As a professed nature lover, I sometimes find myself in the odd position of rooting against wildlife. I’ve decided to try and grow as much of my own food as possible on my two-acre parcel, and this has placed me at times in direct odds against the wild things that I love.
Last week, a red-shouldered hawk almost flew off with one of my chickens. I was having breakfast inside, and suddenly heard a raucous uprising in the backyard. I flew outside in my pajamas to witness the bird of prey on top of one of my favorite hens. Startled by my presence, the hawk flew off sans prize. My hen, surprisingly, was no worse for the wear, although she did lose a startling number of feathers in the encounter. If I had not been home that morning, I’m sure the hawk would have taken her. But what am I to do? The chickens must have outdoor access. I feel like a mother, unable to protect her children from the lurking dangers of the world.
Domestic chickens can run quickly and listen to the blue jays' calls to alert them to danger. Still, they often fall prey to predators like hawks.
I love hawks. I wish them no harm, and in fact am glad that the sprawling pines and spruces on my property seem to be favorable to them. Yet when I saw the red-shouldered hawk hunt my chicken, I saw it for a moment as an enemy.
Had the hawk flown off with my chicken, I would have gotten over it. C’est la vie. At least the hawk would have eaten well, would have survived itself another day. And that’s the funny crux of it: to love nature, and live with it, you become part of it. And becoming part of it means embracing the whole spectrum of life, death, health, sickness, joy, and loss. My garden isn’t all butterflies and flowers, though those are certainly aspects of it I enjoy. Animals get sick, or predated. Vegetable plants get eaten by bugs before I get to them myself. I am constantly anointed with the sacraments of manure, sweat, and soil.
I was worried my garden and livestock operations might distance me from wildlife. If I am constantly struggling against competitors, how can I have love for the coyote, the raccoon, flea beetles, squash vine borer moths, and more? Henry David Thoreau famously wrote about his failed role as a gardener: he simply could not bring himself to yank weeds or chase off chipmunks, finding them as equally entitled to his garden’s bounty as he himself was. Would I turn against nature in my quest to grow food?
Remarkably, I’ve found I love nature more. I am nature. I play a role. I hunt, I gather. I recycle my wastes so that I can re-use them again. I compete for food, and give a nod to the victor who occasionally triumphs over me. I leave some of the elderberries on my bushes for the birds. I feel the weight of the lives I take, even the weeds’. I accept that my vegetables will have some insects’ munch-marks on them, and find I enjoy them all the more when they have been able to feed not just me. I struggle. I win some, I lose some. That’s life.
Wildlife lives in the hands of fate, chance, adaptability, and resilience. As I shrug off the human world and disappear into my garden, I feel a strange peace that comes with the knowing that I am part of this little ecosystem. The joys and sorrows of a wild life enthrall me, and I find that I would rather feel the intensity of the sun, sting of mosquito bites, and sweat on my brow than the comfort of an air-conditioned room.