Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What are "urban" and "rural", anyway?

Three minor events in my life conspired to get me to think about the nature of our geographic construction. In college, way back in the last century, I saw a 'possum. Later, still in college, I saw a coyote. Last, a few years ago I saw a show on PBS about a hawk, a show I thought was curious and at times very silly. What was so unusual about these events?

The first was in Fullerton, California. Walking home from school, this 'possum "runs" (if you can call it that) across the street, trips on the curb, then crawls into a very sparse shrub where it sits stock still and pretends I don't see it. I also pretended I didn't see it, and walked on home. The second event was at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. After a concert, looking for my car in the parking lot, a coyote trots by. The third was the famous (or infamous) PBS show, "Pale Male", about a red-tailed hawk that takes up residence in and around Central Park in New York City. I watched this show with a very skeptical eye, unable to believe that red-tailed hawks had never always lived wherever they durn well please.

Slowly, these events converged, and led me to an understanding:

There is no such thing as rural or urban.

Where is this line in reality? I posit that it does not exist. Start with the line itself. City limits are drawn and redrawn, lands annexed and assigned development titles (even for parks), but this means nothing in the real world. Large, ecologically diverse parks exist in the middle of cities (for the best example, take a boat trip down the Lower American River in Sacramento), but habitat occurs even in the most concrete of jungles. Raccoons, skunks, opossums and coyotes, sizeable mammals, live in the downtown sections of just about every major city in the country, as do countless birds, bats, and bugs. Roads slither in and out of cities, bringing urban effects far into the countryside and vice-versa. Nor does air quality stop at the city limit: Sequoia National Park has the worst air quality of any national park in the country. The same goes for water and soil pollution, as well.

Many wild songbirds are saved on their flights by folks in cities placing feed out where once the birds could have found forage habitat. Are these backyard havens urban, or rural? Many other birds die, their once fertile habitat now mile after mile of corn. This corn is grown for the city - is it rural or urban?

I watched the PBS special, loving the people who were passionate about those crazy birds. I was disappointed that it was about one bird, even though he'd had multiple mates and many children (where were all of these coming from or leaving to?) I laughed out loud when they showed a picture of a great horned owl during the introduction, but didn't consider it as "wild" as the hawk (the great-horned owl is known as the Tiger of the woods, and regularly eats skunks, as well as herons, egrets, and yes, the occasional red-tailed hawk). But mostly I was amazed that people didn't see these hawks until one nested on a high-rise next to Mary Tyler Moore. Every day I spend in every city I see raptors - redtails, red shoulders, coopers, kestrels. I've even seen Swainson's hawks and ospreys well within the designated border between the rural and wild places. I guess they didn't get the memo.

"Rural" and "Urban" don't exist. They help with some management decisions, but for the most part they give people a false sense of separation from place, and from reality.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Going out on a limb over ethics, and then onto large chunks of granite

I'm about to step in it, but I've got to lay it out. In academic ethical discourse, there exists an 800 lb. gorilla in the room, the little "r". Just as for some reason scientists are forced to pick sides in regards to religion, ethicists have to eventually deal with the little "r".

I'm talking about relativism.

And so, to get this right out in the open, let's be frank: The author of this blog is not a relativist in the ethical sense. Without going too deep, let's just say that part of it stems from some ethical conundrums that show themselves in a relativist ethical world, that part of it is faith, and that part of it is an understanding that humans share certain traits.

It's this last point that I'd like to focus on. In a conversation today with a colleague, we discussed the nature of great, beautiful natural places, and how an increased awareness of and even (gasp!) use of these places for recreation and leisure can lead to better protections for them. In this context, the following idea worked out:

Send a group of twenty children on a tour of Yosemite Valley, and, on average, the following will happen: Two will inevitably have a bad day, because they were having a bad day; sixteen will have a great time, get out of the classroom, get to see some beautiful things, meet a ranger, etc.; and two will be moved for all time, their lives will never be the same. These last two may go into activism, or become rangers or wardens or park planners or poets. But, they will be forever shaped by the beauty and power they experienced, witnessing the largest granite monolith in the world, or the most massive living things on earth, or the tallest waterfall in North America. They will be moved because we are all moved by these, else why would so many millions come from tens of thousands of miles away? We aren't moved because these things are American. We are moved because we all see something within the place. And whether we are Pakistani, Japanese or Californian, we all recognize something within these places, creatures, and events.

There is something universal in these experiences, something we as humans share. It is similar to what is recognized in great literature from civilizations long past. We all want to watch a beautiful sunset, or watch a whale take a breath. Whether these are universal because of a Creator, or are universal due to the similarity of our neural pathways and gene codes I will leave to another place. But there is no denying that they are shared by humanity.

From this shared set of feelings, ethics seeks to gain some footing. It's not usually solid ground, but still, it is often recognized, and it is often found in experiences with the wild. That's one great thing about visiting wild places. In leaving civilization, we often find our relationships with other people stronger, more visible, more pronounced. And we get to sense something that we understand is, without pretense or scharade, shared by humanity.

Monday, May 5, 2008

More on ethics and hunting

There has been much controversy of late around hunting. Over at a wonderfully written blog, the Hog Blog (just google it), the author posted a defense of hunting as a response to some pretty nasty stuff written to him by an anti-hunter. His response is a good response, and the ensuing conversations are wonderful to read.

The conversation spins round the ethical question of hunting. Many, many arguments pro- and con- are made to the management of hunting, but most often these arguments spring from an ethical decision about the nature of hunting. People seem much more comfortable arguing the 'objective' criteria of management, probably as a result of our attempts at basing our society on science. Very often this is a good thing, but at times it too effectively hides the ethical component, the very impetus for our decisions. Our choosing science as the determining factor in management (game, land, or otherwise) is in itself an ethical decision. Aristotle hit on this point when, in his Nicomachaean Ethics, he determines that politics is the greatest good, as it determines the nature and direction of all other endeavours. It is important to bring to the fore, to discuss, argue, and come to understand the nature of our ethical decisions. In this light, here are some thoughts about hunting as an ethical activity:

Just as one cannot help but impact the environment, so one cannot help but kill. The nature of the physical world is such that things die, and that many living creatures gain or maintain life by killing other creatures. Our very bodies kill living beings every second of the day, and if they did not, we would die. So the question cannot be: should we kill? "Should" implies "can." Because we cannot help but kill, we must ask more thorough, more nuanced questions, because we understand killing as the finality that it is, and we understand that death and dying often brings sorrow, often goes hand-in-hand with suffering, and we are sympathetic creatures.

Before we single out hunting, consider all of the times and places in which we are responsible for killing: Driving is a direct action which kills countless animals, insects on the windshield; eating farm-raised meats kills animals for our sustenance; eating grains, fruits and vegetables kills countless plants, animals, insects, and fungi, through pest eradication (even organic farms need to keep pests down), harvesting and sowing methods, and the taking of millions of acres of habitat; electrical generation kills many thousands of birds each year, as do skyscrapers. So many ethical questions come from lists like this. Many of these questions are easy to answer, but difficult to carry out truthfully. Many others are difficult choices in and of themselves. Here are a few:

Should people allow other people to do their 'dirty work'? Should people move so quickly through the world that we become a danger to others? Should people use electricity at all?

As for hunting, for me it answers many important ethical questions: Should I take active responsibility for the consequences of my existence on this earth? Should I understand, truthfully, the nature of sacrifices for me? Should I incorporate myself more naturally into my local environment? Hunting is just one "yes" answer to this question. I cannot in good conscience allow others to kill for me, to kill secondarily, as a result of transportation or television, and not, at least occasionally, take up the responsibility for myself.

Hunting answers other questions as well, and hunting opens my eyes to the nature of, well, nature. It gives me a real, physical place in this world, a niche we have filled for untold millenia. We have relationships with others of the wild, as creatures in the wild. Our conscious minds offer us the opportunity to know this on a grand scale. Sometimes we succomb to our baser tendencies (to avoid pain, hunger, heat or cold or sadness), we suppress these lived experiences, and begin to believe that we are no longer a part of the world. Later, to justify our actions (the gentleman who writes the Hog blog stated that, "man is the only animal who rationalizes", a great quotation), many elevate this illusory distance to the level of ethics, and deride actions which have "impact" on the "resource."

But, when we lose understanding of our real, physical connections and relationships, we begin to cloud the nature of our ethics. Ethics are not mere words, but lived experiences.