‘We share our lives with these beautiful creatures…. ‘ Turtles on the tarmac : Questioning our relationship with Nature

JFK International Airport
Image via Wikipedia

Originally called ‘As We Seek Nature, We Wall It Out’ by guest blogger Diane Ackerman. 

Never mess with a female ready to give birth. A guest blog in The International Herald Tribune. Below, the blog inspired many comments…

~ From: There is this ambivalence about nature. For example, many fear and loathe wolves, though from what I have read, a true attack on a human being is rare, almost unheard of. Yet we happily welcome dogs into our lives, a direct descendant of the wolf.

To…. The most ridiculous premise in this ever present argument is that Humans are not part of Nature – that we are alien to earth.
We must be exterminated to avoid the death of nature?

Graced by beautiful rings and ridges on their shells, diamondbacks look like a field of galaxies on the move. They inhabit neither freshwater nor sea, but the brackish slurry of coastal marshes. Mating in the spring, they need to lay their eggs on land, so in June and July they migrate to the sandy dunes of Jamaica Bay. The shortest route leads straight across the tarmac at Kennedy International Airport.

Never mess with a female ready to give birth. On June 29, more than 150 diamondback terrapins scuttled across Runway No. 4, delaying landings, halting takeoffs, foiling air traffic controllers, crippling timetables and snarling traffic for hours. Cold-blooded reptiles they may be, but they are also ardent and single-minded.

Don’t the plucky turtles notice the jets? Probably not as monsters. Even with polka-dot necks stretched out, diamondbacks don’t peer up very high. And unlike, say, lions, they don’t have eyes that dart after fast-moving prey. So the jets probably blur into background — more of a blowy weather system than a threat. But planes generate a lot of heat, and the turtles surely find the crossing stressful.

Mounted on the shoreline of Jamaica Bay and a federally protected park, indeed almost surrounded by water, J.F.K. occupies land where wildlife abounds, and it’s no surprise that planes have collided with gulls, hawks, swans, geese, and osprey. Or that every summer there’s another turtle stampede, sometimes creating two-hour delays.

People around the world became obsessed with the plight of the quixotic turtles, a drama biblical in its proportions (slow, sweater-necked Samsons vs. steely Goliaths). It defied reason that small reptiles would take on whirring leviathans whose gentlest tap may crush them and whose breath can blow them to kingdom come.

Many people also felt a quiver of disquiet, of something elemental out of place. Supposedly, in our snug, walled-in cities, we’re keeping nature in check, growing docile plants, adopting pets and erecting a buffer of steel and cement. If wild turtles can find their way into suburbia, can larger animals be far behind, ones with fangs and teeth, whose red eyes pierce the night?

The answer is yes; it happens more often than one supposes. Chicago is home to hundreds of coyotes, which have been tracked near strip malls, in parks, and even in residential neighborhoods. Last year, New Jersey hosted a six-day black bear hunt. Moose regularly pay house calls in Alaska, stomping into yards and onto porches, looking for grub. Giant antlers and all, they can leap chain-link fences. On many a golf course in Florida, alligators create an extra water hazard, and lakeside settlers know to keep their Chihuahuas indoors. Mountain lions forage in Montana cities; cougars stalk joggers in California; elk stroll through housing tracts in Colorado. At least one Brooklyn woman found a 7-foot-long python in her toilet. We forget that the animal kingdom is a circle of neighbors who often drop by unannounced.

The myth of our sprawly, paved-over cities and towns is that we’ve driven native animals out and stolen their habitat. Not entirely true. We may drain the marshes, level forests and replace meadows with malls, exiling some animals. But, because we also need nature, we create a new ecology that happens to be very hospitable to wild animals. In some ways, it’s more inviting than wilderness. We install ponds, lawns, groves of edible trees. We leave garbage on the curb and design flowerbeds that are well-watered and well-fed, serving a smorgasbord of delicacies.

We can’t help ourselves; we evolved to feel part of nature’s web. So we erect walls to keep nature out and take pride in scrubbing dirt and dust from our homes. Then we fill our houses with bouquets of flowers, adopt pets and scent absolutely everything that touches our lives. We seat windows in our walls, install seasons (air-conditioning and heat) and fasten at least one noonday sun in every room to shower us with light. Confusing, isn’t it?

In my hometown upstate, we’re blessed by lots of wild animal visitors, from star-nosed moles and foxes to eagles, otters and skunks. White-tailed deer are so numerous that they qualify as residents. Each year, I line up behind a dozen cars on a busy highway as a caravan of Canada goose chicks waddles across in a single line between guardian geese, apparently unfazed by motorized honking.

Like the turtles at J.F.K., they remind us that, even with egos of steel and concrete plans, we’re easily humbled by nature in the shape of snowflakes, goslings or turtles — all able to stop traffic. They also remind us how conflicted we really are about nature.

Diane Ackerman, whose recent books are “One Hundred Names for Love” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” is a guest columnist.

Some of the COMMENTS inspired by this blog ….

* I puzzle over the apparent paradox of people with both bird feeders and outdoor cats. I guess maybe that scenario doesn’t present a paradox — it could reflect an attempt imitate both nature’s nurturing aspect and predatory aspect. http://dictaobscura.wordpress.com/

You write beautifully, yet from one of your sentences in particular, I was left with the impression that somehow you view our making over our environment as sometimes good for some animals. We are the only animals who have truly altered our own landscape in a very lasting way. Millions of animals have died in the process and many will not ever live because what was once ‘their’ domain – and our primitive ancestors – is no more, buried under miles of asphalt and other alterations. Isn’t it sad that some brave souls try to save the last few of a species on the brink of extinction, breeding them in a safe compound with a hope to release them into a safe habitat in the future?

Nature cannot be improved upon, to think otherwise is somehow not really seeing things as they are, in my view.

* Our conflict with nature goes much deeper than ambivalence regarding wildlife. About wildlife, in fact, I’d argue we humans aren’t really all that conflicted. We want wild creatures to stay in the wild, in their “proper place,” which is away from cities, away from so-called civilization, away from us humans.

The deeper conflict is with our own natures, our impulses to claim territory, aggress on other creatures (including other humans), and take what we want regardless of consequences. As it happens, wildlife do those very things, too. They just don’t feel guilty about it.

* Thank you for a delightful article which reminds us that we humans share the earth with all of these beautiful creatures. The parade of turtles which blocked plane traffic at JFK is a welcome diversion in the frantic pace of our lives, an event far more significant and enriching to our humanity than an ontime departure!

* Thanks for this reminder that many animals have adapted to the presence of man. There is a fiction that is popular amongst mainstream environmental organizations that man must be excluded from nature so that animals can survive. This perception of nature as fragile results in Fortress Conservation even in urban settings. In the San Francisco Bay Area Fortress Conservation has a death grip on our public lands. Some of the resulting access restrictions are described here:http://milliontrees.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/fortress-conservation-the-l….
The Sierra Club has redefined “recreation” to accommodate their agenda: http://milliontrees.wordpress.com/2011/07/21/the-sierra-club-redefines-r…
Environmentalism has lost its way. It has backed itself into an irrelevant corner from which it is no longer capable of addressing serious environmental issues such as climate change and widespread pesticide use.

* The real problem with nature is the overpopulation of humans which take more and more habitat away from the rest of natures children for no other reason than that we can. Humans are the only creature that tries to change the environment instead of living with it.

More Turtles! Fewer New Yorkers!

* The most ridiculous premise in this ever present argument is that Humans are not part of Nature – that we are alien to earth.

We must be exterminated to avoid the death of nature?

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