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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Braking for Squirrels

It was a young squirrel, scampering out from the overgrown dandelion shrubbery lining the country road below the turn-off to my street in Monroe. I was on my way to work, adjusting the radio dial, checking the rearview mirror to be sure no one was right on my tail -- when there it went -- tail a-quiver, making a dash across the pavement right in front of me.

In a split-second I took in the chance of missing it if I hit the brake. I bore down, coming almost to a stop, and saw the critter disappear into the brush on the passenger side of my car. With relief, I drove on, glad not to see its mangled corpse behind me in the mirror.

How little it took to avoid desecrating the beautiful spring morning with the spilled guts of a fellow creature. Just some presence of mind, but even more, some presence of heart. My own heart, by nature and upbringing, is a tender one. Yet within the privilege of my human form, I can, if I choose, ignore my impact on the world around me. I didn't have to lift my foot to the brake, didn't have to care, or even to notice that questing small forager about to cross paths with a monster beyond its power to conceive.

When it comes to life on Earth, humans are the 1%. We live in splendid ignorance of our advantages, our power, and our potential for harm or good. Like the old mock mantra of Bell Telephone: "We don't care; we don't have to..." We don't have to care about the creatures and creation around us -- or so we thought.

Turns out, we just might. Recent estimates of the current extinction rate are between 1,000 and 10,000 times faster than the normal "background rate" -- the rate at which species naturally die off without human-caused decline (wwf). Lack of regard for the consequences of human action on the natural world, combined with exponential population growth and technological advances that enable exponentially more widespread impact on natural ecosystems, are wreaking havoc on the life of our planet. We are part of that life, vulnerable in our own way; global ecological collapse beyond our power to conceive is a monster bearing down on us like my car on a country road. When it hits, there will be no one left to look in the rear-view mirror and mourn the shattered corpse that was humanity.

Before humans can be moved to act even in small ways to alter their behavior, like lifting a foot to the brake pedal, they have to care. And we largely don't, or not enough.
What is it to be a non-human creature on this planet? Consider the humble butterfly, a worm in a blanket of silk (good metaphor for many a human, I suspect). What is its life?

A dim, warm nestling; a growing constriction; an urge to spread and grow; sudden liberation, and then -- oh glory! Sunshine and roses, color and movement, endless space of light and shadow, colors beckoning with sweet fragrances and tastes; others of its own kind, flickering bodies of color mirroring the steady beat of life pulsing invisibly and unknowingly in the lightest of wings. And yet, it's a battle with the ever-changing, invisible forces of breeze and gust; a drive to dart and flit and perhaps evade the snapping beak of death or the clinging entanglement of web and piercing bite. To say nothing of the slap of glass at 60 mph, or sudden capture in a collector's net, to be pinned to a velvet bier for all eternity.

If butterflies don't move you, look at the Orca, popularly known as "killer whales," a moniker that does disservice to their kind -- it might be more accurate to describe humans as "killer apes."

Birthed from womb into water, light, and sound; physical connections of bumping, sliding, slapping; language of chirps and clicks and whistles from mother and family as you are carried upward and held aloft into sun and wind and new sounds, dreamlike in clarity and vividness; your first breaths of air with semi-emergence from the weight of water into the lightness of an outer world, then back into the dim underworld of waking, singing, surging movement, snatch of food, the rhythm of movement between the two worlds: the world of breath and mystery and brilliant skies, warming sun, glimpses of infinity, and the dive back to family, the bonds of language and contact and shared experience.

Over time, you understand the concept of clan, the sharing of food, the practice of hunting and evasion. You discover the danger and wonder of the overworld creatures: noise-makers, trappers, poisoners, those who steal and hurt and kill your kind. You grow to understand that this outer world, like dreamscapes, holds meaning and intelligence unlike your own, power beyond your understanding, actions and consequences that to you are arbitrary, unthinkable, impossible to predict. That world of light and air: forever beckoning, necessary, fascinating; forever dangerous, and somehow responsible for most of the incomprehensible tragedy of your otherwise rhythmical, cyclical, peaceful existence beneath the waves, suspended in the rich layer of livable space between the warm emptiness of the upper world and the cold, dark, impossibly heavy underworld from which most who descend never return.

Consider the recent case in Washington State of the mother Orca who, upon losing her new-born calf to starvation despite her own sacrifices, carried the dead calf aloft in the air for more than two weeks, perhaps hoping against hope that the calf would take that first breath that ushers in the mammalian life cycle.
Can we care enough about whatever this orca mother and her pod were experiencing, however we interpret her behavior, to take some action on her behalf? To lift our foot to the brake pedal, as it were? Make a donation to an organization that is professionally working to protect and preserve the ecosystems of the ocean on which orcas and so much other life depends -- not least our own lives? Boycott salmon industries that over-fish, or reduce our appetite for salmon and other fish needed in greater numbers in their ecosystem? Mobilize friends and neighbors to pressure representatives to sponsor legislation in defense of ocean ecosystems and the lives within them, making this a priority above commercial interests like fishing, oil exploitation and transport, and coal shipping; military activities like undersea sonic testing; and systemic ills like the mountains of trash and debris expelled purposely or accidentally into the oceans every minute of the day?

"Braking for squirrels" is not a joke. Learning to love the world around us and treat it and its life with compassion and respect, even at sacrifice to our own comforts, luxuries and privileges, is an evolutionary step that the human race needs to make, and make soon. Evolution produces winners and losers; we have won the power and skill to fly to the moon and other planets, to build machines of colossal power and intelligence, and to reshape Earth. Have we the wisdom to see that winning isn't everything? Or will we succumb to the "Darwin effect" as we wreak irreparable damage on our complex, beautiful ecosystem of a world, so full of life and purpose and sentience beyond our imagination? Will we brake for life, or just break it?

A few organizations to learn about and support:

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