In my six decades of life, I have always lived in what the highway signs refer to as a “thickly settled” area. That’s often been what you might call “an understatement,” considering that for many years I lived within the city limits of Chicago and Boston, respectively.
At some point in those decades, I started turning my attention to the natural world at regular intervals to cope with a distressing sense that nature was in trouble. I didn’t just wake up one day and start to get depressed about the environment. I have a degree in Environmental Engineering and a number of years under my belt of visiting hazardous waste facilities in the great state of Indiana. I needed to connect with nature straight up and have her tell me that everything was going to be OK.
I got that reassurance, finally, when my soon-to-be wife introduced me to bird watching. At that time in the Boston area we were able to spot a large number of bird species passing through, and even living in, the area over the course of a year. It was wonderful and reinvigorating. It restored my sense of safety about the world.
I wish I could say that this feeling of safety has been a constant for me ever since. I don’t tromp around in waste dumps anymore. And even living in a town adjacent to Boston, I still would see some bird diversity from time to time. But it really seemed like the quantity and variety of birds had diminished since the late 90s when we were most into birding. That said, I chalked it up to a combination of shifting migration patterns and my just not paying attention to the birdosphere much anymore.
Then, some 10 or so years ago, I discovered bees. Wow. They’re so cool, so… so… natural, and they were everywhere you could find a flower (which is all over the place in Boston-adjacent towns like ours). Easier to photograph than birds, and it takes less time to do so. When I visit bees, I get close up and personal with them too. Birds don’t let you do that. I was best buds with the bees.
You know what’s coming. Bees have been in trouble for a while now. I didn’t see it for a couple of years, but then about three years ago I did. It was bad. Two years ago I went walking around the neighborhood on a bee-and-photo jaunt, and there was nothing. Nobody. I was crying inside.
Finally I came upon two or three bees, but they were not flying. They were barely even moving, like little bee couch potatoes after a week of binging on little depressing bee dramas on the bee TV. At least I saw some buddies; but I was scared.
The next year, last year, was better. Not at all great, but enough to give me a little hope.
Then, this summer, we moved to a semi-rural part of a small town in Western Massachusetts. When my wife found the place, she was all excited about it, but I was doubtful. It was turning out to be very hard to find a suitable place in the area, and it sounded a little small compared to even the too-small place we were in. But we piled into the car to visit together, then piled out of the car when we pulled into the driveway. The house was fine, size-wise; it just looked a little small with three messy college students living in it.
But I hardly noticed the house. I was in bee-land again, and two hawks were riding updrafts over the meadow next door. And the view. The view was… well, home. You can take this guy out of the city AND you can take the city out of this guy. 100%.
The problems with the natural world remain, and they are guaranteed to get worse – at least for a while. I read a headline the other day about how the new president of Brazil will resume deforestation of the Amazon, and I felt as though a screw had been turned past breaking, inside of me. I do what I can to turn back the tide by what I’ve chosen to do in my work. But over these at-least-51 years (OK, and then some) I’ve learned that I need to live among bees and birds, to maintain my balance. Not beeing here is not an option.
Rich Shandross has studied and practiced Environmental & Chemical Engineering for most of his career. He is currently an Associate Director leading project teams that work on energy efficiency, renewable energy and alternative power sources.