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Humanist Essay for September 2013
"Conflict of Interest"
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[Reprinted from the HSNM September 2013 Newsletter.]

The pair of Cooper's hawks that nests in the fringe of trees lining the irrigation ditch has been quite visible this past month. I have delighted to see them maneuvering through the treetops with strands of dried grass and vine for their nest or flying low in a zig zag pattern over the ditch to flush out prey. I startled one out of the brush grasping a fresh kill in its talons, and I saw one up in the cottonwood tearing into its meal and then cleaning its beak on the rough tree bark. The dogs are well aware of the discards of the hawks' kills, and ocassionally the hawks themselves leave a feather behind for me to wear in the band of my straw hat.

Sometimes a hawk will pay me a call. The hawk perches on the cable over the back alley, and we get a good look at each other out from under cover of the trees. But it is disconcerting to have the predator lurking around my own turf.

There is a pair of thrashers living in the walking stick cactus at the back of our property. We (humans, dogs, thrashers) have grown used to each other. One evening I got to see three baby thrashers pop out of their hiding places and perch on the tips of the cactus, waiting for their parents to bring them bugs. Over the next week, I watched the chicks practice hopping from the cactus to the back wall, then flutter up into the tree. Soon they were following their parents around the yard. The hawk started showing up late morning hoping to catch one unawares.

hawk   thrasher baby   adult thrasher

"Oh no you don't!" I told the hawk, whom I had watched for eagerly not half an hour before and just half a block away. "Go hunt somewhere else!" I paced around the cactus protectively while the thrasher shrieked. (One of the adult thrashers will sound the alarm to get everyone back into the cactus and then keep shrieking as long as the hawk is perched overhead.) The hawk reluctantly gave up and glided slowly northward, hunting. The thrasher popped out of the cactus, and we stood companionably watching the sky for several minutes to be sure the hawk wouldn't circle back.

The hawks have their own demanding young to feed. I have seen them too. And I wonder if my sentimentality has subverted some precise, passionless law of nature such as: for every three baby thrashers born, one must be taken by a hawk. And if such a rule exists, are the hawks themselves aware of it? If the hawk were to snag one of our thrasher babies, would it move on to another nest? More likely, wouldn't it come right back and try to repeat its success? I'm not sure that the hawk has a sense of fairness, or that the thrasher would be philosophical about the loss of even one chick.

One can get into trouble ascribing human feelings and resasoning to other species. But we can learn quite a lot from watching the variety and interplay of life around us, as well as our reactions to it. Fairy tales and fables feature much interaction between people and animals and often the transformation of one type of creature into another. The animals and plants with their characterstic traits provide metaphors for all of the internal, interpersonal and practical conflicts that plague the human mind. The imagery of the plant and animal kingdoms surely preceded language, and is still pervasive in our thoughts whether or not we live in close proximity to nature. While there are many environmental reasons to protect the diversity of species and prevent extinctions, I think that our inner lives would also be far poorer without the wild things.

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Copyright © 2013 Zelda Gatuskin

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