The swallows are late in fledging. Other small fluffy, awkward young birds have filled the cabin’s yard for over a week: white-crowned sparrows, juncos, chipping-sparrows, even sapsuckers. The youngsters’ parents flit around after their clumsy offspring, still stuffing food down their babies’ throats. All the while, the swallow hatchlings stay tucked in their box (originally meant to hold bluebirds), making more of a racket than any of the other birds. But today, today! might be the day when they fledge – little heads keep poking out of the box hole when mama and papa are out finding food.
The many fledglings have added a lively dimension to the yard. They haven’t learned fear yet, and so allow me to approach quite closely. A few days ago, a fledgling junco and its mother perched solidly on the gate in the yard’s fence. I walked within a few feet while the baby eyed me and the mother let out a long trill. Neither was going to move. “I don’t want to disturb you,” I whispered to the pair.
And thought of George Perkins Marsh.
Okay – that sounds like a bit of a stretch, from fledglings to G.P. Marsh, who wrote Man and Nature; or, Physical geography as modified by human action in 1864. Marsh wanted to call his book Man the Disturber of Nature’s Harmonies. He allowed himself to be persuaded from that title, perhaps because he thought it obvious that titling the book Man and Nature implied disturbance and exploitation.
Would I walk forward and disturb the birds? If I was a moose, I wouldn’t think twice; I would simply move forward, disrupting the birds and sending them flying – or sending the adult junco flying, the fledgling stumbling through the air. But I’m not a moose. I am human. So what does that mean for this situation?
This too brought me to Marsh, who contemplated whether Man is of nature, or separate, ending his book with the statement “The collection of phenomena must precede the analysis of them, and every new fact, illustrative of the action and reaction between humanity and the material world around it, is another step toward the determination of the great question, whether man is of nature or above her.”
The juncos on the gate had such a spark that I wouldn’t simply lump them into a “material world” – the fledgling tilted its head inquisitively while mama trilled insistently. But here I was, humanity acting with the world around, with a reaction forth-coming depending on my movement. I hesitated there in front of the gate, deciding what to do.
Marsh came to the conclusion that Man is separate from nature; Man’s destructive capabilities “tend to prove” that Man is apart from the non-human wonderful lively world that surrounds us. Yet, he went beyond separation, claiming our superior position: “he is not of her, … he is of more exalted parentage.” But! Marsh asserted, the other side of this exalted coin is that Man has the intellectual ability to manage resources and provide stewardship of the world better than we are doing. Marsh was an educated and well-traveled man. He based his conclusions not on one country, or on one people, but on the scenes he had witnessed across the globe. Humanity was not taking care of the planet. Man the Disturber. Marsh wrote this in 1864.
I am human. With this comes the intellectual capacity to make choices that might not occur to a moose. In a sense, I agree with Marsh’s conclusion that we are separate and unique (but maybe not too exalted); no other animal is out there writing essays on their computer. Given, we are part of the ecosystem and intimately connected to the natural world around us. But we are human and make human choices — and we have the brain to make responsible choices about living on this planet and respecting the life around us.
So I made a very human choice, and backed away from the gate and the two spritely juncos on their perch. I clambered over the fence to leave the yard – more awkward than the fledglings. The juncos never moved, remaining where they sat. Undisturbed.
When Marsh wrote Man and Nature, he had larger issues in mind than leaving juncos in peace. But his alternative title often springs to mind, even in such seemingly small situations: Man the Disturber.
While I have been writing this blog, the swallows have been busy – the parents have come and gone dozens of times and the young have stuck their beaks out into the sunshine repeatedly. But the little birds haven’t made the leap yet, holding to the safety of their wooden home. They stay tucked into the nest, undisturbed by the many things that await them in the big world beyond the box.