Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, February 23, 2006


The other day, Cindy at Dances With Moths put up a post about the practice of baiting owls to draw them into easy camera range. I was unaware of it, but evidently this activity is gaining popularity in certain areas, and where birders congregate to view irruptive migrants, it's becoming a problem. About the practice, Cindy stated, “This goes against everything I believe in as a bird-watcher and a bird photographer.” I read her arguments with scepticism. My first reaction was, "this fits right in with my every instinct." I've never baited owls to photograph them, but I've tossed plenty of mice, pigeons, and you name it out of car windows in an effort to watch predators do what they do best, and I've never felt like I was harming them in any way. This sort of interaction with wildlife has always been a big part of my life.

A spoiled child of the west, I grew up in an area as sparsely populated as any in the temperate zone. Fences were few and easy to climb. As a boy, I could get on a horse and ride for days in any direction save one without running into other humans. Like many of the kids in my home town, I was an avid naturalist. If a species interested me, I'd capture a young one and raise it as a pet. We took foxes, coyotes, squirrels, woodrats, and scores of bird and reptile species, and in the process learned more about those animals than any college course could have taught us. Many of us practiced falconry, and a number of us have continued that sport into adulthood. Through our hands-on wildlife studies, we gained insights into the natural world that are the privilege of few in the industrialized world. To this day, I'm as likely to try to catch a wild animal, or climb to its nest as to sit silently and study its behavior.
Thanks to the fact that only a handful of kids were collecting animals from an area of thousands of hectares, our impact on the local ecology was minimal. Today a horseback trip along one of my old routes would often be forced to follow suburban streets inhabited by children with little taste for our juvenile pastimes—good thing, too, for today's shrunken wilderness could hardly support their numbers. As the human appetite for land grows, childhoods like my own become available to fewer, and my kind of behavior becomes less appropriate. As the traffic in our National Parks and reserves increases, necessity mandates that we be incrementally restricted in our activities, and more and more this applies to unrestricted wilderness as well. Each trip to a National Park becomes a little more reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's short story, A Sound of Thunder, where time-traveling tourists are taken on a Mesozoic vacation, but restricted to the walkway, where they won't affect history. I foresee great transparent tubes snaking across refuges, from which we can view the highly-managed wildlife without interfering. As our march toward Bradbury's vision continues, I see that I am an anachronism, and that tomorrow's naturalists will need to adopt a spirit of distant reverence that is more in line with Cindy's than with mine. It's a damn shame.
upper: RUFOUS ELEPHANT SHREW & WHITE-FACED SCOPS OWL (1996) acrylic 10" x 7"
lower: RED-TAILED HAWK & GRAY SQUIRREL (1995) acrylic 16" x 28"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I so appreciate your honesty- we're really not much different in the way we connect with wildlife and the land.. I'll explain more at a later date, but until then I'm soaking up your beautiful artistry.
Thank you for sharing your perspective.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks, Cindy. I'm glad you read this post. I hope I didn't misrepresent your philosophy in any way.

3:31 PM  

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