Thursday, December 31, 2009

Maps in Our Heads

I realized this morning that one of the things that so delights me about nature is that it is completely free from the boundaries that humans have set for ourselves with our artificial states, counties, countries, private land, and other types of so-called ownership that have little relevance to the ecosystems they chop up into pieces. (I’m not against private rights to land among humans, but I’m for an awareness of nature’s rights, and a sense of stewardship and commons.) It is also this characteristic that has most threatened and challenged us, that we have struggled to control.

Birds fly hither and yon at their whim and in response to weather, available food, water, breeding territory, shelter, seasons. For example, a female pileated woodpecker visited the suet feeders on a friend’s deck during the recent big snow, giving us a flash to a prehistoric past. These woodpeckers wear a bright red crest that looks somewhat like a red Santa hat. It contrasts strikingly with the black and white bars and zigzag patterns on its face and body. The birds are what I imagine to be pterodactyl like—our largest woodpecker, they have narrow hatchet shaped heads that they must slant to the side and twist and turn to adequately scan for threats. We felt honored to see her up close. Pileated woodpeckers frequent my friend's territory because of the many dead trees that provide food and shelter. But designating any backyard deck as an Official Pileated Woodpecker Feeding Station will not draw these birds matter how many signatures are obtained.

The snow falling right now outside my window does not discriminate: it blankets, chills, and nurtures vast areas oblivious to where commuters rush, crops grow or children with new Christmas sleds watch the skies. Or where my property ends and your’s begins. It frustrates or thrills according to one’s frame of reference. Put snow in a giant frame called global climate and see what it brings up for you.

On a snow-covered fire road in West Virginia last weekend I saw the footprints of humans and dogs, but also raccoon, deer, squirrels, and even a black bear. The road according to human law was in a wildlife “management” area, but only I and my companion walked there because this fact made it accessible to us. The animals roamed at will on the road and off, over the mountain, through backyards, farms, wherever they wanted, wherever was safe from human interference.

I love maps. I remember one of the major features of the classroom when I was growing up were the maps showing the world and all the different countries. Each country glowed in a different color—pink, green, lavender, orange, yellow, all surrounded by the deep blue of the ocean and accentuated by the whites of the arctic and antarctic. We learned the shapes of the continents too. Sort of. There are different types of projections of the round world onto a flat surface--but none can portray the contours and ratios as accurately as a globe. The choice of those projections determines how a young brain (or an older one for that matter) conceives of one’s own country and its place in the world. Remember the map used in the King and I that showed Siam as gigantic and all the “enemy” countries as tiny. The exaggeration was cartoonish but point made.

Those bright colors on my school map said that country boundaries, the human politics, were the most important thing that we needed to learn. I haven’t been in an elementary school room for many years. But when I visited my grandson’s preschool last year, I saw--placed down low on the wall where the tiny students could study it at their leisure--a large world map that showed not country boundaries, but ecosystems and the animals that reside there.

Nature has its own system of territoriality, its own “politics.”. As we grope toward learning to live in tune with nature, finally realizing that it is crucial to our own survival, I’m wondering how our maps will change-- on our walls, and in our heads and hearts. I know my political address, but do I know my ecological address? Audubon has a neat worksheet to start discovering this at