My friends who Matt and I stayed with in Whately, Massachusetts are wildlife rehabilitators, which means that whenever someone in their area finds a wounded creature or abandoned baby animal it is brought to them for care and feeding until the animal is able to be released into the wild to survive on its own. While our friends care for hundreds of baby rabbits, squirrels, mice, and songbirds over the course of the season, we were able to distantly interact with just a few, but it was a special experience indeed. Matt and I were each able to feed a cherry to two orphaned baby squirrels, who are at this age about the size of chipmunks and only have skinny tufts on their tails, unlike the full-grown fluffy adornment that they will some day grow into. We would not be able to handle any animals that had been in rehabilitative care, but since the squirrels were just arriving we could have some contact with these delightful little beings, and they were comforted in their transition by our care.
From a distance we were also able to see a wounded kingfisher, likely hit by a car, who adored eating minnows caught for her from the stream; one of two fledgling starlings in their care; a baby meadow jumping mouse; and a beautiful baby hawk whose soft down was being exchanged for adult feathers. Although we had the shortest glimpse of the hawk, who was not to become accustomed to human contact, it was like looking at a miniature version of majesty, a young prince who, if he survives, will one day hunt the skies.
My dear friends who do this work, a mother and her daughter, are like real life Snow Whites who truly work magic to heal these creatures. When we arrived the day before, the mother, who I have known since I was four years old, was wearing a full length white summer dress and crooning to one of the birds in her care. A perfect Snow White indeed.
After fresh corn fritters and fruit smoothies, coconut balls and a swift chiropractic treatment, Matt and I knew we would have to depart this haven of nurturance and love to continue our journey, despite having to pass up a dip in the nearby Fairy Pond. Every visit leaves more to be desired, and a laying out of new plans for future visits we hope some day to make. Our route to Matt’s older brother’s home in New Jersey led us through Connecticut and New York State, passing within sight of Manhattan before turning into Livingston, New Jersey. For the entirety of the 193 mile trip I felt myself caught up in a daze, unable to focus too much on the road, but rather looking more at the mottled clouds of the sky and the thick green foliage of a New England summer. The dynamic clouds suddenly broke open and a downpour of rain splashed over the road in pink and blue reflections. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the rain dried up and retreated, leaving no trace of the brief deluge.
Traffic condensed more and more thickly as we neared New York City and the leafy branches overhanging the road gave way to the urban tangle of steel, wires, crumbling brick stamped with curling painted letters from 1930s advertisements for Coca Cola and soda crackers. Perhaps because it is so hideous, it is easy to romanticize the graffiti, the stains, the gray rivers choked with steel bridges, giving rise to a vision like Rent, with youth and creativity bursting forth from the pressure cooker of poverty, hunger, disease, crowds, and pure strains of human emotion and love. Above it all, the pastel clouds were rent with blades of sunlight piercing to earth, looking like prayer posters of God speaking to the decrepit masses below. As Matt said, maybe it’s the Divine apologizing for the Industrial Revolution.
Matt and I spent the night with Matt’s brother, his wife, and two young children in a nearby New Jersey suburb, the kind of suburb with rolling lawns, a pool in every backyard, and belts of trees between the streets to help dampen the sound of city traffic from the surrounding highways. We were a fifteen minute drive from the heart of Manhattan. Our overnight stay was brief though, because we had to make the 635 mile journey back to Cincinnati, and we were on the road by 9:00 am. While there has still been warm summer weather, the unbearable temperatures we experienced last week seem to be receding, and we have been enjoying days in the low 80° range.
Our route from New Jersey to Cincinnati crossed the great width of Pennsylvania, which had similar topography to upstate New York: wooded mountains spaced widely apart which afforded expansive views before descending into new farmland valleys. This terrain and that of the prior day reminded me of a trip I took four years ago, when I biked with a friend from Mount Holyoke College to Philadelphia over eight days. On that journey we biked from Massachusetts through Connecticut, crossed the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, ran along the edge of the Delaware Water Gap, and finally arrived in Philadelphia, where my second-hand bike, incidentally, was stolen. Meanwhile, back on this road trip, I recognized signs for different landmarks that I had seen at a much slower pace four years ago.
Matt’s and my discussion came to the difference between environment and ecology, and our need to understand our embeddedness in the environment, as a part of an ecosystem, to be able to make the psychological leap required to address the current ecological crisis. I began reading Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth the other night, which presents the statistics of the effects of global warming currently taking place. This is no longer a discussion of what might happen, but what is happening. The new question is, how will we cope with the changes? How can we prevent them from being even worse than they are? These are the questions that are essential, that I feel the need to devote my life to understanding.
We listened to several lectures by Timothy Morton on just this topic, in which he addresses the question of what nature is. It is not something that is “out there” but rather something we are, and something of which we are a part. Where do we see nature? If nature is not the forests, streams, and mountains that we pass by the roadside, is it also the road itself, and us and the cars upon it? Morton addresses the issue that global warming is so difficult to face because it is so huge, yet still able to be quantified. It is a problem the size of the Earth, but not bigger. We are trapped inside it. We are inside a womb that we have poisoned, and we cannot blame anyone besides ourselves for its toxicity. It is humiliating. And as Morton points out, the word “humiliating” comes from the word “humus,” meaning soil. To be humiliated is to come closer to the Earth. In our humiliation we must come closer to the Earth to learn how to be born out of our womb and into a cleaner world of our own making. But we must go through the birth canal first.
As we were hearing Morton’s words and I was having these thoughts, a bird passed overhead that I have never seen in this country: a bald eagle. While I have seen dozens of eagles in British Columbia I had never before seen one in the country that claims it as its national bird, as its symbol. What does it mean that we can barely keep our own symbol alive in supposedly the most powerful country in the world? What does it mean that I just saw one overhead? Perhaps, both literally and figuratively, to survive the constriction of the ecological crisis we have to become wildlife rehabilitators, just like my friends in New England.
In the late afternoon we passed into the stethoscope of West Virginia, a narrow section wedged between Pennsylvania and Ohio. The valleys and rivers became steeper and more plunging, and traffic slowed as we crossed a green metal bridge over the Ohio River. Not long after this crossing we saw smoke rising out of the woods to the left of the road, possibly a forest fire due to the nationwide droughts this summer. A couple hours later, as we were honing in on Cincinnati, the fiery orb of the sun could be seen setting, a vermillion star blazing through a rose and tangerine sky.