Sunday, November 13, 2016

Without Us

"The poet that beautified the sect that was otherwise inferior to the rest, saith yet excellently well: It is a pleasure to stand upon the shore and to see ships tossed upon the sea; a pleasure to stand in the window of a castle and to see a battle and the adventures thereof below: but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene), and to see the errors and wanderings and mists and tempests in the vale below; so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling or pride."

― Francis Bacon

Pheasant Branch Conservancy

American Tree Sparrows arriving from the north continue to occupy the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. There were only a few other sparrow species present and only in small numbers. I found just one Fox Sparrow,  a single singing White-crowned Sparrow, a few White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. There were still three or four Swamp Sparrows near the retention ponds, but no sign of any Song Sparrows.

American Tree Sparrow

Have you had an interesting week? Well, nothing lasts forever. Not us, not Earth, not life on Earth, not even the Sun or our galaxy. I feel a profound sense of awe and comfort via a reminder from eminent biologist E.O. Wilson. It's this: After each of the five great extinctions that have occurred on Earth, where as much as 90% of biodiversity was lost, it took the natural biological processes of evolution only 5 to 10 million years to restore the planet's biodiversity. Given that the Earth will likely be able to support life for another 2 billion years, that 5 to 10 is but a flutter in deep time.

Nature endures. Just imagine the possibilities. New forests and prairies will grow. New lifeforms will emerge via descent with modification and differential reproductive success ― the struggle for existence will go on without us.

Fortunately for the American Tree Sparrows near the drumlin, a Northern Shrike was hunting hundreds of yards away in the dogwood to the south. But I know this bird can cover that distance in mere seconds, so the sparrows always have to be on the alert for danger.

Northern Shrike

Though I've covered this ground thousands of times, it never grows old. I'm a little older and grayer, but the prairie always appears as something new to me. To be sure, the sparrows I see today are not those that were present two decades ago. Though I can't discern the age of a particular animal or bird, somehow all the critters seem ageless and immortal as I watch them. Perhaps I'm taking their lives for granted. But every so often I come across a pile of feathers or entrails on the path serving a quick reminder of the ongoing struggle for existence while I'm elsewhere.

Imagine this beautiful planet ... without us, as it was throughout epochs of time before the arrival of modern humans. The picture in my mind's eye is one of peace and harmony, where life and death is judged by nothing; just prolific forms of creatures going on the best they can with their evolved natural traits.

I will go on with my hikes at prairies and woods so long as there are such places, and so long as I live and am able to do it. I will continue to document what I see, smell, hear, and feel and reflect on those senses and scenes of natural beauty through my blog and website. Despite increased pressures that will be placed on wildlife, I will do my best to be a positive force and embassador for Nature and her critters.

This is not doom and gloom ― far from it. I believe it's a beautiful depiction of life in the universe and I am so incredibly grateful to have had opportunities to experience it in the ways that I have. It's why I blog. It's why I document and photograph Nature. The undiluted joy has been a gift to treasure.

Do our worst, life will prevail ... without us.

Dark-eyed Junco

Red-tailed Hawk

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Nov 12, 2016 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM
30 species

Canada Goose
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Snow Bunting
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell


  1. Thanks for the bigger picture. It offers some consolation. When I was walking at sunset yesterday at Pheasant Branch I felt so depressed when I imagined the thousands of cranes and geese that would have been there only 200 years ago. I saw about 40 cranes and 60 geese. When I walk in natural places now I feel like I'm at the very end of something great that is slowly being extinguished and I don't know what to do but bear witness. I was reading Leonard Cohen's obits this week and read a quote from an interview he gave in the 80's: "These are the final days, this is the darkness, this is the flood. The catastrophe has already happened and the question we now face is: what is the appropriate behavior in a catastrophe?" I'm sure making this wonderful blog is one of those behaviors. Thanks, Mike

  2. Great column. Some day I would like to visit Pheasant Branch. Love your photos, thoughts, quotes.