The Bob White Quail was once a popular game bird in the southern US though now their populations are dwindling to near extinction. We would occasionally spot them on the ranch where we lived last year. I have a bit of an environmentalist streak in me and I started asking questions about where they were going.
Quail like all animals, hold a specific niche in their ecosystem. And while understanding the complexities of how one living thing relates to all other living things is impossible to quantify, research pointed to habitat loss.
And while shopping centers going up where a forest once stood was part of the problem, the more significant habitat loss seemed to be in the form of changes to the forests themselves. Saplings and bushes which make up the new growth, referred to as the “understory,” where quail would normally nest was missing. And where there was growth often native plants were absent, replaced by more vigorous and less palatable (that is if you are an animal that eats plants) invasive species.
This brings us to the White Tail Deer. Our beloved Bambi it seems has been reproducing at astronomical rates in the last few decades and now is one of the most significant threats to the diversity of our ecosystems. As deer populations begin to exceed the food supply, deer over graze, eating everything in sight including all the saplings and bushes where quail (and other birds) make their homes. They prefer native plants first, clearing these and then helping to spread foreign and invasive species.
Beyond the destruction of forests the overpopulation of deer is having other damaging effects. There are over 1 million car accidents due to deer every year leading to over 100 human deaths. And deer are eating over 200 million dollars a year in damage to agriculture. Plus with their increased population density they spread diseases rapidly, leading to a rise in tick borne diseases like Lyme.
This is brings us to the wolf. The foe of every fairy tale and the natural predator of the deer. Historically the most widespread mammal in the world, wolves have now been eliminated from Western Europe and Mexico and had been near extinction in the US. In the late 1800’s westward expansion lead to a decline in wild game and livestock began filling up the American landscape. Livestock then became the natural food source for wolves and wolves then became the obvious enemy to ranchers and land owners. So they joined hand with politicians and began a campaign to eliminate wolves from the US. They were shot, trapped and poisoned until there were almost none left. All in the name or protecting the public and taming the West.
By the 1960’s the conservation movement began. Researchers were noticing how ecosystems had changed and recognized that to maintain biodiversity we needed wolves and large predators.
And so America launched a new campaign. This one cost millions of dollars to re-introduce wolves to our forests (yes the same wolves that a few decades before we had been set on annihilating).
Research in Yellowstone is encouraging, with the addition of the wolf, deer herds size is controlled, and animals are healthier (wolves typically eat the sick or weaker animals helping the genetic make up of the herd) and bio diversity is increasing as grasslands and saplings begin to regenerate. It would seem that if deer are controlled, along with some other environmental practices we still have a chance of maintaining Bob White Quail and the many other birds whose populations of been on the decline.
This story came to mind a few weeks ago while reading Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk with The Liturgy of Life Reading Group. Of course there is a lot more to be said about quail and deer and wolves (and if you are an environmental scientist I apologize for over simplifying this so much), but what I want to share a thought from Norris,
“. . . contemporaries are never the best judges of what works and what doesn’t.”
Norris is describing monastics and the slowness to which they approach change. In many ways the monastic lifestyle feels antiquated to us, with their dark cassocks and and silent ways, they seem like a remnant of medieval times that borders on irrelevant.
But what monastics understand is that even a small change today, the wording of a prayer or the requirements of dress, will live on, speaking to, and forming the generations to come who will practice it.
We can’t help but live in the present and make decisions today about the world around us. But predicting how the future will be shaped by the choices we make involves a bit of wishful thinking. When we set out to create a safer country by eliminating wolves we had little understanding of the implications of what we were actually doing.
We can look back at our nation’s and our church’s choices, some make us swell with pride while others leave us hanging our heads in shame, yet both, at some point, were touted as great ideas.
The American Church today may have something to learn from monastics. We who have been quick to shrik traditions for the sake of personal freedom, perhaps without fully understanding the role that the tradition played in protecting our faith. We have inadvertently paved the way for a society that values individualism above all things, even at times to our own detriment.
Looking forward it seems will always keep us guessing, but perhaps by looking back, at the patterns and trends we have seen in our history, we may gain a healthier insight into the wisdom or folly of the decisions we make today.
This post is part of a series of reflections on The Cloister Walk which we are reading as part of the Liturgy of Life Reading group. We would love to hear from you or have you read and ponder along with us.