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Optimism in an Uncertain World

Bill Meredith

Optimism: The doctrine, or belief, that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong.
                            …Ambrose Bierce, 1911. The Devil's Dictionary.

Anno Domini 2010 is here. The other day I heard someone remark that the "00's" are over, and we're starting the "teens" decade. Technically, the first decade of the 21st Century won't end until this year is over, but most of us don't think that way when we are scratching out incorrectly-written dates in our checkbooks. Time means different things to different people. For example, you'd think younger folks should be looking forward with hope while oldsters look backward with nostalgia, but it doesn't seem to work that way. My middle-aged kids are starting to refer to the 20th Century as the good old days, while my contemporaries look at the demographic tables and realize that we have passed the age listed as our life expectancy, and we look forward with dismay when it dawns on us that 10% of the 21st Century has flown by. The remaining 90% does not look conducive to optimism… a matter of concern, even though I will not see most of it.

I'm not an optimist of the type Ambrose Bierce defined, but I do like to keep a positive outlook on things. As I left church one Sunday last month I was pondering the increasing difficulty of being optimistic when I happened to notice a small plant growing out of the side of the building. It was a common garden weed called henbit, a member of the mint family, and in a sense an illegal alien; its European ancestors were stowaways on a ship some 350 years ago. It has reddish-purple flowers which produce large numbers of tiny seeds; they can survive for years until they're blown or washed to a place where they can germinate. Evidently a seed that was blowing around in the dust last fall happened to stick to the brick wall of the church, and started to grow.

It couldn't have picked a worse place to start its life; it is on the southeast side of the building, where the sun is hottest and the water evaporates fastest, and the nearest soil is three feet below it. Nevertheless, it managed to force a thread of a root into a crack in the old mortar, and to produce a two-inch stem with four dime-sized leaves. It can bloom even in cold weather, so if something doesn't knock it from its perch it will start making its own seeds before long. If it were capable of thinking, we could argue about whether it was stupid or audacious to pick a place like that to grow; but regardless of the verdict on that point, we would have to agree that it is optimistic to keep trying.

Thinking about that cheered me up as I went on home, so I decided to go for a walk that afternoon. The path toward the creek was overgrown with briars, so I was making more noise than usual. There is a place in the creek where some branches and debris got trapped against the bank and created a pool of still water, and as I approached it three ducks took flight. Visibility was poor because the afternoon sun was low and directly in front of me, but their whiny squawks identified them as wood ducks. They are the most colorful of our local ducks, and I knew what they looked like even though I couldn't see them very well, so I watched them fly off across the field and circle back toward the creek farther upstream. Even a cynical curmudgeon like Ambrose Bierce would have agreed that they were beautiful.

When they were out of sight I glanced back at the water, and there on a partly submerged log was an otter. It was watching me as I watched the ducks. It was the size of a large cat; the fur was dark gray-brown on its body but lighter gray on its face, and it had heavy white whiskers. Otters are supposed to be nearsighted, but this one had an alert, quizzical expression and seemed as interested in me as I was in it.

We stared at each other for a full minute, and then it turned around with eel-like smoothness and flowed into the water. Its tail was thick and heavy at the base and tapered to a point as it disappeared. In a lifetime of studying stream ecology, that was only the second one I had ever seen (the other was in Florida, about 10 years ago).

I first learned about otters in a book by Ernest Thompson Seton, which I read when I was about ten. Seton described vividly how they would run through the snow and slide on their bellies for the sheer fun of it, and how they slid down banks to dive into the water. They were once common in forest streams throughout the country, but trapping and degradation of streams by mining and agriculture eliminated them from most of their original range. They still occur naturally in the tidewater areas of Maryland, and were re-introduced several years ago in Allegheny County; the one I saw might have come from either of those areas via the Potomac and Monocacy rivers.

It was probably a young one that had been kicked out of its parents' territory last fall and wandered off to seek its fortune, as happens with many wild animals. It will find fish and crayfish to eat here for a while, but probably will not stay around. More likely, it will wander about the local streams, stopping frequently at logs and tree trunks to leave pheromone-laden messages, like dogs at fire hydrants, in case another of the opposite gender should happen by. In view of its population size locally, this is unlikely to happen; but, in the kingdom of otters, you have to be an optimist to survive.

Turning toward home, I was stopped in mid-amble (I don't stride any more) by the hooting of a great horned owl. Usually they are heard at night, but this one must have got up early, and it sounded fairly close. Its call was answered by another, slightly lower in pitch, and farther away. The two were surely a mated pair; the one with the deeper voice was the female, which, like many birds of prey, is larger than the male. I tried to answer them by imitating their calls; it was a poor effort, but it must have made them curious, for I saw one of them after a few minutes. They establish their territory and start courting in December, and lay their eggs in January.

At first glance this seems like a strange schedule; it takes a lot of energy to maintain body heat for brooding eggs in the winter, and occasionally storms may destroy nests. But, they're optimists; if all works as planned, the eggs will hatch after a month of brooding, and there will be enough prey animals to sustain small nestlings. They will grow fast, and demand more food by March, but by then there will be plenty of mice, squirrels, rabbits, and skunks to meet their needs.

I went home without further incident until I reached the back yard; one of the owls was there in a tree watching me. I guess it was aroused enough by my attempt to imitate its song to make sure I wasn't an owl in disguise, threatening to move in on its territory. After all, even an optimist can't be too careful.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith