James Pinsky: The humanity of nature

James Pinsky

Sometimes nature is the only place we can find humanity.

With that in mind, it seems it might be prudent to have plenty of it.

In a forest, if you sit long enough and are quiet, you will see more than leaves, squirrels, and owls. You will see community.

In its most basic form, a forest provides the four essential elements for wildlife,  which include cover, food, water and living space. A forest is also a collaboration of soil, water, leaves, lizards, fungus and fur as an organic metropolis bustling with commuting deer, high-flying crows, stay-at-home fur moms and dads, and yes – strip malls of acorns, pine straw and seasonal berries.

The point is, on any given day, if you pay attention, you will see in our forests what we want to see in ourselves. You will see work, play, hope and even comedy. You will see compassion, justice, mercy and if you’re lucky enough like I was one Saturday morning, bravery far beyond anything Hollywood can create.

A few years ago I was bow hunting near my home in Fauquier County. I sat quite a while, perfectly still, like a tired old dog after a Thanksgiving meal. A few small deer had paraded by me, and above, behind and in front of me more than my fair share of nature’s comic relief, the squirrels entertained me on a level even SpongeBob Square Pants would call weird. As any hunter can tell you, these fur-clowns jump, play, wrestle and frolic throughout the forest like well caffeinated children on the playground. They are goofy, annoying and for years I thought some of the dumbest critters alive. But, what I witnessed next forever changed my opinion not just about squirrels, but also about all animal consciousness, their sense of compassion and how they value life.

To my left about 30 yards was a small open field. Leaves, broken tree limbs and early succession dominated the field. In it was an eager and steadfast gray squirrel working a rock pile for his breakfast. Then, a hawk swooped down on the squirrel. The squirrel barked and tried to fight off the hawk. Then, the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed in my life happened. Another squirrel launched itself out of nowhere into the hawk and knocked it flat on its tail feathers, enabling both squirrels to clear that field to safety faster than Usain Bolt. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed the definition of friendship more clearly by man or beast. To put things into perspective, how many of us would dive head first into a pterodactyl to save our friends?

As a conservationist, some folks have asked me why I dedicate so much of my life to helping ensure wildlife have a safe, healthy and renewable habitat. What some might not understand is I don’t go into the wildness to escape humanity; I often go there to find it. Who wouldn’t be inspired by a world where pint-sized squirrels clothesline hawks to save their friends? How can I not fight for their homes?

I think as much as we think nature needs us, it is us who needs and learns from nature. Maybe the key to saving humanity rests in the forest because it is there, every day, that we’re reminded that nature’s only problem is probably us.

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District. Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.