My dog, Wilbur, and I had been for a walk after supper.
I opened the gate, stepping into the back yard. It was a dark night and quiet. And I heard the call: who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? It was a Barred Owl in woods nearby. Wilbur and I stood still and listened. Eventually it moved off, the call more faint, then gone.
The Barred Owl is a non-migratory species, preferring old woodland habitat near water. Nesting, they lay their eggs in the cavities of standing trees.[i]
I rarely hear them. Far more, lying in bed at night in February or early March—if I happen to be awake—I hear the breeding call of the Great Horned Owl, the classic hoot owl of children’s storybooks.
For the last twenty-three years, Sukie and I have lived in Cumberland Foreside, in what had been an old summer colony, now a year round community.
Three years ago, we installed functioning central heating in our drafty cottage built in 1920. Our neighborhood, Wildwood, adjoins the Payson estate of one hundred acres of woods and fields and waterfront along Broad Cove.
A thousand years ago and more, the land, like much of the land and islands in Casco Bay, was frequented by the ancestors of the Wabanaki tribe, leaving their tell-tales signs of seasonal migrations in the shell middens and other artifacts they left behind.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Town of Cumberland built a poor farm on what is now the Payson estate, where indigent residents would make oakum, a loose fiber obtained by untwisting old rope, and used in caulking the wooden ships built in the Spear’s Shipyard nearby.[ii]
Phillips Payson bought the land in 1936 from property then owned by his wife’s parents. In 1938, he built the estate house overlooking the bay beyond.
When we moved to Cumberland, the matriarch, Mrs. Marion Payson, then in her nineties, was generous toward the Wildwood children, allowing them to tramp through the forest and sled down a long hill through the snowy woods into a field below.
For many years, I’ve keep notes in our family calendar that hangs in the kitchen, writing down when the migratory birds return to the Payson woods, their telltale songs delighting us anew every spring.
Warblers abound—Black-throated green, Chesnut-sided, Yellow-rumped, Ovenbird and many others. The Hermit Thrush sings its wild sweet strains from woods beside vernal pools, where the peepers hold forth on spring evenings. And year round the cackling call of the Pileated Woodpecker, the massive bird that sometimes visits the suet feeder hanging from the white pine in my backyard.
Mrs. Payson died many years ago, leaving the property to her daughter, who in turn passed it on to her children. The grand house on the bluff overlooking the cove stood empty more often than not, too expensive to maintain, the property taxes prohibitive. The caretaker was let go by the family, and inevitably, the estate was put up for sale and was bought by a local developer last spring.
Plans have been drawn up for seven building lots for high-end homes on a parcel of the property. The Town of Cumberland hopes to purchase the remainder of the land from the developer, making available walking trails and waterfront access for town residents. The Paysons donated a conservation easement to the local land trust, although the interpretation of that easement is presently in dispute.
Whatever the outcome, the land will inevitably change. And with that change will come loss.
The house lots alone will mean the degradation of acres of prime woodland habitat. Many of the bird species I mentioned may disappear—far fewer warblers may nest there, the numbers of owls and Pileated woodpeckers, depending on stands of dead timber for nesting, will surely diminish. The Hermit Thrush may pass through on its way to forests further north, but it will no longer dwell in the woods.
If Cumberland does purchase the remainder of the property, it will be a mixed blessing—town residents, while obtaining waterfront access, will enjoy only a fraction of the land’s former glory.
While the story of the Payson property is unique, throughout the country land is threatened by unrelenting pressure from development and large-scale agriculture. By far the greatest threat to bird species is the loss and degradation of habitat. The ongoing loss of our intimate connection to the earth and its creatures, sustaining of the human soul from time immemorial, is itself incalculable.
For we are not only the stewards of God’s creation—tenders of the earth’s garden—we are part and parcel of the fabric of life itself, in which we, and all creatures, live and move and have our being.
In an article entitled Saving our Birds in the New York Times last month, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, John Fitzpatrick, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, Martha, writes of the passing of an entire species:
Possibly the most abundant bird ever to have existed, he says, this gregarious pigeon once migrated in giant flocks that sometimes exceeded three billion, darkening the skies over eastern North America for days at a time...100 years ago this week, the very last pigeon of her kind died in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha, and her passing merits our close attention today.
Mercilessly slaughtered by the tens of millions at breeding colonies in the North and at huge wintertime roosts in the South during the post-Civil War era, passenger pigeons were shipped by trainloads to dinner tables in homes and restaurants across the East. Their population fell from biblical numbers at mid-century to tiny, aimless flocks in 1890. By around 1900 the few birds that remained were all in captivity. The last male died in 1910, leaving Martha as a barren relic of past abundance.
We need to imagine Martha asking us, “Have you learned anything from my passing?”[iii]
Fitzpatrick cites the 2014 State of the Birds report, a periodic assessment of the health of our nation’s bird populations compiled by leading bird conservationists, that notes 230 species on a watch list of birds that are currently in danger of extinction or at risk of becoming so without significant conservation efforts.
But then he goes on to remark on the pioneering conservation work of many, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, and the huge difference that such initiatives have made. We need to redouble our commitment and investment even now, Fitzpatrick asserts, insuring that our great-grandchildren will continue to hear the birds calling from the woods, just as I have heard the owl and thrush from my own backyard.
Aldo Leopold, the author of the great conservation classic, A Sand County Almanac, wrote: We only grieve for what we know.
Leopold was commenting on the increasing rarity of a once abundant species of prairie wildflower in his home state of Wisconsin. How could this beautiful plant have come so dangerously close to extinction, he wondered? Why did its impending disappearance from the world not provoke a stronger response?[iv]
Leopold would suggest that our ability to mourn the loss of species and entire ecosystems is itself a reflection of the ties of kinship that bind us to the lives of other beings. We only grieve for what we know.
I grieve for the impending loss of nearby woods and the banishment of birds that have enriched my life, and that of my children, for years.
Our grief at the degrading of the natural world, though, is a sure sign of our affection and tenderness toward all creation, and of an underlying joyous affirmation of life.
It is the doorway to renewed action and the healing of the world.
And in that, we take hope and even greater consolation. AMEN
* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough; First Sunday of Creation Season; September 14, 2014
Photo: Farm owned by Maria Dalton, worked by the Cram family, late 19th cent., on land that became the Payson estate. Courtesy of Thomas Bennett, Prince Memorial Library, Cumberland, ME.
[i] Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/barred_owl/id
[ii] see Bennett, Thomas Maine’s Pauper Laws and the Cumberland Overseers of the Poor http://cny.mainememory.net/page/2019/display.html
[iii] Fitzpatrick, John Saving the Birds New York Times August 31, 2014
[iv] Christie, Douglas E. The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology Oxford University Press 2013