For the past week our neighborhood has been filled with the sounds of, what I call, destruction. A large bulldozer, bucket truck, two dump trucks, a tandem truck, chain saws, and three workers have been busy clearing a lot for a house. The pine trees on the lot were virgin timber, and some of them were at least eighty years old, but they stood no chance against the modern machines of man. What could not be ripped from the earth was cut at its base, added to the pile of long, now dead, pine trees that would soon be hauled to the saw mill. All that remains, waiting for the builders, is a building lot devoid of any vegetation save two dogwoods that were, mercifully, spared. The Iredell red clay bakes in the sun as will the house of the new owner following this slashing of forest.
The owner has every right to do as he or she wishes with the lot. However, I wish that he or she had spared some of the pines because they would have provided cooling shade on Lake Norman; offered homes for animals, especially the brown-headed nuthatches, and squirrels would have scampered across the trunks, and chipmunks would have offered entrainment as they scurried for food. Yes, animals will return if the owner installs plants and trees. But the pines are native to the lot and certain animals favor them for food and shelter. Some may say that is just too bad, but I think it unnecessary. With some thinking and planning, a lovely lake-front home could have been tucked into the mix of Lake Norman and virgin pines.
This activity recalls the 1879 poem, Binsey Poplars, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, in which he writes, “O if we but knew what we do/ When we delve or hew-/Hack and rack the growing green!” Hopkins wrote against the cutting of a row of poplars along a dirt lane leading to the small village of Binsey, just up the Thames River from Oxford. He wrote of axes, hand saws, but men still were doing the removing, just as today on Lake Norman.
In his well-researched and written book Darwin Comes to Town, Menno Schilthuizen, writes of urban centers affecting animal and plant evolution. He writes of crows in Sendai, Japan learning to use car wheels as nutcrackers at busy intersections; explains why some pigeons in the same cities have darker grey feathers than others; shares the details of the spread of the Japanese knotweed and other invasive plants; explains how some birds have evolved louder voices to compensate for the din of traffic; and of certain birds finding a good way to recycle cigarette butts. However, Schilthuizen writes of more than evolution in world urban areas. He gives us history, too, and while some of it may be well-known, such as the blue and great tits of England learning to open milk bottles on stoops to get to the rich layer of cream at the top, some of the history was not as familiar-at least for me. As a bird lover I have often been angered by the antics of the starling, but after reading Schilthuizen’s book I have a person to whom to direct my frustration. It seems that Eugene Schieffelin and his group, the American Acclimatization Society which saw its calling to “improve” North America by releasing “such foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting.” And, as I had known, Schieffelin, wanted to bring to America every bird mentioned in Shakespeare, so in 1890 and 1891 he released some eighty pairs of Hotspur’s starlings in New York City’s Central Park. The rest is misery for all but the pesky starling. Schilthuizen also offers to correct some possible misconceptions concerning the choosing of mates for an evolutionary premium. It seems that the great tits in Barcelona have narrower neckties than tits that live in the country. Since the male evolved for reasons of survival in the city, the urban female has evolved in her way of choosing a mate. While writing about mating, Schilthuizen writes that in some species the female invests more in choosing a mate so that her off-spring will have the best genes. But being the honest scientist, Schilthuizen writes, “Males, on the other hand, often do not invest as much as females. For many a male, choosing the wrong female may come at a cost no greater than an ejaculate and a few wasted minutes.” As a male reader I had to admit that truth.
In Darwin, we encounter many researchers of the world. One, Marina Alberti, is quoted, “I think that the human species is changing the genetic makeup of the planet. We have both the responsibility and the opportunity to co-evolve with other organisms.” Alberti’s work is discussed in almost the last chapter of the book, and I think that is for the reason that her work demonstrates the larger point of Schilthuizen: our world’s urban centers continue to expand; thus, they have a huge influence on the earth and Alberti’s quotation explains it well. We, more intelligent animals, have, as she writes, have a responsibility and opportunity to do the right thing for our only earth and its animals and plants.
I was told by a neighbor that the builder of the new house promised to plant some big trees and shrubs after he builds his house. That is fine, and I hope all the chosen plants are native to this area. However, the brown headed nuthatch has been driven away because it lives and breeds in pine forests, like the old growth pines that now lay in the red clay. Hopkins writes of man’s destruction of nature in 1879; Schilthuizen writes of nature and man’s urban centers in 2018; while one builder destroys in a week what took at least eighty years to grow. Read Schilthuizen and learn how we can do better.