I watch from the edge of the field as waves of snow geese take flight; a kaleidoscope of wing beats from hundreds of birds intuitively aware of themselves in relation to their companions. Their strident calls fill the air like raucous chatter at a crowded cocktail party.
The geese return from the Arctic tundra to the Skagit Flats every fall, grazing on the leftover seeds, stems and roots in winter worn fields. They map the 5,000 mile journey using their signature Goose Positioning Satellite of sun, moon, stars, mountains and coastlines. Flying in a characteristic “V” formation to conserve precious energy, each bird drafts behind another, sharing the lead to increase the odds that every member will survive the distance.
Stopping to rest and feed at intervals along the way, sentinels keep a cautious eye for opportunistic coyotes and foxes. There is safety in numbers. Snow geese survival is threatened when they are divided, isolated, distracted. Predators are successful when they use tactics of division, isolation, distraction.
It has taken me a long time to process my thoughts after the US presidential election, as if by refusing to commit words to paper or screen, I can deny the reality of the next 4 years. I have gone cold turkey on reading or listening to the news, preferring poetry, a good book or plotting my escape to the woods. I’ve turned to the natural world for answers.
Divisiveness and competition are encoded in our language. We wage politics using war rhetoric: campaigning in battleground states, bitterly contested fights. Resource extraction, limitless consumption and exponential growth drive our economy. Survival of the fittest is interpreted as a competition for limited resources with clear winners and losers.
And yet the natural world reflects a different story. The migration of snow geese is a collaborative, cooperative symphony of shared leadership to ensure group survival. Theirs is a story of interdependence. A story repeated in the natural world every which way I turn.
Each day the dog and I go for a run in the woods behind my house. Describing it as a run implies discipline and purpose yet, truthfully, there is a lot of stopping involved to listen to birds, poke around in the leaves or watch the red-tailed hawks soar overhead. We are easily distracted by the everyday happenings in the forest. And for good reason! No sooner is our attention caught by one thing than, just like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, we find another piece that’s connected in some way.
On this particular day it starts with a banana slug. My eye picks up a silver trail of slime before I see the slug, perfectly camouflaged against bark and rotting leaves. Its thick coat of mucus is the ultimate defense. The thick slime contains temporary mouth numbing chemicals; a slug equivalent of novocaine! One curious swipe with his tongue at a banana slug and my dog learned early on that slugs were not on the menu. Mucus is the perfect mode of transport allowing slugs to glide safely over razor sharp edges and smooth vertical surfaces. My kitchen window comes to mind!
This particular slug is surfing on a thin film of slime over a rotting log, its short lower pair of tentacles probing the leaves for interesting smells. The longer pair, tipped with light sensitive eyes, see the forest in patterns of shadow and light as they wave in the air. I wonder what it makes of me, my face just inches away.
A small mushroom is poking out from a flap of rotting bark. Is this the source of the slug’s enthusiastic tentacle waving? Slug lunch, maybe. White threads are tangled through the rotting log as if a child has been trying to sew the pieces together. These threads are mycelium, rather like the roots of the mushroom, absorbing and storing food for the fruiting fungus. I gently peel away more of the bark to find thick mats of these mycelial threads, slowly helping to turn this dead log into a humus cocktail of nutrients.
Digging into the rotting leaf litter at the base of the log reveals a world of macro invertebrates tasked with spinning leaf litter into compost gold. I imagine digging deeper to uncover the maze of roots mining the soil for food and water that will feed leaves 70 meters above the forest floor. Water that will be transpired from leaf surface to clouds that turn to rainstorms half a continent away. Some of the roots, if I look closely, would be covered with nodules formed by beneficial bacteria that fix nitrogen in the atmosphere into a form readily absorbed in the soil. A mutually beneficial rental agreement. I’m surrounded by a fantastically complex symbiotic web of life, each organism dependent upon the services of others to survive.
These forests were heavily logged at the turn of the century; a catastrophic event I can only imagine as I look up at the immense cedars, Douglas firs, hemlocks and maple trees. The resilience of the forest ecosystem is founded, not through competition for meager resources, but on a balance of power and reciprocity. Diversity is key to this healthy living system. Nothing exists in isolation!
There is wisdom here if I pay attention. Are my survival needs so very different from those of snow geese? forest organisms? I rely on the services of others for food, and shelter? I enjoy solitude, yet thrive in a diverse, vibrant community. I can’t help but wonder, how do we change this divisive climate of fear and perceived competition over limited resources, to one of hope? How do we find a way to create resilient communities functioning as healthy living systems? Perhaps it begins with paying attention to this exquisitely complex web of snow geese, slugs, forests, life.