Thursday, November 17, 2011

Black bears are returning, and I like it

(Ben G, a bear cub who lived in our house for a few weeks, a long time ago.)

I've waited 31 years for this day.  And then this week it happened.  We had definite evidence of a black bear in the neighborhood.  Two neighbors reported damage in their backyard that can only come from a bear, and one had the unmistakeable photo of muddy bear prints on his deck.  Bears have been reported sporadically in my county for about a decade or so.  I always assumed it was probably a young male who had dispersed from Pennsylvania to the south, but then a sow with cubs was spotted a couple of years ago.  Bears are definitely here now.  (New York State has always had three viable bear populations: on the Allegany Plateau in southwestern NY, the Catskill Mountains, and the Adirondacks.  But bears were extirpated in the rest of the state more than a century ago.)

We moved into our home in the young forest of upstate New York in 1980, when the trees on our property were only about 20 years old.  The hill on which we live had been a cattle pasture until 1960, so when the cattle were removed, trees with wind-blown seeds started to invade.  The forest was not very impressive, as forests go, for our first decade or two there.  But then, it began to look and feel like a real forest.  The trees got larger, dead trees fell over from wind or disease and began accumulating on the ground, patches of ferns and mosses and forest wildflowers like trout lily began to flourish.  Ash and maple and aspen were beginning to be replaced with oaks and hickories.  If I could just live another couple hundred years, I would really be impressed at the maturity that can only come with time.

But our 12 acres is not an island.  Our property is contiguous with hundreds of acres of more mature woodland, some of it part of a state forest.  So the bear template was in place on the landscape; it only needed to get older, more bear-like.  The habitat on my hill is no longer great for pheasants, grouse, or cottontails; it is now habitat for turkeys and bears and a wonderful variety of woodland songbirds.  All we needed was to add a couple of bears from Pennsylvania and, voila, you have the start of a viable bear population.

In the early 1980s I stood in front of the picture window in our living room and told my wife that before we leave here I'll bet we see a bear from this window.  Well, that has not happened yet, but it will.  It's getting close now.

For this old naturalist and nature lover, why is it important to have bears back in this ecosystem?   There is something special when you live or spend time in an environment where all or most of the biotic elements are still there.  In the case of bears, it adds a certain mystic or mystery to the forest that was not there before.  I don't have trilliums in my forest either, but their addition would not increase my wonderment nearly as much as having bears.  There is also an element of danger, of now having to look over your shoulder once in a while.  Not as intense as some places.  I spent a little time in East Africa, where there are elephants, buffalo, and lions, animals that can kill you in a New York minute.  And although black bears kill about as many people in North America every decade as grizzly bears (, the cost/benefit ratio of having black bears here is tolerable for me. (Because black bears are found in virtually every state, and grizzlies are found in only a few, the encounter rate between humans and black bears is much higher than the encounter rate with grizzly bears.  Only a tiny percentage of these encounters results in an attack).

In the eastern U.S., we sanitized the environment several centuries ago.  We cleared almost all of the forest, we shot or trapped all the big predators, we made the world safe for toddlers.  Western Europe has been this way for a long time; scenic pastoral vistas, but boring as hell biologically.  We were on our way to becoming as "safe" as western Europe, but the return of bears suggests we might be able to save some of what we almost lost.  Now, let's see what we can do about wolves and cougars.

Monday, November 14, 2011

My personal ambivalence on Veterans Day

(GIs raising the flag during WWII.)

Last week we "celebrated" the day when the country recognizes our military veterans.  I am a veteran of the Vietnam era, although I was sent to Korea instead.  I abhorred the idea of having to go in the first place, I never wanted to be there after I got inducted, and I couldn't wait until it was over.  Because of my reticence about the entire experience, I never allow myself to feel proud for having served.  While I am technically a veteran, I never feel like one.

In 1968, I was drafted into the Army, but then enlisted instead of accepting the draft.  In those days, you had 30 days to make this decision once you received your draft notice.  Enlisting meant that I had some choice over what I might do for an "occupation" in the Army, but it meant spending three years in the service instead of two.  That is, you paid for getting a little choice (no guarantee) by spending an extra year in the military.  I wanted to accept the draft and take my chances, but my wife insisted I enlist and get some choice.  She didn't want me to end up in the infantry serving in Vietnam, but I did not want to spend more time in the Army than I had to spend.  The biggest disagreement we have had in 43 years of marriage occurred over this issue only two months after getting married that year.  We argued, she won, and I enlisted for three years.  In hindsight, she was correct as usual.  I was one of the lucky ones.

I relate the disagreement between my wife and me as an admission that I did not want to be in the military, I considered it a waste of three years of my life, and I rebuked the idea that our country should have gone to Vietnam in the first place.  Therefore, I never feel as though Veterans Day relates to me in any meaningful way.  On that day, I mostly think about WWII vets, my father's generation, and the incredible sacrifice they had to endure to fight a global war that was justifiable.

The Vietnam era presented a serious dilemma for hundreds of thousands of young men who did not want to serve, and who did not want to go to Vietnam.  My friend and college roommate dropped out of university, was drafted, and six months later was killed in Vietnam.  He saw his 4-month old baby only once.  My mother and my wife's parents disagreed with our belief that the war was not justified; my wife and I praised the anti-war demonstrators while our parents cursed them, although with the passage of time they came to agree with us.

As a result of this internal conflict in draft-age males, some men simply checked out of American society and left the country for Canada.  Some of them figured out a way to fake the results of their physical exam so they could fail.  Some joined the National Guard so they could remain in the states.  Some had important relatives or friends who could influence local draft boards.  Some went AWOL after being inducted.  Others did as they were told, and were later killed or wounded in Vietnam.  Now, three decades later, we have a Vietnam War Memorial that stirs more emotions in me than any monument I've ever seen, and Americans happily vacation in Vietnam.

Sometimes governments force individuals to make decisions about their lives that are almost impossible to satisfy.  Deciding whether to participate in a war is probably the most poignant, because the costs to individuals are huge and measurable, and the benefits are rarely clear.  But on Veterans Day we honor those who served, without being able to comprehend the complex set of emotions that is certainly still within them.  With the benefit of hindsight and age, the reasons for our earlier choices become clearer. If we had to make those same decisions today armed with a lifetime of observations of the world and the way it works, they might not be so difficult.  But when 20-year olds are encouraged or forced by national policy to make these same decisions, the responsibility for their choices should rest with us all.