Jay Fleitman: Our natural political world
NORTHAMPTON — My wife and I were floating in our kayaks in a salt marsh on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, struggling with clouds of black flies getting into our eyes, our mouths and up our noses, when the Costa Rican naturalist surprised us. He said he wanted to come to the United States to see a cardinal. He made that comment almost wistfully several times while we were searching for local wildlife.
We had just come down from the mountains of Central America which supports some of the most exotic and beautiful birds in the world. We had been lucky enough to see many of them, but this naturalist just longed to see a cardinal.
We have kept a bird feeder next to our house for many years, and though my wife and I are not serious birdwatchers, it has been fun to try to identify the different species that show up. On our return from Central America, I looked at these birds differently. The cardinals really are quite beautiful, and if I had gone to a different part of the world and not been used to blue jays, I would’ve thought they were extraordinary. The cedar waxwings, the boisterous European starlings, and the woodpeckers with their black and white feathers and the bright red herald behind their heads would be worth seeing in any exotic location. Goldfinches in the spring with their extraordinary bright yellow feathers and black and white wings are worthy matches to any of their tropical competitors.
It was completely understandable why this Central American enthusiast would wish to see these creatures.
We had a similar experience in southern Africa last year. We were in our dinner tent with our African guides after one of our full days on the grassy plains of Botswana looking at elephants, giraffes, lions, hippos and baboons. Conversation soon turned to their questions about North American wildlife. Had we ever seen a bear? What colors were they and how big, and what was the difference between local bears and grizzlies? Had we ever seen a wolf or a coyote, or a raccoon? How big was a moose? What did a skunk smell like? Did people really see wild animals in the United States?
Africans surely knew the importance of preserving their wildlife, but the animals in North America were unknown to them and exotic.
It is still a thrill to see bears in our neighborhood, but it is no longer a surprise. Coyote sightings are frequent, as are visits by deer, raccoons and woodchucks. It is often that I walk my dog at night and smell skunks and hear coyotes. I had a moose just outside our breakfast table three summers ago, saw a wolf behind our house last fall and on a recent weekend saw a bald eagle fly over my house and a bobcat as big as my German shepherd walk by. An African coming to the United States for a safari would have found it all rewarding.
In a similar vein, when we returned from our trip to the deserts and yellow grasslands of southern Africa, on our drive back from the Hartford airport both my wife and I were taken by how intensely green was the countryside we lived in. We had simply never noticed this before.
I am not a naturalist or serious birder. My point today is that so much of what we take for granted in our environment is foreign and exotic for people who live elsewhere. Such can be said about our political system.
Much is made about the current polarization in American politics and the apparent dysfunction of our government. There seems to be a prevailing sense that none of this seems to be working. A cursory walk through American history would suggest that political conflict has been far more severe at many other earlier times in our national life. We could include the time of the revolution, the divisions between Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton, the polarization between the slavers and abolitionists leading to the Civil War, the deep divisions in the early 20th century between the supporters of Woodrow Wilson and those who wanted to stay out of World War I and the League of Nations, and much closer to us now was the national angst that was the 1960s and the Vietnam War.
We only have to look at the events unfolding in Ukraine to recognize that the political life and stability we take for granted in the United States is by no means universal. We can glance throughout the Middle East, Africa, South America and Asia to see that the history of autocratic and brutal societies is not nearly over. Great societies of the past whose civilizations had been broadly unifying, with citizens who likely believed their society would last forever, ultimately have disappeared.
My point is that we need to take a deep breath as a society. What we have in the United States is actually fairly exotic, though we have become casual in taking this democracy for granted. Yes, let’s fight with each other over our issues, but we should keep in mind that there are no bears in Africa or cardinals in Central America.
Jay Fleitman, M.D., lives in Northampton. His column appears the first Tuesday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.