Nature Notes: Going Nowhere

Nature is much deeper, much more mysterious, much more complicated than in my naive view of it

I just read in today’s New York Times that Nashville has a case of the demolition blues. I may have the same sickness. I also read a reminiscence by Beth Howard, a writer who rented the little farmhouse in Eldon, Iowa, made famous by Grant Wood’s 1930 painting “American Gothic.” Two American themes going in the opposite direction.

 I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching the BBC series “Blue Planet II.” As a trained ecologist I thought I knew just about everything in nature and how it worked. Wrong! It turns out that nature is much deeper, much more mysterious, much more complicated than in my naive view of it. It is as if we have only scratched the surface. When one adds up all of the species of flora and fauna and all of the microbes, the number of which is increasing every day as new life is discovered, together with the geology, oceanography, hydrology, climatology, and meteorology, not to mention subatomic particles, all acting and reacting in unison with every single tick of the clock, one can be completely overwhelmed, but pleasantly so. 

It is always more rewarding to discover what you don’t know than what you already know or think you know.

In our individual snapshots of life as witnessed through our senses and devices, we know a great deal, yes, but only a tiny bit of what there is to discover if we lived forever. What little we do know about the expansion (or contraction) of the cosmos is fascinating and, some would say, a reason for living.

As an evolving species, ever since we fashioned and used the first tool, we have been changing behaviorally at a rapid rate. Look around. Other species stay put. If they were to change their minimalist cultures as we change ours, we would be beside ourselves. If robins didn’t return each spring, if deciduous trees didn’t leaf out, if the flowers in our gardens didn’t bloom, if the sun didn’t rise and set at precise times throughout the year, we would be lost, and no doubt go crazy in a very short time. Our sense of reality and, yes, saneness is based on all of the natural phenomena around us. If the moon stopped rising and setting, the tides and waves became still, the winters became hot and the summers ice-cold, we would be lost.

If you grew up in a small spot on the Earth as I did in Mattituck on the North Fork, you became part of the slow human rhythm controlling such places. You got used to that rhythm and felt at home in it, drew confidence and meaning from it. The flora and fauna were part of that rhythm. The spring birds came back and began singing their territorial songs and building circular nests out of pieces of vegetation. Earthworms came up from the ground. Trees leafed out in the spring, became brilliant come fall, then dropped their leaves, and the ambience became drab and somnolent. And we small-town inhabitants (hicks?) became somnolent as well. We didn’t try to be otherwise. In today’s parlance, we went with the flow.

Today, our environment is changing so rapidly that we are beginning to lose our rhythms. One goes away for a year or two, comes back, and there next door, an old familiar house is gone, the neighbor with it, a new, much larger one stands in its place, and fierce outside lights stare down at you at night from the second story. Down the block a bit, there is a new spa, a huge building with rows and rows of locomotory machines with rows and rows of people walking on them but going nowhere. The corner grocery store has a “for sale” sign on it. A ride through the countryside is no longer a ride through the countryside. One shiny new big house after another stand in a row. They block out the view of the fields you came to know as you passed them year after year, season after season.

That bayman, a longstanding friend of yours, who eked out a living with his rakes, traps, and seines one year after another, finding something to fish for every day, and every once in a while leaving some clams or a sea bass on your doorstep, has moved to North Carolina, where it is much warmer and cheaper. 

That familiar back road that was bordered by shoulders with bird’s-foot violets and lupine in the spring, asters and goldenrods in September, now has grassy shoulders, and behind them, miles of fences and lawns where there used to be only native shrubs and trees. The road has become so well traveled by motor vehicles that one can smell the exhaust plume they leave.

That wood thrush that used to sing so prettily each May morn outside your window has been replaced by starlings. The brown thrasher is gone. In the evening you don’t hear the whippoorwill. They used to keep you awake, but now you miss them.

Come late fall when all of the leaves have fallen, you begin to hear a new continuous noise, loud and obnoxious: The lawn mowers have turned silent, but the leaf blowers are out in force. The leaf rake has become a thing of the past, of yard sales and antiques shops.

You begin to take stock of the differences as you struggle to maintain your rural rhythm. In your old neighborhood, where there once were baymen, carpenters, and other tradesmen, there are now seasonal comers and goers, night-lighted driveways, fancy cars, hedges, and a deer fence or two. And, oh yes, they all have that familiar yellow tag at the edge of the road shoulder advertising a recent pesticide treatment.

And where you used to know everyone on your block, you suddenly realize that you now know very few people living there. And they speak a different English than that which you heard when you were growing up. Almost no one says “yes, yes” and “finest kind” anymore, and they speak so fast, it’s hard to understand them.

Yes, yes, things have changed and the rate of change is accelerating. It can be very upsetting. Makes one want to stay inside during much of the year. To keep from going mad, every once in a while I take a trip back to Mattituck, where they still role the streets up by 8:30 every evening. Little has changed. There are still lots of farm fields and houses, and few fences. It is quiet and sublime, for the most part. It makes me wonder if the Baltimore orioles will return to my Noyac yard this May as they have done every year since I moved here in 1979. If they don’t, I will miss them sorely.


Larry Penny can be reached via email at