Nature Notes: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Let’s face it, we’ve made one humongous mess of things
Pink-blooming swamp milkweeds can be seen in the foreground of this pastoral shot of the south end of Long Pond. Jean Held

Nature itself, left alone without human interference, is what you might call wondrously beautiful in all respects. Even natural death has its positive side. Nothing goes to waste; everything is recycled. Then, humans came along and began to spoil it. Try as we may to recycle, not everything — many plastics, for example — is recyclable. Let’s face it, we’ve made one humongous mess of things and we have very little time before the lights go out to make it right again.

Yes, we can dump the old Tappan Zee Bridge parts into the ocean and create reefs for fishes and other marine organisms, but will a concrete and iron mass ever approach a true coral reef in beauty and functionality? Never. It’s one way to get rid of our junk. China is full of our junk and it is beginning to say, “no more.” We live in a consumer society and the rate at which we consume and jettison nonrecyclable stuff is growing astronomically as our world population continues to grow in pace. 

When I look at a group of deer — does and fawns — feeding quietly in the afternoon sun in the Rock Foundation’s green fields on the north side of Further Lane in East Hampton — I think to myself, “How exquisite.” Somebody else might come along after me and think, “Look at those bastards.” It’s the kind of world we live in. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? Fine arts — say, the celebration of millenniums of human aesthetics — have become so abstract that some of us no longer find them beauteous, just as some of us no longer find nature beauteous.

I’d like to ask the robin on the lawn how it sees the world, but we speak different languages. That male Baltimore oriole singing its territorial song high above in the oak tree is quite beautiful to most viewers and listeners, but what is its concept of beauty? A leaf full of gypsy moth worms just waiting to be gobbled down? Again, we speak different languages.

Most of us humans have a couple of years of preschool, 12 years of elementary, middle, and high school (some more than that), then, perhaps, four years of college and finally graduate school. Some of us spend 20 years or more learning this and that special discipline, but still have problems behaving properly. We take drugs, smoke, drink too much, then discover that our role models are as defective or more so than we are. Meanwhile, nature is always there waiting in the wings for us to recover, for better or for worse.

We don’t know for sure, but we think that the birds nesting in the bushes at the edge of our property lead much simpler lives. They court, build nests, lay eggs, incubate them, feed young, and fledge them. We, on the other hand, struggle with housework, paperwork, getting this or that fixed, corresponding, nurturing, answering robo calls or removing spam and trash from our cellphones, driving here and there and back, making ends meet, and the like. Yet we are the most advanced species in the evolutionary hierarchy. It doesn’t make sense that we do so much and have so much to do, does it?

As I grow old and visit more and more doctors, I’ve noticed that landscapes are the most common pictures in doctors’ offices. I find them pleasing to look at while I wait to be diagnosed. I don’t watch American mysteries on TV because the backdrops are mostly urban streets and buildings, but instead watch British ones over and over just to take in the pleasing and peaceful scenery. In a way, the British ones are more gory, but the juxtaposition of the ugliness and the beauteous countryside, even as seen at night, keeps me enraptured.

We are told over and over that we are the most advanced of God’s creatures, yet we kill and harm one another with abandon, whether in wars, on highways, or clandestinely. And most of us live in cities, 24.5 million in Shanghai, nearly 9 million in New York City by last count. Cities are the smoggiest spots in the world. Some — such as Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh — are so bad one has to keep a respirator handy just to survive. More than a million of us gather in Times Square annually to ring in the New Year. Obviously we are mostly homophilic, we like to be with our own kind, no matter the consequences.

Birds that are territorial while breeding often become gregarious when migrating or spending the nonbreeding season in the tropics. Indeed, passenger pigeons before the turn of the 19th century were as common as starlings and blackbirds are today, so homophilic that it led to their collective downfall and subsequent extinction.

When the ospreys come back from South America, Central America, and the Caribbean in late March and early April, they must heave a sigh of relief when they find their old nest poles still standing. Some may have been tilted by northeasters, but none have been bulldozed to make room for new buildings. I bet for them, it’s sort of like when I came home to rural Mattituck on the North Fork from Oakland, Calif., after being discharged from the Army. No barracks, superhighways, tall concrete buildings, just green trees and verdant fields.

It’s hard for me to hold a bustling urban scene in my head long enough to frame it in my cerebrum. A pastoral scene on the other hand is easily farmable and can last forever. If Beethoven were alive today, could he have composed his sixth symphony? That music called hip-hop which has been around for almost a half century now and is still going strong is anything but pastoral; it’s suggestive of life being lived at a frantic pace, life in bars, elevators, subways, crossing city streets, hollering for taxis and the like. But, Norway rats don’t seem to mind it at all.

After the last bomb has fallen, the last high rise has been smashed to smithereens, and hip-hop has become a faint memory, these rodents from Eurasia that are uniquely adapted to thrive in such harsh and uninviting environments will do fine, just like the fish that will take to the old rusting Tappan Zee parts once they are cast into the waters off Long Island.

The knowledge that not a single one of us Homo sapiens will live forever on this planet or any other may be the best saving grace of the lot!

Larry Penny can be reached via email at