The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

Change in slow motion

Cedar WaxwingI’ve captured some amazing specimens while out bird hunting (with the Nikon camera), but when I looked at the images of the mostly tawny body, crested head and black bandit mask I’d captured the other day on South Mountain, I darn near danced. I’d always had a sneaking suspicion Cedar waxwings existed only in the Hallmark store, like the ornament my sister sent me as a tree decoration one recent Christmas. Until the other day, on South Mountain.

Cedar waxwings live in Pennsylvania year-round, but their population thins as one looks southerly on a map. According to my bird book, they can be found in winter as far south as Georgia, and seem to favor small mountains and berry bushes.  I found them at nearly 1,900 feet above sea level, in a spot where a nearly non-existent breeze was made stronger and cooler as it channeled up a dent in the ridge. That breeze and the blueberry barrens near where I found them was what drew them.

Maybe, the way the climate is warming, their southern winter range in a few years will be southern Pennsylvania, where the seasons at the ends of the calendar are marked by little snow and not really much cold, and summers are becoming oppressively hot.

Bald Eagles, though not crowding airspace near my home, are commonly reported. And I have heard that on a nearby lake, Common loons reside; my failure to observe them likely means I have not been looking at the right times.

A colleague who tracks disappearing species says it is unlikely either Bald eagles or Common loons will completely disappear anytime soon – and by anytime soon we mean the next 100 years or so.

“They’re pretty healthy in most places,” said environmental writer John R. Platt, “but, yeah, some other species are probably headed towards (sic) dodo territory.”

A report published last year, said the Bald eagle – a species many conservationists point to as a signal success story – could lose 75 percent of its range by 2080. Platt is likely correct in saying they will not become extinct in the next century, maybe longer – but they may well move away from South Mountain.

Environmental photographer and writer Krista Schlyer, in her book “Continental Divide,” describes years of observing the effects on wildlife as it tries to move northward to escape the heat and drought, but runs into a fence intended to keep undesired immigrants in their place. Most of the pictures are beautiful; the stories, not so much.

Arctic ice at both poles is melting, and the world’s oceans are moving inland. While the U.S. was experiencing winter 2014, South America was battling its way through a summer drought. Now it is our turn, as our western half dries and turns to tinder and ash.

“It’s dry as heck,” Platt emailed this week. “People always talk about Portland (Oregon) as if it’s the rainiest place on Earth. The reality doesn’t seem to match the legend.”

Critters, including humans, find agreeable places to live and thrive. Change their environment, and they are left to choose between moving and dying.

My sociology professor said human memory is about 50 years. We assume the way it has been the past half century is the way it always has been, and always will be.

Most of us just now starting families will be near the end of our time in 2080. Grandchildren of today’s kids will be looking at pictures of Bald eagles and dreaming of a trip to Alaska to see a flying in the wild. Experience will tell them the eagles have never lived this far south.

The greatest signs of change are far away, or slow in appearing – so slow, relative to human lifespan, most of us do not notice it happen at all.

But our offspring will notice, when they read about the way it was “back in the day,” when eagles flew over the county.


  1. I enjoyed reading this, John. So true about our human memories. It reminds me of my mother saying how the Murrumbidgee River at Hay was clear when she first came to the district in the early 1960s. Thanks to the introduction of European carp and weirs artificially regulating the flow, the river is a muddy opaque colour and has been all my life to date.

    • John Messeder

      August 14, 2015 at 23:22

      I’ve seen lots of technology come on the scene and lots of fresh water become unavailable, the latter either because we poisoned the supply with cars full of oil and toxins escaped from long abandoned mines, or because it has been made off limits to swim or drink unless it’s contained in plastic bottles our concrete shorelines.

      It’d be great to get a conversation going about this stuff.

  2. Pointed and poignant post, John. Thank you.
    I don’t know what the law in Wisconsin is now, but back in the 80s those who lost their trucks/snowmobiles through the ice had to pay $100/day for each day their vehicle was leaking oil, gas, etc. into the state’s waterways and they couldn’t be retrieved until the ice went out in the spring.. I thought that was a good law. When I mentioned it in other states I was greeted with, “Why? What’s the damage?”

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