I was walking down Warren Street in Hudson, smoking a cigarette (I assume) when I saw what appeared to be an inter-species romance: two birds mid-air with talons intertwined, the smaller bird cruising upside down under the larger one.
It turned out the smaller bird was dead. The larger one (which I later identified as a Cooper’s Hawk) was undoubtedly lugging along the freshly killed carcass for a mid-day meal. It was still impressive – the hawk’s wingspan was only a few inches wider than the pigeon’s, which really made me respect its killing and carcass-carrying abilities – but the realization was a real kick in the nuts to my original view of an animal Utopia.
Those who follow The Other Hudson Valley must realize by this point I’m a rather large fan of nature. I love throwing myself into the midst of it, whether I’m searching for eagles, hiking in 10-degree weather with congressional candidates, or getting ‘turned around’ bushwacking.
My favorite thing to do in nature does not involve action, but stillness. Often when I’m hiking alone in the woods, I catch myself becoming too embroiled in my own thoughts, the beauty of what’s around me blotted out by human neurosis. So I freeze. Then the verdancy of the forest passes into my eyes and through me, and I see all that’s around me free of human definitions, in their pure form. Like any other animal would.
Of course, any other animal would not spend their time being hypnotized by trees, because some other, larger animal would come along and eat them. They would deserve it, too, letting their guard down in the killing fields of the Catskills.
The problem with my love of nature is it amounts to pastoralism. Pastoralism is when some rich urban asshole in Renaissance Europe trotted his horses into the countryside, then sat around staring at farmers and making assumptions about them.
The main assumption was their lives were idyllic – a simple, rewarding existence made off the land. This is, of course, insane, because the farmers were mostly economically enslaved serfs who worked their hands to the bone and were always teetering on the edge of starvation.
The rich asshole did not walk in their shoes, but only had a cursory, visual understanding of what was going on. He probably didn’t even try to TALK to the peasants (“Fair Serf! How goes this glorious day!”), and completely misinterpreted their experience.
I am only able to enjoy nature because my forefathers have subjugated it. They have killed everything that could have killed me. The gray wolf and the catamount, the two Hudson Valley species that could slay colonials, were wiped out by said colonials, but this is only the modern era of slaughter. Native American populations made extinct dozens and dozens of species of megafauna – both carnivores and herbivores.
So when I’m being enthralled by trees, it is a luxury afforded by the genocide we have visited upon nature. I’m viewing nature without claws.
There have been conservationist movements in the U.S. since the 19th century, but the leaders of these movements, as I point out in John Burroughs’ Slabsides and His Violence Towards Porcupines, were big fans of clubbing and stabbing animals. Modern environmentalism didn’t really begin until the 1970s, when nature was already subjugated. In the struggle against nature, humans have won, and our attempts to save the last dying bits are the rations handed out by the victors to keep the broken enemy from starving.
If we hadn’t spent the last 24,000 years in North America butchering everything bigger than us, I would not be going for walks in the woods. I would be in the most fucking urban environment I could find.