Friday, April 2, 2010

Weird and scary

Sometimes, when I tell people about my passion for birding, I have been told that they personally find nature to be a little scary. Their concern usually is either that: A, the woods are full of psychos or B: nature itself is kind of scary.

These are both genuine concerns, up to a point -- and only up to a point -- in that, if you watch the news, you will hear tales of hikers murdered in the woods, attacked by grizzly bears, or otherwise coming to a bad end. In central Illinois, we can certainly rule out the chances of a bear attack; I have met people who insist that coyotes will attack people, but as far as I can tell, this slander is entirely false. Yes, it's true there is a CHANCE something bad could happen at any moment -- but statistically, unless you are in a very bad urban neighborhood, or stuck in the movie "Deliverance," this chance is pretty low. Studies have demonstrated that heavy TV watchers far over-estimate their chances of being the victim of a crime, doubtless because crime is a mainstay of television programming. Another good reason to turn off the TV and go for a walk!

I have been mulling over these two fears, of killers and nature itself. The first I can certainly sympathize with. There are nasty people out there; and again, if you watch the news, you'd think there were hundreds of thousands of them. It's a fear that runs deep in the zeitgeist -- how many times have I heard people express concern about traveling, walking in a public park, walking around in their own (suburban) neighborhoods -- even letting their children play outside on a lovely spring day -- because of all the killers, rapists, muggers, psychos and child molesters running around. I don't know -- maybe if I lived in Chicago or Detroit I'd worry more. And I'm certainly not advocating that anyone take foolish risks. But I honestly believe that, here in central Illinois, the farmers and fishermen and hikers and birders I meet on my rambles are mostly a decent sort -- I'm hardly prone to warm and fuzzy feelings about my fellow humans, but I do think that most people are probably OK. Anyone who's worried should do what I do -- go birding with someone who runs slower than they do. Then the psycho will kill your birding buddy and you will escape. (Sorry, Mom!)

The fear of nature itself is mostly from ignorance. I don't mean a fear of bears or rattlesnakes -- seriously, I know someone who was afraid that rabbits would attack her child. Another person told me how her brother was frightened by the sight of a groundhog. And I once saw a whole office building terrorized by a house sparrow--people hiding in their offices until they could be reassured that the poor trapped bird was GONE. Anyone can have an irrational phobia, sure, but a real fear of nature is a serious cultural problem. As more and more people are divorced from the natural world, they will not only not want to preserve, but they might even advocate exterminating what little remains for the public good.

On occasion, however, I have had some weird and scary moments. Once was out at Parklands Merwin Nature Preserve. It was early summer, and I was walking by myself.
It was a very windy day. The noise of the wind in the branches made it sound like someone else was walking up behind me, but no matter how many times I looked around, it was just me. Finally, I'd had enough of the wooded area and cut out into the fields, which are usually less "weird" feeling, probably because they're so open. I hadn't been walking long when I heard this really loud CLOPPETY CLOP!! in the grasses right beside me. What on earth? I had visions of the goat god Pan clopping along...when a deer jumped right out in front of me, almost giving me a heart attack. OK, so it wasn't Pan... Bummer, THAT would have been a good sighting!

Another time my mom and I were at a park by Danville, which was hardly deserted or wild feeling. We were walking along, admiring a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers, when a clump of grasses by the side of the trail started shaking. It looked like something was standing in the middle of them, shaking vigorously, but we couldn't see a thing. Then the grasses on the other side of the trail starting shaking, as if the creature had run across the path. But we didn't see anything that could be causing it. Nothing. This incident is still unexplained. The truth is, no place in nature is entirely devoid of a feeling of mystery for me. That's one of the attractions.

The scariest moment? My mom would probably say it was when we went to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, and ran into an alligator sunning itself by the side of the trail. My observation that all the news of alligator attacks had come from Florida, not Texas, did not seem to reassure her.

As for myself, I would vote for the time that we were driving along the Illinois River Valley Road south of Havana, and my mom just had to take a detour down a side road to see if it led to the water. At first, we passed broken shells of tractors and refrigerators, toilets and washing machines. I commented that we had, haplessly, stumbled upon the graveyard of unwanted appliances. There was a bend in the road, and a collection of trailers on wooden stilts. They weren't nice looking trailers, either. They were old and rusted out. And the septic systems and propane tanks were also hoisted up on stilts. A scruffy looking man rounded the corner and...

"Turn around, turn around now!" I shouted. We left as quickly as we came. For all I know, the stilt trailer people are nice as can be...but in my mind, the sound of phantom banjos is still twanging.

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