Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Nuclear Death Row

I wrote this after waking from a terrifying dream. It has little do with birding per se but a lot to do with the world, which is why I posted it on LinkedIn and am reprinting it here because, well, it's mine anyway.

Last night I had a strange dream. It was inspired by the recent massacre in Paris, the revelation a bomb strong enough to blow a passenger jet out of the sky could fit in a soda can, and what I read in a 20-year-old essay by evolutionary biologist and prolific columnist (for Natural History magazine and others) Stephen Jay Gould.

In my dream, my husband and I were vacationing on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts - as we were recently. Somewhere in the world terrorists (let’s call them the Islamic State, which goes under a variety of names but here I’ll call it ISIL) detonated an atomic bomb powerful enough to obliterate the target and thrown enough debris into the sky to blacken it.

This toxic cloud was pushed east quickly on the prevailing winds. In each nation the ensuing darkness and the chemicals started killing people in huge numbers.

Being on one of the easternmost parts of the United States, I watched the reports of the inevitable death coming and felt helpless, as though I was on Death Row.

Worse, as the news reports continued nonstop, mayhem ensued.

Who cares about deadlines when we’re all gonna die anyway? Who cares about rule of law? Who cares about money? Just smash a window, take what you want. You don’t like that black guy? Forget social media, get a gun and shoot him. Blow up the mosques. Hang the Jews. Who cares?

Americans rampaged in the streets. And there was nothing the President of the United States, the politicians agitating to replace him, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the New York City police department or anyone else could do about it. Death was coming. This is when I woke up.

Where does Stephen Jay Gould come in?

I am reading his 1995 collection of essays, “Dinosaur in a Haystack.” One includes a 1994 account of the comet that hit Jupiter ago, creating huge craters and throwing up thick clouds of the gases from within that quickly encircled the planet. Gould ties these events to the then-radical theory dinosaurs were obliterated from the face of the Earth by a huge asteroid that hit the planet, blackening the skies.

Gould even asked the main author of this theory, Luis Alvarez (who won a Nobel Prize for physics and worked on the atomic bomb), how that could happen. He was told, and I quote from the book, “a bolide six miles in diameter would strike the earth with ten thousand times the megatonnage of all the earth’s nuclear weapons combined.”

That must’ve been some comet. The comet fragment that exploded 28,000 feet above Siberia in 1908, known as the Tunguska event, flattened 1,000 square miles of forest, Gould wrote. Luckily, it was in an unpopulated area.

The A-bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 did hit populated areas, causing death and destruction. The bombs ended that part of World War II but started the Nuclear Age.  We’re still dealing with the fallout 70 years later.

Could a terrorist group create an mega-ton A-bomb in a can? Maybe not now. But what if the geniuses who shrunk a computer to fit in a wristwatch were paid enough to develop one?

Politicians in both U.S. parties have no problem screaming for nuclear devastation of ISIL. “Bomb them back into the Stone Age” is a common theme in social media. Bombing civilian women and children along with the terrorist cells doesn’t seem to be a problem. “Nuke them all!” one normally rational friend said of al-Queda and all Muslims after the 9/11 bombings in 2001.

Gould died of cancer in 2002. He lived to see the change of decade, millennium and the making of war that could put all of us on nuclear Death Row at a moment’s notice. Nations don’t make war anymore, people - with the ideology, followers and especially the money and technology - do. Can they be stopped? I don’t know but the prognosis isn’t good.

In 1950, the folk singer Ed McCurdy wrote “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” a pro-peace song in which the world’s leaders came together and agreed to “put an end to war.”

A nice sentiment, but my strange dream shows nothing has changed.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

On Leaves, Birds and Bears


Out here in the suburbs it is currently leaf blower season.

I am on my back porch, looking at a clear blue sky on an otherwise perfect autumn day in November. My next-door neighbor, in his shorts and blasting music through his headphones (as I am, if you can call harpsichord Bach "blasting") is using his blower to push the leaves off the grass, perfectly demarcing the edge of his property.

When he is finished, as sure as the sun's position will change, another neighbor will take up the challenge and blow his leaves around for a while. And so it will continue all day in the "quiet" suburb where I live. (At least it's not gunshots or a car alarm - yet.)

Pods and acorns found under the fallen leaves. (Margo D. Beller)
I did the same thing myself yesterday, using the blower to push the elm and maple leaves into piles that MH and I would then rake into blue tarps and dump at the curb for pickup by our town. Unlike the front yard, this is actually easy. In the front yard we have locust trees, one of which is a female tree that gets loaded with long, hard, smelly pods that must be raked down because they are too heavy for our blower. Unlike the previous week, there were few pods so I can pick them up rather than rake and strain my arms.

I was quite pleased with our effort, until I awoke this morning and saw that the wind had changed and it had brought down more pods as well as a lot of the remaining oak leaves. Being a Sunday, the infernal sound of my neighbor's and others' leaf blowers started a little later this morning, 9am instead of 7:30.

This is part of the suburban ritual. As the summer heat starts to fade it is time to pull up the annuals, mow the grass and put out mums. As Halloween nears it is time to put out pumpkins, corn threshes and take the kids to the nearest farm so they can experience something resembling rural life. Then the leaf blowers start. After Thanksgiving, start expecting snow and snowblowers clearing driveways, but sidewalks only begrudgingly.

I try to fight against this ritual as much as I can but I can't avoid the pods or the leaves that thickly mat the lawn and can do some damage if not removed. So every year we rake and every year, the day after we expose the deep green of the lawn, more leaves fall and remind us there is more work to be done and there is always more work to be done.

Like all of life's burdens that never end.


"Where are the juncos?" MH asked me the other afternoon as we were having our dessert on the porch before the light faded.
Junco (Margo D. Beller)
MH has a more scientific bent than I, and he tracks when the chipping sparrows and catbirds depart to be replaced by white-throated sparrows and juncos, which is a cousin of the sparrow. White-throats and juncos usually start showing up in October. I don't note the exact day but MH has a calendar embedded in his head and to him the juncos were overdue.

I had seen a couple of juncos one afternoon when I went to the feeders to chase off the horde of house sparrows mobbing it. The juncos flew off and I haven't seen or heard one in our backyard or at the feeders since then. I have been hearing the two-note call of the white-throat but have only seen one that took close to a week to get comfortable enough to come out of the bushes and stand on the flood wall. When I chase off the house sparrows it stays put because it is not of the house sparrow clan. (House sparrows are not really sparrows but old-world weaver birds that came along for the ride and proliferated in the new world over these many centuries.)

So I thought about it. Migration in my part of northern New Jersey had been very bad - "good" birds seen in much smaller numbers than usual, storms blowing many birds over New Jersey southward or eastward over oases such as Central Park in NYC. It could be that ever since the last bear attack I've been taking feeders in and so there is no seed available in the very early hours when I've found cardinals and white-throats and juncos like to feed.

White-throated sparrow (Margo D. Beller)
It could also be the horde of sparrows. Unlike the titmouse or the chickadee that grabs a seed and flies off, the sparrows crowd into the house feeder, fighting each other. I now have a second, caged feeder out for the other birds.

Like the unusual warmth we have had the last few weeks (when temperatures fall back to where they are supposed to be, the weather forecasters seem to treat it like some sort of calamity. "It will be 35 degrees colder tomorrow than it was today!!") that I attribute to the wacky weather patterns created by global warming, the sparrow explosion is man-made. A former neighbor kept a feeder going all year long, including the summer, and filled it with millet, a house sparrow's favorite food because it is small and easily cracked open. The abundance of food created a population explosion.

Unfortunately, that neighbor moved out and, after an initial attempt, the people who moved in use the feeder pole more for hanging plants than bird food. So this large sparrow population - which has made nests in trees, shrubs and the spaces next to window air conditions such as my neighbor's across the back yard - are coming to my sunflower seed feeders en masse.

I find myself coming out to refill the house feeder during the day or, if I am sick of the mess, taking the house feeder in, which deprives the cardinals of food because they can't fit into the caged feeder. Then I must go out just before dusk, after the other birds have tucked themselves in for the night, to allow the cardinals a last meal before dark.

So these bigger, more aggressive birds may be the reason the juncos are "late" in arriving. When the real cold comes and the snow falls and I can safely keep the feeders out all night without fearing another visit from a bear, perhaps the winter birds will finally show themselves. Desperation will make even the smallest bird fight a house sparrow.


In late October, in the middle of the day in the middle of the large county seat's large green, a large bear was spotted in a tree by a police officer. The lunch crowd was immediately ousted from the park and people started taking videos on their phones to post to YouTube. Snarky comments voiced more support for the bear than for the police officer, and comments regarding the color of the bear - black - were made both pro and con, as stupid comments will be made when you don't give your real name.

The bear, meanwhile, stayed put, and from the comments I've read most people were mighty pleased to see a bear in the middle of Morristown. It was a big story that made headlines in newspapers and on the evening news.

I heard this story and knew, just knew, that this bear was the same one that had walked into my yard on a sunny September afternoon on a Sunday when people were in their yards or strolling in the street and grabbed at my house feeder, ripping off an iron feeder pole arm, before ambling across the yard and along the next street, where I managed to see it heading north.

Black bear, 2014 (RE Berg-Andersson)
I also knew that if this 200+ pound bruin had been in the backyard of any of these people, threatening their feeders or, worse, their pets or small children, they wouldn't have been so happy to see a bear in the middle of the day in the middle of a heavily populated area.

The black bear was later tranquilized and brought down by the fire department in a cherry-picker, then taken away. However, while in the past such bears were taken to the far corner of the state, this time it was taken to a Wildlife Management Area not that far (for a bear) from where it was found.

This has happened too many times, and that is why New Jersey has expanded the bear hunt. It has become expected bear will show up on wooded hiking trails or in farms or the backyards of some of the more rural parts of the heavily populated state of New Jersey, but when they start showing up in towns and cities you know the situation is getting out of control.

The "bear people" blame suburbanites such as myself for having bird feeders and garbage pails out. They say we need more "education." I can't speak for the education level of the people watching the Morristown bear but I was quite alarmed they didn't realize this was no TV show but a wild animal loose among them.

Perhaps the state thinks the bear they removed will hang around the WMA in time for the bear hunt. Perhaps they are hoping the bear will get tired of all that wandering and stay put for a while, maybe den in the woods for the winter. But why should a bear remain in a WMA scrounging around for dried berries when it can come into Morristown on a fine, sunny day and dumpster dive the town's many fine restaurants?