Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

RIP, Old Friend

I found out today that an old friend died last week.

No, that’s a double misnomer.

He was not old. He only turned 56 at the beginning of December, eight weeks before I reach that age.

And while we knew him for well over 30 years, in the last five we’d become estranged. Not as much a friend. He blamed us for something but we don’t know what. “They should know what they did,” he told a well-meaning mutual friend when she asked why he’d gone silent.

So with the distance the shock was muted. A heart attack, very sudden.

We found out in a roundabout way because of the rupture. Not even his longtime girlfriend - a friend we’d introduced to him and so we lost both - contacted us. She contacted someone who contacted someone who contacted us. These other people, who knew our old friend through Facebook, were very shocked by the suddenness.

My husband, in turn, contacted other people and told them via Facebook. In the old days we would have taken turns on the phone.

As to the death itself, MH and I, however, were not surprised. Saddened, but not surprised. Our friend was a heavy smoker and had been for most of his life. The birth of his only child during his short marriage didn’t end the smoking, and neither did the woman with him when he died.

You never know what will happen, do you? My uncle is in his 90s but is silent with dementia. My father died at 73 with a sharp mind but a body incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease. MH’s parents are active in mind and body while almost at 80. My mother died at 60 of cancer. MH is a former smoker but heavier than he should be. He is the age now our old friend was when he died.

Tufted titmice - or titmouses, as our
late friend called them.

He was a complicated man who took his resentments to the grave. But there are a lot of funny stories we remember, many memories, many good times. Maybe it was some of those times our friend didn’t want to remember and he held it against us that we continued to laugh at some of his exploits.

Those memories became tinged with sadness when our friend stopped talking to us. Now that sadness has deepened.

What horrified me more than our friend dying was the thought of my finding MH on the kitchen floor one ordinary morning. Or him finding me. As the shootings in Newtown, Conn. - ironically, the news came out the day our old friend died - showed us, life is very precious and very easy to end.

You try to exercise and eat right, drink in moderation and not smoke and hope you are doing the right thing, that there isn’t a time bomb in you that will kill you. Our friend smoked and we heard something about heart problems earlier in the year, maybe a malfunctioning valve.

I doubt that stopped him smoking either. Smoking is one of our legal drugs. (So is alcohol. Cigarette ads are no longer broadcast on television but you can still see plenty of ads for liquor and beer.) We know it can kill. But our old friend did not want to stop. We have other friends who refuse to stop, too. They knew our late friend and MH notified them of his passing. Will it inspire them to perhaps cut back? I don’t know. That’s out of our control.

So is finding out what caused the rupture in the first place. We used our mutual friend as a go-between to send our condolences and she passed along our friend’s girlfriend’s thanks. Maybe there will be future communications. I hope so. But if there are I won’t ask her because at this point it really doesn’t matter.

The last time we saw the two of them we were in their house on Cape Cod for a few days. She had him smoke outside - did he resent that? - and we sat with him at one point. He pointed out the tufted titmice he insisted on calling titmouses. He was getting interested in the birds around him and was looking forward to the hummingbirds coming to the flowers of some vines his girlfriend had planted.

I hope he got to see them.

Rest in peace, Steven Mark Perry.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Our Children, Our Guns

It could’ve been your child.

You take his hand and go outside to the morning cold and wait in front of your house together for the bus. Or you take her down the street where other mothers and fathers are waiting for the bus with their children.

The bus rolls up and the door opens. You hug your child. “See you later,” you call. The bus drives off.

Your child never returns.

That didn’t happen. Not this time. But it did happen, in a town not that much bigger than Morris Plains. Newtown, Conn., has been described as “quaint” and a “typical New England town.”

It happened when a 20-year-old man in that town shot his mother, took her legally registered guns - including an assault rifle, the kind used in warfare - and went to an elementary school where he killed the principal, a school psychologist and then shot at close range children, 20 of whom died.

Why does someone need to have pistols, a rifle and an assault rifle in the house? Why does her son, described as having a “history of mental illness,” have access to that arsenal?

Imagine if this had happened in Morris Plains, at the Mountain Way school? Or at the Borough school? Or at Morristown high school? Colombine was a high school shooting, the Virginia Tech slaying a college campus.

What makes this killing horrific is it took place in a supposedly “safe” town,  involved very young children and the way the killer smashed his way into the school, walked into a classroom and start shooting.

It was deliberate, cold-blooded murder for a reason we can’t fathom.

We love our children, passionately. We are ready to lynch anyone accused of being a sex offender and sput their names on a list to protect our kids when they move to our towns. We fight to “choose life” and make sure there's “no child left behind.” We only want them to have the best, a better life than we had.

No matter how bad it gets, the sun rises each day, giving us new hope.

But there are times where we seem to love our guns more. We quote the second amendment of the Constitution in explaining why we have the “right” to have them. We don’t just need them for hunting. We need them for “protection.” We need them to look tough or to have the upper hand in a confrontation with “criminals.”

You watch enough violence on television or in movies or videogames and it makes stories of real murder seem almost routine. You watch the news and almost nightly hear about a young man or woman shot on a Newark street, or a child caught in the crossfire of a gang battle.

Then you hear about a young man walking into a school to blow away a room of first-graders after killing his mother in a “quaint” and “typical” New England town right out of Norman Rockwell.

That is when you realize this isn’t a gang problem or a Newark problem. It’s YOUR problem. It CAN happen here.

The dead mother was a “gun enthusiast” who felt she needed protection in this “quaint New England town” by having two handguns, a rifle and an assault weapon in the house. Did she consider she might someday need protection from her son?

When my husband and I were children in our respective schools we would settle arguments with fights or with an adult interceding and reasoning with us. Not guns. Now it seems we spend more face time with our computers than with each other, including our precious children (watch how many mothers push a baby carriage with one hand and talk on the other, or how many kids try to get their father’s attention while he’s on the phone).

When we get angry at strangers we rant online. When we get really angry with spouses, children or parents we use the gun in our house.

There should be limits on guns, but it’s unrealistic to just ban guns. These guns used in the massacre were legally bought, after all. Even President Obama, in his address to the nation last Saturday after the shooting, didn’t mention gun control. It’s a touchy subject.

But we also can’t put up metal detectors in front of every building. This is not Orwell‘s “1984.” Since 9/11 we have cameras everywhere and people making a living coming up with encrypted security and others paid to hack into emails and other supposedly private communications. We must now use “keycards” to go into the office, maybe even the bathroom.

And don’t get me started on airport security.

Do you want to go through a metal detector every time you go to the supermarket (remember Gabrielle Giffords?) or movie theater (remember Aurora, Colo.?) or a mall (remember Portland, Ore.?)?

Still, how many more shootings do we have to endure? How many more children have to die?

I don’t know the answers. Consider this post my frustrated screaming in the wilderness.

My older niece is a teacher in a private school in a “quaint” Connecticut town not far from Newtown, and she told MH that when she heard the details of the shootings in her car after school she drove home crying. She later called her mother, an art teacher of young children in New Hampshire, talking about “her kids” and how saying goodbye to them for the weekend seemed so inadequate. She wanted to hug them all extra hard.

Her kids. Our kids. We proclaim that life is precious, but every gun reminds us it is also very easy to cut short.

I am sure every parent in Morris Plains hugged their children of all ages in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting. Your children did come home. The school bus did arrive in the afternoon and your son or daughter hopped off and into your arms.

This time, they came home.

This time.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and the Birds

When Hurricane Sandy struck just days before Halloween it flooded the coast and took down hundreds, if not thousands, of trees with extraordinary strong winds inland, putting buildings and people in the dark.

NJ Audubon's Scherman Hoffman center, NJ Audubon's main office and the nearby Great Swamp were hit particularly hard by the felling or shredding of trees (such as this one on Pleasant Plains Rd. in the Swamp). A friend of mine who lives not far from Scherman Hoffman had no power for nine days and refused to leave her increasingly chilly home without her animals. Luckily, they all survived.

In open areas, the devastation from Sandy doesn't look like much. But
in the forests and suburban yards, it's worse.

During this time -- once I got my power back -- I sent a lot of emails to friends and family affected by the hurricane including relatives in eastern Canada, where the storm was headed next. As it turned out, my relatives were not affected.

One of them, a budding birder, asked me in his response what happens to birds, particularly migrating birds, in a hurricane. He was not the only one who asked me that question. I guessed that, presuming the birds weren’t slammed into a building or tree, those stopped by the wind either hunkered down at the closest safe forest or pond until it was safe to proceed or traveled west to fly around the storm.

As it happened, New Jersey Audubon soon put out a press release on that very subject.

It says, in part:

The good news is that there is little evidence that the storm had a serious, direct impact on breeding or wintering bird populations. Late October falls right between that time when summer residents have migrated and most winter residents arrive.

(Well, that’s a relief.)

But it is almost certain that the flooding tides caused mortality among rodent populations, thus reducing the prey base for wintering birds of prey. New Jersey’s Atlantic and Delaware Bay marshes rank among the planet’s greatest winter raptor strongholds. This year, many Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harrier, Short-eared and Long-eared Owls will be forced to move on and hope to find less affected areas to meet their food needs.

(So much for seeing Roughies or SEOs at the usual places this year.)

The storm also stripped much fruit and seed In woodlands, high winds stripped trees of fruit and seeds sending such wild bird staples as acorns, wild grape, poison ivy berries to for forest floor where snow or ice may put them out of reach. There may be an issue for cavity nesting species, like woodpeckers, if many of the dead standing trees went down in the storm. Importantly, if natural disasters become more frequent or are of greater magnitude, it may be beyond certain species ability to compensate and eventually recover.

I sent this press release to my relative, but I don’t know if it will comfort him all that much.

Sandy has upended everything. Weeks of leaves came down in a day. The irruption of winter finches from Canada that came over the border in search of food a month ago are now elsewhere in NJ, certainly not at my feeder, where the trees weren't felled and the seeds not destroyed. (Alot seem to be in center Jersey and points south, according to the reports.) Despite the NJ Audubon press release, I've had no problem finding raptors including redtails, harriers and accipiters, such as this Cooper's hawk that has been scaring birds away from my feeders.

This immature Cooper's hawk likes to scare the birds away
from the feeders but I've yet to see it catch anything.

The New York and New Jersey beaches where piping plovers, least terns and other endangered shorebirds nest are gone or vastly depleted. Like a shuffled deck of cards, birds normally found out at sea – scoters and pelagic birds, for instance – found temporary shelter in inland lakes and reservoirs – a delight for birders but a cause of concern for those of us who are noticing these “100-year storms” are becoming much more regular.

What is happening to the birds is dwarfed by what is happening to the people who live in New Jersey’s coastal communities, some of them for generations. I feel very sorry for these people (although not for those “summer people” who built their “cottages” on the dunes – an abomination in itself – and refused to allow protective dunes to block their view of the ocean. These towns, such as Holgate, were hit hardest.).

But as any sailor knows, the ocean giveth and the ocean taketh away. Towns are wondering how to rebuild in areas where no home should’ve been built in the first place. (There’s a reason they are called barrier islands.)

Will New Jersey heed Sandy’s warning? Will those who think they’ve “made it” by building a house with an ocean view understand that man is no match for Mother Nature? Will homes and roads on the overpopulated barrier islands be built to withstand the next Sandy?

Or will they be rebuilt the same as before in the name of expediency and getting things back to “normal”?

There’s always the option of not rebuilding and allowing nature to take its course. (That sound you just heard was the collective scream of every public official from Governor Christie on down.)

Won’t happen. Too much tourism and property tax money at stake.

But it will be a shame that the opportunity to rebuild smarter – or not at all – will likely be squandered. Until the next storm.

The birds don’t care. They never do. They will just go elsewhere to survive. New Jersey will be the poorer for it.