Somewhere, down in that valley, Cow Urine Creek joins Rio Yaque del Norte
If I squint with my ears, I can hear Cow Urine Creek whispering downhill. It is a small creek, a foot or two across, inches deep. I don’t know its actual name—or if it even has a name. Probably not. I have dubbed it Cow Urine Creek for the local prevalence of cattle, which likely adulterates the stream’s purity.
It’s my spot, this tree I’m sitting in. A bulge in the horizontal trunk forms the ideal seat, and a brawny vertical limb is a convenient back rest. I felt a strong sense of fittingness when I reclined here for the first time. This is my spot, I thought. And I reached for my knife.
This is not something I normally do. Carving in bark is frowned upon for people who claim to be environmentally literate. Global environmental crises such as climate change and extinction are overwhelming and make me feel powerless; I could, however, refrain from the simple act of mutilating a tree. Nevertheless, I carved NAG 2016 in the trunk. Marking my spot. I felt no guilt.
Then, as I was repositioning myself, my knife fell from my pocket. I heard it bounce in the leaf litter. I cursed softly, then reached for my journal—but my pen also fell. There was nothing to do but to descend from my eyrie and search.
The pen I found within a moment. The knife was another story. My anxiety mounted as one minute stretched to five to ten. The vegetation was thick. And it was a nice knife. The guilt brewed. Sweaty and bur-stuck and ant-stung, I realized that this was perhaps my just deserve; carve the tree, sin against it, and lose your blade privilege. But it was a nice knife. I did not want to lose it. So, I returned to my house to fetch a machete to shave the concealing thatch of grass and vine.
Island birds are notoriously sensitive to human modifications. Some of Hispaniola's endemics have declined precipitously and are now extremely rare; others, like this Hispaniolan Pewee, remain common (and this one is even using a man-made perch!)
I hacked and swore and sweated. Expanding my radius of destruction, I mercilessly cut any petiole or liana that could harbor my lost knife. As the machete sang, I acknowledged the irony of feeling guilt over carving one tree and then mindlessly decapitating hundreds of plants to find the murder weapon. A second guilt-wave rolled in, and I began to regret my actions.
An hour later I found it half-submerged in the lower tier of litter. My destructive radius had inflated to ten feet; my handiwork rivaled the capability of a John Deere riding mower. I regarded the withered leaves and severed stems and shrugged. Then I stuck the machete in my belt and scrambled up to my lofty office.
I gazed at my blocky, weeping initials and contemplated environmental degradation. This microcosm of clear-cutting rewound the successional clock a few years for a bite-size chunk of riparian forest. My small action operates within the context of this hillside, this valley, the entirety of Hispaniola. All of these scales have undergone significant human modification. It is far from a pristine ecosystem—but let’s be honest: do pristine ecosystems exist? (I’m skeptical.) But, despite man’s heavy influence here, this hillside is an ecosystem. Asthmatic Bananaquits cavort amidst an impressive assemblage of epiphytic orchids and bromeliads, crabs lurk in the riffles of Cow Urine Creek despite the dubious water quality, and Zebra Longwings flutter in and out of the dappled shadows.
Bananaquits, common in the presence of humans. Its Spanish name is Ciguita Común, which means "Common Little Bird."
I pondered my guilt. Why did I balk at cutting a vine but board the plane to arrive here without a second thought? The withered vine is more personal and tangible than the emissions I contributed to with my travels. More confrontational, even—“You cut this. It is dead.”
We must learn to face our modifications to the natural world, both the tangible and nebulous. And it is important to take this responsibility with hope; the depressing and damning messages that are all too common spawn unproductive guilt. Indeed, my supervisor at the Cincinnati Nature Center advised against discussing invasive species, fearing that it would discourage our guests from further engagement with nature.
Pale Cracker, an eccentric butterfly with a great name. They are common at Cow Urine Creek.
If you had not already deduced from my story, I’m struggling to define my place and responsibility in this human-changed world. I love nature and lament extinction, habitat loss, and people’s disconnection from their surrounding ecosystems. I would like to make conservation a priority in my life—and conservation fundamentally requires educating and inspiring others. But I fear being branded a hypocrite for driving a car, eating industrial corn, and cutting my initials into tree bark.
I would like to learn better ways to live sustainably and promote positive education about human impacts on Earth. Let me know if you have any ideas. You can find me in the tree by Cow Urine Creek.