Nature Isn’t Always Sunshine and Daisies

By Sandy James, CIG
NAI Region 7 New Mexico State Representative

I was leaving work after a long ten-hour day as an interpretive park ranger. A woman approached me saying she had a “wildlife situation” she wanted me to deal with. As she led me to some sapling trees near the side of the road, she explained that a snake was raiding a nest with baby birds in it. I suppressed my nature-geek impulse to say “Awesome!” since she was obviously upset. Instead, I commented that it sounded like quite a “National Geographic moment”. The woman replied, “It’s disturbing, is what it is, and my son is watching! Can’t you do something?!” I arrived just in time to see the legs and feathers of the last baby bird disappearing into the snake’s mouth. The woman’s son and her husband were watching the snake, visibly distressed. When I explained that in national parks, the staff doesn’t usually intervene in natural processes, the mother snapped, “I suppose it’s that circle of life thing.”

A Jameson's mamba kills and eats a nestling.
A Jameson’s mamba kills and eats a nestling.

Yes, indeed, and death and destruction are a big part of the circle whether we like it or not. But how to interpret the rougher side of the natural world so that people are provoked rather than fearful or turned-off? Most of us, including me, are not completely comfortable with the idea of death and seeing something kill something else reminds humans not only of mortality, but also of the food chain. For some people, it’s an uncomfortable idea that they’re still a part of it. Many predators prey on the very young, very old, and sick – something that is against the rules in human society. People love to see animals in their natural habitats but only if the animals are doing nice, happy things with each other. Visitors are on vacation and they want to see pretty views and have lighthearted experiences in the natural world – not gut-wrenching sights of bears killing and eating a baby elk or a snake snacking on baby birds. But those experiences can be truly awe-inspiring and they are certainly loaded with emotion. Getting people connected with the primal part of nature is usually a little more challenging than getting them engaged by means of a gorgeous view.

The apparent destruction of forests after a wildfire is another scene where visitors react with sadness and disappointment. Sites here in New Mexico, like Bandelier National Monument, the Valles Caldera National Preserve, and the Gila National Forest, to name only a few in the Southwest, have experienced large, intense  wildfires during the past several years. It’s true that these fires have radically changed the landscapes in these places. People have been conditioned to expect beautiful landscapes in national and state parks and other recreation areas.  They may want to see an iconic landscape they have seen in photos for many years or stay at a familiar camping spot that they’ve treasured for years. When that scene changes abruptly to a landscape they’ve been conditioned to see as “ugly” or “bad”, the tendency is to say the site is “destroyed”. Humans, as a rule, don’t like things to change. We like the familiar and the comfortable. We also understand the broad mission of public lands and private nature preserves to be that of preservation – seeing swaths of trees burnt and dead seems to go against that mission. Ironically, visitors also complain about all the new trees growing in Yellowstone after the 1988 fires – they have obscured some of the familiar views.

A  study done in 1984 by Stankey and McCool on visitor choices for a recreation area found there is security in routine behavior and that many visitors like to repeat experiences. “Perhaps this may explain the angst visitors feel when the setting they prefer is altered—a forest’s appearance after a fire, for example. With decades of fire suppression, natural areas in national parks show little evidence of the passing of fire and an expectation of unmarred beauty has entered the national psyche. A study of the acceptability rating of aesthetic views (Taylor and Daniel 1984) found that even in the early 1980s, those who supported and understood the role of fire in the ecosystem still did not like the visual setting that moderate to severe fire created.” (A Public Opinion Survey on Wildland Fire in National Parks (Muleady-Mecham, Lee, & Burch 2004). According to this survey, visitor reactions varied according to demographics. “Gender, number of children with [the] individual on the trip, education level, and number of visits to U.S. national parks are…considered predictors … of the probability of saying “’yes’ “ when asked whether fires should be let to burn in national parks. (pg. 18)

Interpretation is a key to influencing public knowledge and behavior related to these events. Knowing your audience is especially important in talking about the not-so-pretty events in the natural world and in human history. There has to be a readiness on the part of the interpreter to see the whole story, not just the nice and pretty parts, while at the same time acknowledging the feelings of loss and sorrow, or maybe even anger, a visitor naturally feels.

While the family and I watched the adult birds dive-bombing the snake as it slid down the tree trunk into the grass, we talked. We talked about how sad we felt for the adult birds who tried everything they possibly could to save their babies, but failed in the end. We talked about how there would be no more mating or eggs for them until the spring. We talked about whether they would choose a better nest site then. And we about how tomorrow a hawk could seize that snake and make a meal of it. About snakes being predators and birds being prey and life in the wild being mostly a search for enough protein to survive, not just all sunshine and daisies. About how sights like this are not an everyday occurrence for most humans but they are the way of life in the wild world. Yes, about the circle of life. I saw the human family relating to the family of birds. I watched as they got out their cameras and started excitedly snapping shots of the snake descending the tree trunk. Another definition of the word “disturb” is to move, transfer, to shift. And I think that is what happened.

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