By Jessica Shepherd
We value this proximity to wilderness, couldn’t imagine living without it. But still, we impose a cost just by being here.
It’s early June. The alder and birch leaves are newly emerged and a fervent green - a balm after our somber winter. Dew beads on the lawn and I hug myself against the lingering chill of early morning. What will the day hold? Dark-bellied clouds over the southern mountains portend rain. But for now, sun filters through the trees and I am lured into the garden, ears tuned toward birdsong.
Sweet notes, like an enchanted flute, spiral down - the love song of a hermit thrush in a spruce tree across the driveway. Concurrently, below the house, a neighbor’s chicken cluck-cluck-clucks enthusiastically, heralding an egg. Wildlife juxtaposed with homey domesticity. The discontinuous hum of traffic from East End Road and the creaky-door call of a sandhill crane flapping languidly overhead round out the sounds of spring. The air smells heady with cottonwood, wet grass, and moldering leaves.
We live cheek by jowl with wildlife here. I could show you the broken limbs on the apple tree where a black bear climbed up last fall, hungry for the smattering of fruit we’d left behind. And only yesterday, along this path between house and garden, mama moose and her newborn, teetering on spidery legs, walked by.
We value this proximity to wilderness, couldn’t imagine living without it. But still, we impose a cost just by being here. We put out food for hungry chickadees, nuthatches, and pine grosbeaks all winter, seeing them through weather that might otherwise be the death of them, but some birds inevitably hit our windows and plummet to the snow where they lay stunned, or worse. And here on the lawn are feathers from a hapless yellow-rumped warbler, snatched from the air by our neighbor’s cat. There she sits now, washing her fur in the sun, smug and fat, a species we’ve tamed to the detriment of other small beings.
It’s human nature to buy a bit of land, smooth away the wooly edges and domesticate. Somehow we expect the wildlife to braid around us as if we’re no more problematic than a rock dropped into a stream. When Hal and I first moved here, we mowed down the shoulder-high grass into a neat lawn that appeals to worm-seeking robins, but not much else. We put in a garden complete with a six-foot fence to dissuade grazers, widened the parking lot for a second car, added a deck along the view side of the house, and settled in.
And wildlife does adapt, up to a point. Sandhill cranes strut down the road ahead of our idling car as if they have all the time in the world. Squirrels play dare-devil with the dog, flitting their tails to and fro, inducing a chase the dog never wins. For years, robins built a nest atop our dryer vent only to have the magpies swoop in and snatch their hapless young time and again. When we replaced the dryer with a clothesline, we removed the vent out of pity for the frantic parents and patched the hole with a square of plywood. This spring, the male returned a few days ahead of his mate and tapped the patch in confusion. He then flew to the porch rail and peered in as if to say, “What gives?”
But Homer is undergoing a growth spurt. Large swaths of woodlands have been cleared to make way for new houses and stores, meaning more lawn, more pavement, and fewer places for wildlife to shelter and feed. Rumor has it that this latest building boom is driven by Californians seeking to escape the fires that now define summer in the western United States. That, and a pandemic-induced freedom allowing more people to work from wherever they happen to call home. These are proactive climate change refugees in what will surely be a growing exodus. And who can blame them for wanting what we have here, especially once they’ve seen what a little jewel Homer is?
At noon, I water young pea shoots and weed around frilly lettuce while shy juncos and cocky Steller’s jays work the grass below the feeder for spilled seeds. Taking the hint, I go inside and return with a scoop of sunflower seeds. I don’t normally feed the birds this late into the year for fear of attracting bears, but I have a quarter bag of bird food to use up and, more to the point, I take inordinate pleasure in watching the birds up close. They’ve grown so used to me now they hardly move aside when I fill the feeder.
Later in the day, I sit inside reading as a light rain waters the garden. I read about the worsening megadrought in the west with accompanying wildfires and falling reservoirs. About a 30% decline in birds across the country over the past 30 years. And about zombie fires in Siberia - the probable source of the haze hovering over Kachemak Bay. Maybe I’m the climate crisis equivalent of an ambulance chaser or a fortune-teller peering into a media-generated crystal ball. This I do know - what happens in the west doesn’t stay in the west.
I worry about my birds. I worry about them in the fall when they migrate south through the smoke-filled skies of Oregon and California. Worry about cloud-reflecting glass skyscrapers and the loss of habitat both here and on their wintering grounds. I worry about the Armageddon on insects by way of pesticides. Insects birds need to feed their young and we need to pollinate our crops. And then there’s the bioaccumulation of toxins up the food chain.
I know, dear reader, that you don’t want to be reminded of this holocaust on a lovely day on the cusp of summer. Nor do I, but there it is.
Later, after the rain stops, I pull on mud boots, pocket a few biscuits for the dog and head out the door. The rain has teased out the tin smell of thirsty soil. Once again, I drink in the spiraling melody of the hermit thrush - this time bookended by a pair of cheery robins in adjacent trees. I walk the upper road past the spring that burbles in her banks, pure and sweet, and stop at the upper overlook. The alders that fill the canyon have leafed out into a soft haze of green, and the sound of a waterfall far below reaches us. On our return, a squirrel curses us, as is his norm, tail jerking with each sharp call, while overhead a pair of bald eagles spiral higher and higher. I lose myself in this time of green and growth, abundance and birdsong. A moment to savor, without regret or concern. Just here. Now.