Saturday, October 8, 2011

Birthday column rerun from 1997

First printed 10/31/97 in
The Morning News
of Northwest Arkansas

Aubrey's Notebook:
The real horror of this Halloween
Conservation lessons still unlearned

The privilege of writing a column to be published on one's birthday is no small gift. Having that privilege on one's 57th birthday is even more special. Birthdays are a time for reflection – a time to consider the heritage our generation will pass on to the next.

It may seem eerily appropriate that a Halloween birthday column must sometimes be frightening or at best depressing. Nearly a decade ago, my Halloween column was a brief eulogy for one of my favorite outdoorsmen – Dr. Charles C. Chadbourn Jr., a college English professor at Louisiana Tech University and later a resident of Fayetteville, Arkansas, who encouraged me to follow in his professional footsteps and helped me develop the tools to teach and to write. And, despite my continuing love and gratitude for life, this column may be equally sad to compose. When I started writing about the outdoors for Arkansas newspapers some 25 years ago, I believed that outdoor writers had one major responsibility – to help protect the natural resources on which the outdoor sports depend. The horrible thing is that threats to those resources continue after all these years. Whether labeled conservationists or environmentalists, outdoor writers almost universally agree that trying to prevent degradation of water, woods and every type of wildlife habitat is the basic redeeming value of their work. Certainly, we report on and even promote fishing, bird watching, hunting, game-calling, hiking, camping, photography, spelunking, swimming, rafting, canoeing, repelling, pigeon racing, arrow-head, rock, leaf and driftwood collecting, wild-flower identification, horsemanship, rowing, power boating and sailing – as well as dog training for obedience trials, hunting tests and conformation shows – in order to share our pleasure in these and numerous other outdoor activities. We write about recreational sports such as running, bicycling and race-walking whether they involve competition or pure exercise.

But, without the outdoor enthusiast's vested interest in high-quality habitat, the writer might be nothing more than an entertainer. Such motivation is the key to writing about outdoor activities with accuracy and enthusiasm. Healthy habitat for human beings and other living creatures is a necessity for these activities to remain possible. That's why we even promote modern methods of farming, manufacturing and building in order to discourage practices that destroy habitat. Fish and wildlife depend on more than drinkable water and unpopulated space.

A cement-lined ditch seldom harbors fish. Open space devoid of mature, diverse vegetation seldom holds wildlife.

Streams that people are anxious to swim in are likely to provide habitat for healthy fish that people can eat safely. Mature forests that provide shade for human activity and are aesthetically pleasing also are likely to foster numerous birds and animals. Unfortunately, relatively few people without some interest in outdoor recreation are likely to understand the full importance of natural habitat.

A person who has caught fish or killed game animals for food is likely to develop a sense of awareness of the value of healthy habitat. Until very recently, practically everyone knew we depend on the rest of creation. Our ancestors caught, killed, trapped or gathered much of their food even after beginning to cultivate crops and domesticate sheep, chickens, cattle and such.

Because beautiful woods and waterways are usually healthy and productive, the conservation movement of 100 or more years ago, which preceded and did the groundwork for the environmental movement of the past 40 years, was started by outdoor-sports enthusiasts.

Many people feel compelled to fight to keep groundwater pure because they want drinkable water in their wells or because they want to protect the fish and wildlife that depend on that water. But people who think damming streams to create reservoirs and treating the water with chemicals and pumping it hither and yon is as good as being able to drink from springs and wells simply aren't going to fight the creation of landfills or insist on recycling and composting as ardently as those who value the opportunity to live naturally and who believe that all species have the right to exist.

Now, I love a baseball field about as much as a person can love anything made by mankind. I'm even sympathetic to those who like football fields, soccer fields, golf courses, tennis courts and rugby fields. But unnecessarily clearing ground is a sin to me. An area of mowed grass is almost a wasteland for wildlife. It's better than graveled surfaces, which are better than paved surfaces. But fleas, moles and such are about the only species that can relate well to frequently mowed grassland.

A hay meadow, mowed maybe twice a year, can still provide safe nesting for birds and rabbits whose timing is good, of course. But a field of native grass with diverse wildflowers is as valuable to many species as are the hardwood forests that provide the most productive wildlife habitat on the continent. That's why a major tenet of the conservation movement always has been that no vegetation should be removed if it can be left alone.

Of particular importance to both fish and wildlife is the vegetation along the edge of streams, natural lakes, ponds and reservoirs. Many species of fish spawn successfully only in years when water levels are high enough to overflow and cover a certain amount of shoreline vegetation.

Twenty years ago, fishermen were begging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Power Authority to keep water levels high through the spring on all the reservoirs in the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains of Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas to flood the shoreline vegetation and improve fish populations.

Simultaneously, stream-fishing enthusiasts and canoeists were begging state and federal authorities to protect a wide band of mature timber along every river and creek in the area. Duck hunters and others who appreciate waterfowl were working to get those who manage both private and public land along lowland streams to understand the value of keeping wetland habitat pristine.

Such efforts continue. Even many city-dwellers, now the majority in the Ozarks, have begun to realize that turning tree-lined streams into ditches is just as wrong in cities as in rural areas. Urban-wildlife sanctuaries are replacing carefully landscaped backyards in many neighborhoods.

A person who understands the interdependence of all species doesn't have to hunt or fish to know that habitat must be kept as natural as possible if life is to survive. The destruction of rain forests and jungles in Africa, Asia and South America is blamed for climatic changes that could affect all of us.

But the horror of habitat destruction hits us much harder when a neighbor removes a tree that has provided a shady nook on our side of the fence and may even have saved us a few hundred dollars a summer by reducing the need to air-condition our home. Or maybe driving to work one day becomes less pleasant and relaxing because trees have been cleared from a hillside or a pasture or meadow has been leveled and paved to make space for one more parking lot for another unnecessary commercial establishment, subdivision or apartment complex.

If everyone could grow up hunting, fishing and working a garden, maybe there would be no one willing to destroy the best our area offers – the things that were here when the first settlers arrived. So, when outdoor writers struggle to find words to share the true joy of favorite activities, forgive them if they drift into a conservationist's sermon.

Sometimes, the process of educating the public to appreciate what we were given as inhabitants of this earth seems too slow. We just feel compelled to urge people to stop destroying and start preserving things without which we never could have gotten where we are.

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