We were So Civilized

Digital collage: We were So CivilizedNo matter where I am on the Fourth of July I am likely to think about the country in which I was born and have lived all of my life thus far: the United States of America. The Fourth is the official birthday of the nation, though many of the current states joined the union long, long after that July in 1776 when it was established by its founders. Like so many nations around the world, this country and its history are a tremendously complicated and varied patchwork of fact and fiction, hope and fear, two steps forward and one step back. Over and over and over again.

Imagine this: a pack of refugees from religious persecution left their homeland and sailed into the unknown across an ocean of which they also knew very little except that their passage across it was dangerous and miserable and killed plenty of them before they hit the new shore. When they landed, to their surprise there were already plenty of other people living on that new turf, and did that stop the interlopers from moving in, too? Of course not. I don’t expect it ever occurred to them, to be honest, that there wasn’t room for everybody or that if they took a ton of the resources around them that might just mean there were fewer for the previous residents of the land, folk who had, indeed, already long established a very different relationship with the continent.

That the illnesses and diseases the newcomers brought with them from Home would endanger and kill many of their new unwitting and unwilling neighbors could never have entered these interlopers’ minds, when they were so preoccupied with not only their current survival but their escape from the hardships and sorrows back in their own homeland. That they themselves would suffer privation, fear, danger, loneliness, and the loss of their lifetime homes, belongings, families and friends across the vast ocean they had crossed was a stark enough reality that perhaps they willed themselves not to think too hard about all that they faced next also affecting the long-tenured native peoples across whose lands they moved like human bulldozers.

The establishment of this new home was far from smooth and easy too, as anyone could probably guess, though I wonder if any of them really considered that the goal as much as simple escape from what they’d known before. Still, none of those inhabitants of North America—invaders or original denizens—could possibly imagine at the time, I suspect, quite how vast the whole continent was and what that meant in terms of creating new colonies within it, let alone new nations. In the years that followed, the westward migration confirmed the existence of innumerable tribes and clans of people not before known to the new arrivals, but also of wild creatures unimagined, of terrain unlike any they had dreamed possible, of climates that had been the stuff of legend until then.

In those many decades of carving out new paths and territories, it was inevitable that, just as it had been with the foregoing generations of various indigenous peoples, there would be struggles over who had access to what, who could live where, and who belonged together with or as far as possible away from whom. No surprise that this led not only to separated towns and enclaves and ethnic, religious, political or philosophical communities but also, in turn, to a wild array of accents and ideas that might as well have been different languages and different species altogether.

Amazing that all of this could remotely possibly coalesce into what is known as the United States of America. Today’s states are still so diverse, even sometimes from county to county or one side of the railroad tracks to another, that it’s nearly laughable to call them United. We fight like pesky siblings with each other all the time; it’s a miracle, in my book, that the so-called Civil War, one of the most uncivilized events in the country’s history, hasn’t simply continued from its beginning to the present day. It does, perhaps, at subtler levels. Just because the invasion of the continent by a bunch of frightened Pilgrims who only thought themselves seeking freedom from tyranny didn’t destroy the whole land and kill every one of them off outright, and because the various internal skirmishes that led to, but were far from limited to, the Civil War didn’t complete that annihilation doesn’t mean we’re not still perfectly capable of incredible incivility at every turn. We try, we fail.

On the Fourth of July, I think of how astounding and—generally—good it is that this messy nation has managed to survive this long without self-destructing. But I can’t help also thinking this of most of the rest of the world. Humans just plain are messy. We form and break alliances; we argue over being Right instead of being compassionate or practical, let alone pursuing justice. We blunder around, hog resources, ascribe privileges and powers to ourselves and our chosen comrades that we willfully deny others, or just pretend the others don’t exist, and thanks to our weirdly, wonderfully diverse array of accents, when we do get around to discussing the least of these things, even those who ostensibly share a language can’t understand each other half of the time anyhow.

Just possibly, our life form may have been civilized at a few choice moments. There is plenty of potential in this odd species of ours, I like to think. Even we Americans aren’t entirely irredeemable; we keep bothering and beating up on each other like so many brothers and sisters, and yet most of us still manage eventually to just agree to disagree and, in moments of precious lucidity, even to see each other’s point of view and operate in an environment of respect and hope. As rotten as we can be to each other, we care enough to wrestle it out and try to find ways to go forward. Together, even. If that isn’t a family worth saving, I guess I don’t know what one is. Happy birthday, USA. Go forth and get a little more civilized, if you can.

Who’s the Real Pest around Here Anyway?

photoNo fan of squirrels am I. In the abstract, I can enjoy their wild gymnastic athleticism and pranks and admire their elegant plumy tails and all of that, yes I can. But when I hear that familiar thud on the roof when they’re jumping from the red oak to the shingles and holding their miniature NASCAR events up there, what I’m thinking is not ‘how cute’ but ‘rats’.

They are, after all, rodents. The little scarpers have nice sharp claws that scrape bits off of our roofing (see: roof confetti in gutters) and nice sharp teeth that chew chunks off of our siding (see: bare wood fringe appearing on siding near where only birds or squirrels could possibly reach) and not-so-nice habits of eating every bit of bird seed that I put out if they can reach it (see: squirrel hanging upside down by ankles from gutter like trapeze artist while he stares longingly and calculatingly at nearby-but-not-near-enough bird feeder, then dashing back down to the patio below to scarf up every seed, nut, pod and shell left below said feeder before dashing back up again for another recon) and of ‘recycling’ said bird feed onto patio, porch, garage perimeter and paths for me to sweep up after them (see: squirrel excrement scattered decoratively hither and yon).

But there are as many fans of squirrel-dom as there are less sympathetic critics like me, and there are certainly many, whether among squirrel friends or not, who think many other creatures more dirty, pesky, or persistent than I do. Take pigeons, for one. I’ve heard them called ‘flying rats’ more than once, and know that they are at least as frequently cited as disease carriers and civic troublemakers as are squirrels. Other than the remarkably tiny headed (and I confess to thinking them remarkably tiny brained in equal proportion) mourning doves that visit our place occasionally, there are rarely pigeons around there, so it’s probably simple arithmetical odds that make me like them perfectly fine when I’m so prejudiced against squirrels. As long as you don’t swing by for the seemingly sole purpose of eating my food and then expelling it back out upon me and mine when you’ve had your fun with it, I guess I’ll give you a free pass.

I should very likely just cut the poor squirrels some slack, too, in exchange for the hijinks they provide as compensatory amusement. After all, they, along with all of the other critters that call our garden, yard, ravine, neighborhood and planet home, must surely look on me as a dirty, self-centered, gluttonous and destructive interloper on their home turf, and they would not be wrong. And I sure don’t expect to be able to repay the affront by amusingly hanging by my ankles from the gutter anytime soon.