in my own backyard

by The Design of Things


I’m in a science book club. I’m the only non-scientist. There are three ecologists, an ornithologist, two biologists, and a physicist. (They all walked into a bar…) They named it Dangerous and Wondrous Science (DAWS) and our instruction is to choose books that offered “dangerous” – table-upending – ideas that also transmit the wonder of the world to readers. We started with the Origin of Species.

One of my persistent worries is about the state of the natural world. I’m not helped right now by our current book selection, The Sixth Extinction, by New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert. You can imagine what it’s about. Things are not looking good. So far, the book is wondrous in the sheer magnitude of what it presents – it’s kind of mind-blowing to get the sense of the vastness of geologic time, time that contains entire previously populated Earths (ending in various types of apocalypse) that look nothing like this one. Or, get this, the idea that extinctions might occur in “periodic bursts” having to do with “the passage of the solar system through the spiral arms of the Milky Way,” as two scientists surmised in 1984 (later debunked.) Or even just the idea that humans are the only species that can and do go everywhere – one effect of which is tramping fungi around that are killing off the world’s amphibians.

It’s freaking me out.

I fret that modern people are not connected to the natural world and so will speed the rate of destroying it. Then I looked at how I spend my days. I hurry through, intent on work and to-dos and do not take the time to notice that much.

Today was warm for October. (Let’s not even get into that.) The garden looks tousled and beautiful in that fading autumnal way. When I was finished working, I took my laptop and yoga mat and set out to do stretches in the backyard along with “My Friend Maia,” to enjoy things just as they are right now. I also took our terrier out, because he, too, needs some time just hanging outside, rather than being hurried down the sidewalk twice a day by preoccupied and impatient me.

It was already getting dark, and the leaves on the trees looked even more orange against the cloudy sky. I started the stretches, tried to enjoy. (“Have some pleasure!” said Mrs. Soprano to Tony.) A little bird flitted around in circles overhead. Only it was a bat. Winging around in that batty way, as if its wings were pulled by strings. He circled and circled and then disappeared.

Aren’t they going extinct too? Aren’t they afflicted by a mysterious fungus also? He was gone for a good ten minutes, and then he came back. Then he left again. And then he came back. And then he came back.