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On growing, up and old

Bill Meredith

Every year, the yard and garden around our house seem to provide new sources of diversion. Last year it was bumblebees and field mice; before that it was butterflies, hummingbirds and foxes. This year the entertainment, and the source of reflection, was provided by representatives from the opposite ends of the food chain: rabbits and hawks.

The rabbit turned up early in June; while weeding my wife's herb garden, I pulled up the weed it was hiding under before I saw it. It was recently out of the nest, about 4 inches long, and still bearing the white spot on its forehead. Instinct, inherited from generations of ancestors that survived long enough to reproduce, told it there was no chance of outrunning any serious predator at that size, so it darted under another weed about a foot away and "froze." I watched it a while and then left it undisturbed; there were plenty of weeds to pull in other places.

You don't have to learn much if you're a rabbit; life is compressed, and there isn't time. This one spent its pre-adolescent days in the herb garden, and then moved to the flower bed on the bank opposite the porch for the teen-age phase of its existence. It memorized a few reliable escape routes under the junipers on the bank, which it could dart into if one of my grandchildren or a stray cat got too close. That seemed to be the extent of its education. It must have been aware that I was on the porch watching it… I was in plain sight and it surely could smell my cigar. But it came out in the open with blithe unconcern, nipping off blades of grass or plantain stalks and munching them like a kid sucking in strings of spaghetti.

Ecologists use the same techniques as life insurance companies to calculate a statistic called the median life expectancy of animals, i.e., the age by which half of the individuals born at a given time will have died. In nature, rabbits never die of old age; a lucky individual might survive 3 or 4 years, but it is likely that less than half of them survive two months. My rabbit passed that milestone in mid-August; then it moved from its teen-age pad on the bank to the edge of the Great Forest in the back yard to start its adult life. There is food and cover there; but there are also foxes, hawks, owls and stray dogs. Such is life, if you're a rabbit.

Some time last spring a pair of Cooper's hawks homesteaded in a tree in the Great Forest. I stayed away from the area to avoid disturbing them, but as the summer wore on and their fledgling's appetite grew, I often saw them hunting. I didn't see them make a kill, but there was an abundant supply of English sparrows, house finches and starlings to satisfy their needs, and I suspect wood thrushes and song sparrows were on their shopping list as well.

The young hawk left the nest early in August, to the accompaniment of vociferous encouragement from its parents, and it decided to use my yard as a training area for flight school. For over a week if careened wildly about the house like a teenager on a motorcycle, crashing through trees in clumsy pursuit of sparrows and squawking in frustration from exposed perches when it failed to catch anything. It lost a few feathers, but survived that period without serious injury. Its luck held; its parents continued to feed it for a few weeks, and now it is on its own. It knows by instinct what to hunt for and, when the time comes, how to find a mate and build a nest. Its education will consist only of perfecting its hunting skills before fall ends… a small but vital task. Probably fewer than half of its kind survive their first winter.

I thought of the rabbit and the hawk when my granddaughter arrived in August for her annual week's visit. She brought with her a brand-new learner's permit, and it seems that she, who so recently sat on my lap and listened to The Tales of Peter Rabbit, is also preparing to leave the nest. To my wife's consternation, I took her out in our car, and by the end of the week she had learned which way to turn the steering wheel when backing up, when to use the turn-signal, and how to keep the car on the road when meeting on-coming vehicles. There is much more to learn, of course, but unlike the rabbit and the hawk, she has time. On average, we humans spend the first fourth of our lives under parental care and teaching; nearly all of our survival skills come from learning instead of instinct. And then we spend the next half of our allotted years nurturing our own offspring. Such is life, if you're a human.

Having made it through those two stages, I now find myself engaged in the last quarter of the lifespan. There was a time, not too long ago it seems, when my contemporaries were preoccupied with expanding. Our families, our houses, our yards, the number of cars in our driveways, our career ambitions, our waistlines… all were growing with unrestrained exuberance. Then at some point it began to dawn on us that we were not immortal, and the urge to expand began to dwindle. The kids whose growth had been recorded by marks on the door jamb each birthday moved away; houses suddenly seemed too big. Here and there, someone retired early and moved to Florida; someone else keeled over while jogging. Joints began to ache, blood pressure began to rise, and we survivors began to realize that we were ¾ of the way to our own median life expectancy. As this began to soak in, our preoccupation changed, and we became concerned with consolidation, estate planning and contraction of responsibilities. "Downsizing," a corruption of the English language as well as an abominable concept, began to dominate our thinking. The conversation turned from sharing next year's seed catalogs to the advantages of "assisted living," where the lawns and gardens, if they exist at all, are tended by someone else.

The last few decades represent the first time in our history as a species that large numbers of us survived long enough to experience this stage of life. This is a new phenomenon; an ecological system based on the survival patterns of rabbits and hawks, which we humans shared until the last couple of centuries, never had to deal with it. Our success in extending our life expectancy has presented us with a cruel dilemma. It is by no means certain that we can sustain a social system in which a quarter of the population is retired and consuming goods while not producing anything. But it is certain that the planet cannot sustain the population that will result if the rest of the world approaches our life expectancy. I can state the problem; I have no easy answers. I know only that pretending the problem doesn't exist, as seems to be our leaders' policy, will not work.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith