The Christmas season is sort of chain reaction of events, moods and weather. When all the parts of the holiday are just right, you get a very balanced, healthy, perfect holiday. If one thing is wrong, missing or overwhelming, the balance gets tipped the other way. In this way, the Christmas season is like an ecosystem, all the parts working together to create a functioning and healthy place.
It might be easy to forget that you as a human being are connected with the trout in the creek. Or that your dog is connected to humans in the Midwest. We are more and more aware of our connections with other countries through the economy and the ubiquitous ''Made in China'' label. The most important connections, though, the ones that keep us physically and mentally healthy, are the easiest to overlook.
If I had to imagine the perfect gift this Christmas it would be this: that people remember that game consoles, diamond rings, circular saws, frumpy boots, coffee machines, new cars and the like are the extras in life, not the essentials of life. I would love it if, on Christmas Day, people got to open clean air, clean water and rich soil. These are the things that keep us not only alive, but healthy of body and mind. The state of the natural world dictates the state of the living things in the world. The more unbalanced and chaotic nature is, so too are we.
Salamanders rely on spring rains and clean vernal pools.
One of the most incredible things I have ever done was to fill my canteen from a creek running through a banana plantation in Australia. I didn't think water that clean still existed in the wild. That was a great gift, to know that there was a family operating a farm in such a way that you could still drink the water running through it. Another gift was returning home from visiting friends in a big city and being able to stand outside pick out the smells of hemlock, damp earth, rain and the mock orange bush in the front yard.
Healthy ecosystems in this day and age are a rarity. There are some, to be sure, and they are incredible to experience. Most of the wild spaces are unbalanced though. Whether it is invasive species, climate change, pollution, overharvesting, development or neglect, many of the wild places are suffering. The first that come to mind are the most imperiled, like the Arctic and the coral reefs. But even right here in Chautauqua and Warren counties there are places that are unbalanced and unhealthy.
I go for nature walks and go hiking to balance myself. I rely upon the natural world to reset and restart me in times of chaos. It is increasingly difficult to find places that can do that. Erosion on trails, litter washed down creeks, and devastating tree diseases are taking their toll. Invasive species choking a native ecosystem mirrors the clash between cultures in the human sphere. While nature often has no choice in who wins, nature also knows the best strategy is to adapt. And provided with clean air, water and soil nature adapts well. Even in the worst possible situations, nature adapts well. I think of Chernobyl and how a human wasteland has been converted through natural succession and adaptation to a thriving wildlife refuge. Hmmm, perhaps we are a bigger part of the problem than we realize.
This is where the greatest gift comes in. If there is something you can do, give or support that improves the things we all need to survive, I encourage you to follow through on that. Think of it again in terms of the holiday season. If you dread going to the Christmas party with your in-laws, that dread is not only going to affect the party but all the minutes leading up to it. Decorating, baking, wrapping and celebrating all are compromised by one unbalanced element. Your mood affects others and they pass that along to still others. The system becomes more and more toxic. Yet by making one change, everything stays balanced and functions as a whole. Smile, laugh and get through the party - it is a small sacrifice to make for the big picture.
I can't name all the organizations out there trying to clean the air and water, make sure there are healthy wild lands, protect animals and plants, restore habitats, repair damage, and make the connection between you and a trout a healthy one. I just hope that in the spirit of giving, you don't overlook the things that are truly essential to life, that allow us to enjoy all those extras.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and best wishes for the New Year.
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The building is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays and Saturdays and 1 to 4:30 p.m. on Sundays. The building will be open daily the week between Christmas and New Year's. The trails and Liberty viewing are open dawn to dusk. Visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information or call 569-2345.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon.