Written nearly 20 years ago some articles still have a valuable message. This is one.
It has been said that the one thing that is constant is change. This is true for both the human experience and wildlife on this great planet. However, human influence on earth has created change that does not allow natural evolution to keep pace. The rawest of all examples would be that it took the human race three million years to gradually build to a population of two and a half billion in 1940. It only took the next fifty years for that population to double to about five million in 1990. And in the next fifteen years it reached 6 billion. At current rates human population are expected to reach 10 billion by 2020! As our population has increased so has our influence of the natural world on this planet. Human use of natural resources has increased correspondingly, technology has exploded to allow us to serve ourselves more efficiently, and the traces of the human “fingerprint” can be found in every nook and cranny on earth.
We humans consider ourselves to be an intelligent species even though, frequently, there is no corresponding behavior to allow one to come to that same conclusion. We are just now beginning to understand that our influence on the earth extends beyond the world of our own needs. Slowly, ever so slowly, we are coming to the realization that we are a part of a larger system and, although we are certainly near the top of the evolutionary heap, we have a definite responsibility as stewards of our planet’s environment. Although that responsibility extends throughout the planet, we must begin in our own backyard.
Living within, rather than above, the rest of the natural world is a concept that has become foreign with the advent of human “civilization”. Yet, strangely, we only have to look as far as our own five senses to understand that solutions to our dilemma are at hand.
Here in New England we are truly blessed with wild places and beautiful natural environments. That is not to say that humans have not had their influences, but rather our influence has not yet extinguished many of the natural systems around us. We are blessed with plentiful, clean, water. We are blessed with diverse forests, open fields, and unspoiled wetlands. These environments support and maintain the natural system that many of us enjoy. For example, clean, highly oxygenated water supports our native char, the brook trout. Diverse forests support many animal species ranging from the wood turtle to the black bear. Open fields provide habitat for field nesting birds, predatory habitat for hawks, owls, and coyotes, and browsing for white tailed deer. Our wetlands supports reptiles, amphibians, waterfowl, mink, and countless invertebrates.
One of the many things that we share in common with much of the rest of the animal kingdom is something we humans refer to as senses. Humans have five of these senses in our ability to see, hear, feel while touching, smell, and taste. Each of these contribute to how we experience the world. All animals have some of these to different degrees. Some senses, like sight and hearing, might be better developed in some animal species, while others like touch may not be as well developed in some other species. Some animals may experience senses that we humans are not apparently aware of. For instance, a bird’s ability to experience magnetic fields during migration is way beyond what most humans are capable of.
Nevertheless, we do share the experience of the world through our senses with the rest of the animal kingdom. It has occurred to me that perhaps we can use our own senses to preserve create a better environment for the other species with whom we share our planet. It may be just a matter of learning how to translate our sensual experience into something that other species can also experience in a positive way.
Take sight for example. Most animals have a strong need to see and be unseen. This is why evolution has provided natural camouflage for many of our animal species. We humans, as willing stewards, can aid other animals by providing habitats that will help both prey and predators. When we are managing our fields we can leave areas of brush along the edge to provide escape and predatory habitat. When we work in our forests we can leave understory plants and create brush habitats for the same purpose. When we are landscaping our yards we can create an edge or ecotone that will help wildlife navigate around human habitats.
Hearing is another important sense that we can pay attention to in sharing our environment with the rest of the animal kingdom. Many animals use hearing to alert themselves of danger. Loud sounds will often send them into an escape mode, interrupting their normal behavior patterns. Yet, most animals are adaptable and once they get used to a sound will learn to recognize a sound as nonthreatening. This may be true but humans would be better stewards if we regulated behavior so as to create the least disruption of animal behavior patterns. People who use all terrain vehicles can stay to established routes. Hikers can learn to trek through the woods quietly which will also increase their ability to experience wildlife. In general, we can all learn to tone it down quite a bit remembering that our sounds are being experienced by the rest of the natural world in a way that is different fro our experience.
Like humans, many wildlife species has a fine appreciation for food that tastes good. When humans disrupt a natural environment by creating a house lot, managing our forest products, or altering an area through recreational use we often unknowingly remove valuable food and forage that wildlife enjoys and is, in fact, essential for their survival. To ameliorate this we can plant fruit bearing plants, manage landscapes with native plants that will be utilized by wildlife, and manage our human influences by maintaining plant species diversity to help ensure wildlife forage that will promote their well being.
The world of touch is important to a variety of wildlife. Different animals require different textures, moisture regimes, and diverse habitats. Maintenance of a variety of habitats such as field, forests, wetlands, gravel nesting areas, and aquatic environments is necessary for animal species diversity. Diversity is the most important measure of an overall healthy environment.
The human sense of smell is one of our weaker senses, as compared to many wildlife species. Canines and bears have a sense of smell that is hundreds, even thousands of times, more potent than our sense of smell. Our impact of their world of smell through the use of machinery, wood smoke, automobile exhaust, and industry is staggering. All of these can be lessened, although probably not eliminated, in our modern world. It is a sense that humans know little about given it is one of our weaker senses.
Using our five senses is a simple way of minimizing our impact on our fellow inhabitants of this great planet. It is a simple way of reminding ourselves that we humans should be responsible for the preservation of this place we call earth. We must tread lightly in all respects if we are to maintain a good relationship with the natural world. After all, this bubble in space we call earth is the only place we have to live. With respect, and common sense(s), it could be a precious place for all to inhabit for eons and eons.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in September of 1993.