If a Sparrow Falls

05/06/2008 06:13 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A recent post by Mayhill Fowler attracted a lot of attention in relation to the race for Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania. But I was struck by something else - "The ravages of mining and old-style manufacturing have been unable, after all, to break the bond Pennsylvanians have with the natural world. Driving through the western part of the state, I thought again and again what great deer hunting country it is, and how my dad, a hunter in his younger days, would love it."

You see I drive past a forest and I am struck by its richness and ecological variety. By the way that plants and animals fit together in complex relationships that keep the whole thing functioning. I will sense the great age of individual trees, and the much greater age of the forest itself - the thousands of years it took the ecosystem to reach its present structure, the millions of years for the evolution of each of its component parts. I would take pleasure in thinking of the birds and mammals and reptiles and beetles living their lives oblivious to human interests. I would be grateful for the contribution the forest makes to absorbing CO2 and producing oxygen, of protecting the soil and purifying water. And I would stop, and walk in a little way, not wanting to intrude, in order to let all my senses absorb the ambience of this wonderful evolutionary product.

What I wouldn't think about is what an ideal setting it would be in which to take a high powered rifle and slaughter deer. Nor would it occur to me that a desire to spill blood on the ground was evidence of a "bond" "with the natural world". Just the opposite.

On the same day I read another story about how American farmers are dropping out of an environmental program that paid them to preserve grasslands by not cultivating. There is, with rising prices for wheat, soybeans and corn, a desire to cash in with big profits. A "broad coalition of baking, poultry, snack food, ethanol and livestock groups say bigger harvests are a more important priority than habitats for waterfowl and other wildlife. They want the government to ease restrictions on the preserved land, which would encourage many more farmers to think beyond conservation." The response to this has mainly come from hunting groups like "Ducks Unlimited", a spokesman, Jim Ringelman, noted with no sense of irony, it seemed, "There are overriding environmental issues here." The environmental issue of course is to preserve the ducks and other elements of the prairie ecosystems from a return to damaging farming activities on the areas that have been preserved, not to prevent one kind of environmental damage in order to allow the environmental damage caused by slaughtering ducks.

It is all related to the old philosophical puzzle of whether, if a tree falls in the forest when there is no one to hear it, does it really fall? The hunters who think of hunting when they think of forests apparently don't believe the tree really falls unless they are there (preferably there making it fall, in fact). They seem to see no purpose for the natural world other than to serve human interests directly. In fact they may believe that the natural world only exists at the whim of humans. With the slightest movement of a single finger on a trigger a life can be extinguished, with a signature on a piece of paper a forest can be bulldozed. In its purest form this belief extends into the bizarre world of the climate change denier (almost it seems, though not quite, an extinct species now). These people have been known to say, backs against the wall of irrefutable evidence of climate changing, habitats disappearing, species facing extinction, that none of that matters, only human survival counts. In their dreams, apparently, humans will one day wander in splendid isolation, on a parking-lot-bare surface of the Earth from which all extraneous other species have been removed. Or as the farmers said "bigger harvests are a more important priority than habitats for waterfowl and other wildlife".

Me? I think trees have been falling in forests since long before naked ape human beings evolved on the treeless prairies of Africa.

And, like John Keats, "if a sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel". Keats didn't own a gun, and nor do I.

And on the Watermelon Blog we don't hunt deer.