Monday, June 1, 2015

Silent Night

It is more than chilly as I write this, sitting on my porch listening to the wind dance with the leaves of monarda, monarda that is smothering a set of dwarf hydrangeas that are crying out to be moved, but I’m not complaining. My peonies are in tight buds, the dame’s rocket has exploded into bloom and my weigelas have starting to persuade the hummingbirds that this house is a lovely area to claim as their own. The garden is dense and lush and voluptuous with promise. 

But where are my screech owls? 

It was my husband that noticed the empty space in the evening, the quiet that falls each night without their tiny superball on a snare drum trill punctuating the night’s sounds.
They’re gone, he tells me, but I don’t believe it.

Then, today, I saw Nick from the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays. He was at Marders with the recued raptors he brings for our clients to see up close in all their fascinating glory. Martino, my favorite, an injured screech owl triggered my husband’s words so I asked Nick, if he too has noticed a dearth of nighttime trilling. 

He said there was a good chance that Dereyk, my husband, was right. Too much winter, two bad winters in a row, and snow that hid all the mice and voles and shrews from my feathered friends — it all added up to starving owls. All those minus 5-degree days and nights must have made the evening sustenance for nocturnals scant. 

That and us. 

We must be accountable for the effects we have. We don’t like voles that eat all our plants, and we all know that mice not only carry the Hanfra virus, but that they are almost more to blame for carrying ticks then the deer. And no one loves rats. They are all our pests and we eradicate them with impunity. But when we do, what happens to the owls? There are no night flying insects during the winter to fill feathered belies, so the rodent population is a necessity that hasn’t been thought about that much. 

And there are no barn left for the Barn owls, much less for mice to nest in. There are no abandoned fields filled with weeds that have matted down to make homes from which to scurry out into the starlit now and see the night sky from which death will come on silent wings. 

When I was a child there was an abandoned house deep in what is now the entrance to the Sagg Swamp. There were barns filled with rusted machinery and abandoned burlap bags. Horses were housed in stables with wooden boards that did not have hermetically sealed joints. There were crevices, nook, crannies and piles of things, there was detritus. That detritus supported life.

We are no longer a society that tolerates detritus. Instead we long for tidiness. The lawns are manicured, perfectly green in their chemical splendor, surrounded not by overgrown vegetation, but by endless rows of burlaped perfection. There are no brush piles for the voles, if fact I bet there’s barely a half dozen compost piles within a mile of my home. We’ve got it all under control, or we’re at least desperately trying to get it there, and I’m here to say it makes me sad.

I miss my owls, but I’m as guilty as anyone else, with traps set out for the rats that accompany my chickens (only one lonely one at this moment) and to dine under the bird feeder I insist upon filling. I am part of the problem, and it’s my missing owls that have brought it home to me tonight.It is hard to be a gardener and a lover of nature, a naturalist at heart, and know you are part of the problem. And I want to change.

But how? I don’t use pesticides. I am as organic as I can be, but the rats were for me a tipping point. I didn’t want rats, but maybe if I had accepted them I would still have owls. I don’t know for sure, but it gives me pause. 

Come to my house, my clients tell me, you can have all the voles you want, but I don’t take them up on the offer – I am super grateful that I don’t have to battle voles in my garden. My owls however, might have welcomed their intrusion.  If I had voles, would I have more foxes too? I really miss foxes. When I was younger and my father used to mow our large fields with the tractor he adored, but used rarely, there was a fox that used to trot over to moment the tractor growled into gear. He knew what the sound of that tractor meant, he knew that the sound of the tractor was a foreshadowing of the falling of the tall rye grass that had grown gracefully tall all summer long and was now going to fall. He knew that as the tractor cut swathes through the sea of green, the voles would dive out in front of the falling grain and he would have a bountiful feast. 

I haven’t seen a fox in three years.

Now, of course, since I have chickens, I am gratefully that I have no foxes dancing in my own tall grass, leaping like red dolphins in gracefully arcs towards that moments meals, but it’s terribly sad. There used to be a den each year on a property that now holds a multi-million dollar mansion. There is no den there any longer of course, but I can not blame that neighbor for wanting to tame his wilderness while I sit behind my deer fence denying another creature we’ve all deemed a pest his right to dine in my yard.

I am conflicted. It’s hard to claim a love of just some of nature and not all of it. It’s difficult to feel like I’m making good choices for the planet when I’m choosing to honor my desire to pick tulips and wade among billowing hydrangeas over another creatures right to enjoy them in a different way.

I miss my owls, and for them I bow my head in apology to the silent night and ask for their forgiveness. 

Paige Patterson asks you to save the date for The Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center Get Wild Annual Summer Benefit on August 8th. 

For information and tickets go to 

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