Yesterday, the dulcet tones of the resident mockingbird guided me through my morning rituals. Once the eyes and ears have awakened to nature’s wonder, they just keep opening wider each day. Even in this broken and struggling city, there are many dazzling natural phenomena to discover. Often they are subtle and may take time to become attuned to, but with a little searching a reward will come. And it will keep paying out over a lifetime.

In that spirit, we set out one night last week to look for American Woodcocks at a local park.  I’d yet to lay eyes or ears on this elusive and fascinating bird.  A report on a birding discussion list tipped me off to their presence at this particular park, and so it seemed like a good opportunity.  During spring months, the male woodcocks come out at dusk in open fields to perform their “sky dance” (as described by Aldo Leopold) in hopes of attracting a mate.  We arrived at the park around 7:30 PM and walked down the trail in the fading light. About a quarter mile in, we heard several woodocks making their “peent” calls.  Soon we arrived at the power line cut, a broad open area, and found two other birders staked out below the trail at what sounded like the epicenter of the “peenting” activity.  We hung around for about ten minutes, until my companion began showing heightened signs of anxiety concerning the rapidly increasing darkness.  No flight displays had been observed, but I reluctantly headed back down the trail.  As we neared the parking area, we saw a truck with its lights on and a ranger walking around.  Two other cars besides ours were present.  We reached our car just as the ranger was copying down the license plate number onto a ticket.  I approached him and explained that we were looking for woodcocks, thinking that a park ranger would share the enthusiasm of people using the park to observe nature.  Instead I was met with a blank stare, followed by a typical verbose string of law enforcement pedantry, whereby arbitrary rules are repeated ad nauseum in the tone and manner with which one usually addresses a disobedient toddler.  Yes, officer, I heard you the first of the now six times (and counting!) that you have told me the park closes at sunset.  Thank you for pointing out in an incredulous tone that it’s now well past that point in time.  It’s a pity that the woodcock is unwilling to accommodate the draconian time constraints you impose upon well-meaning folks who endeavor to quietly observe this marvel of the natural world.  Thankfully, our new friend was kind enough to let us off with a carefully enunciated and frequently repeated warning.  Not so lucky were the owners of that Toyota Prius parked next to our car, who were undoubtedly still ravaging naked through the woods when we left, setting random fires and hurling empty whiskey bottles at the local deer.

I know that park rangers are just following orders, and there are perhaps (although in this location doubtfully so) people who shouldn’t be allowed in parks after dark. And maybe that’s the problem:  it would be considered “discriminatory” to ban certain people but allow others, so as a result we all suffer.  But if there were no limits on public land, would it all just end up trashed?  It’s a tough question to answer, because by answering yes we acknowledge that people are essentially programmed to self-destruct, or at least to destroy the planet that sustains their existence.  And certainly history has more than hinted at this predisposition.  By answering no, on the other hand, we are branded as naive by those who set the rules.  It’s a conversation that could proceed in a perpetual circle.

All philosophical musings aside, I just want to see the woodcock spiral toward the sky.  A simple and innocent enough desire, or so I thought.  But I don’t want to be harassed by some park cop in the process.  Why is that so much to ask?

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1 Comment

  1. If no one owns something, there is no one to say whether or not another person can do something. That's what the situation with Onondaga lake was: no one could tell others to stop polluting because it was owned by no one. The concept is often called the tragedy of the commons. It's not that humans are destructive by nature, it's just that they put their own interests above others. Just some food for thought.



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