both of these birds as dinner guests.  But they were completely absent!  And, as I was leaving the park, two of the employee/rangers agreed with me:  it was unusual that they were unseen!
      And, of course, I started speculating (as did the park folk) as to WHY these birds weren't around.  Was it because of the pine beetle?  That is, given the beetle-kill, were the number of nuts/seeds down so far as to affect the bird population?  Or was the heavy snow-fall, and, therefore, late snow-melt responsible for a relative lack of picnickers -- folks who provided the free-pickings for the birds?  But then I started thinking in a slightly less "natural" direction.  Setting aside for the moment any effect human-caused global warming might have on pine beetle infestations or heavy snowfalls, what if something that we humans are doing (or are not doing) is having a detrimental impact on these montane birds?
       This direction of my musings may have been partly because of an article in the Summer 2014 edition of the Oregon Quarterly.  The article asked the question about how/why the island of Rapa Nui (or "Easter Island") became devoid of the verdant palm forest that once covered it.  One, older, answer was that the inhabitants had simply chopped down all the trees, perhaps to move the large statues around (in addition to providing fuel and shelter).  A more recent answer is that the early inhabitants brought rats with them that consumed all of the nuts from the palm trees, leading to deforestation.  Some speculate that there probably was some combination of human/rat cooperation in the devastation.  Regardless of the singular, or joint, cause, 
Paul Bahn and John Flenley in their book Easter Island, Earth Island, assume that there could have been a human who cut down the last tree, and who could have known that it was the last tree.*  They write:  "The person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree.  But he (or she) still felled it.  This is what is so worrying.  Humankind's covetousness is boundless".  How similar is that statement is to something Aldo Leopold wrote:  "Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land.  We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us."**
       Leopold's assertion may be correct -- at least the last statement.  I'm not so sure, though, that his first sentence is quite right (although, according to Genesis 17.8, God DID promise some land to Abraham and his offspring after him).  Prior to the promise to Abraham, however, God placed the whole earth in the care of humans (Gen 1.26).  We were to be stewards of the earth, yet even the translation that suggests that we have "dominion" over the earth doesn't suggest that we destroy it to suit our purposes.
       And so, I wonder what that Rapa Nui-an must have thought/felt when he/she felled that last tree?  And the absence, even if only temporary, or Gray Jays and Clark's Nutcrackers, caused me to wonder how I'd feel if I knew that I had something to do with the demise of the very last one of them.  Could I justify my stewardship to the one who placed the care of the planet in my hands?


Chaplain Gary

* Quoted in the Oregon Quarterly article on p. 8.
** A Sand County Almanac (Oxford, 1949), viii.

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