by Robert P. Barsanti
The Maine turnpike goes through a lot of nature. It wanders through hundreds of miles of pine trees, oaks, and salt water rivers. On our way south from Boothbay, with presents in the back, cupcakes in the front, Dar Williams on Spotify, and the air conditioning humming, we came across Momma Duck.
At seventy five miles an hour, we glanced at her as we swerved wide; she stood in the break down lane with one of her chicks. Three other chicks had been punctuated on the travel lane.
We didn’t speak for a half hour.
We could have said many things. The ducks had waddled into the way of progress. Nobody could make way for ducklings on the Maine Turnpike. We drove too fast. We hadn’t built animal pathways. Modern pickup trucks hid everything within the first five feet of the grill.
We could note that we are our cars. We live in a sealed little room, cooled and entertained with our favorite music, safe with seat belts and crash cages. Progress has moved us away from the humid and loud world, into our own private bubble. With cupcakes.
The less sensitive could point out that most ducklings don’t make it to adulthood. The world is full of predators and storm drains. Evolution requires such sacrifices. The surviving generation of ducks would learn to avoid highways and stick to the woods. Giving ducks names and personalities, as if they were dogs or babies just shows how unsophisticated our knowledge of the woods and fields are.
And yet at least three ducks died underneath the wheels of speeding cars. We felt their loss inside our speeding car.
On Nantucket, we don’t travel as fast as they do on the Maine Turnpike. As a community, we try to be on guard for turtles, ducks, or any other wildlife crossing the road. On our small island, we like to think of ourselves as protectors and stewards of the land. We have a Marine Mammal Stranding Team that will take those animals who found their way out of the life-giving water and direct them back in. I have lifted up a turtle and carried across Polpis Road, then gave myself a hearty pat on the back for my Island Animal Stewardship. I would love to think I am powerful enough to protect the island, or, at least, a turtle.
In that quiet half-hour as we considered the ducklings on the highway, another truth occurred to me. Metaphorically, we aren’t the drivers of progress making unfortunate feathered martyrs as we motor into our bright future. We aren’t the protectors and stewards of the land, keeping Mother Earth happy.
We are the ducks.
We stand in front of a speeding future and calculate the odds of getting our family to survive the path forward. We look at something so vast and so dangerous that it will kill us in a thought, and then we ignore it. We stand on the side of the highway and quack that “Traffic is a myth.”
Global warming is speeding up. In the last week, a foot of rain has fallen on Vermont. Little babbling brooks grew into adolescent thugs that swept through swing sets, houses, mobile homes, and cars. One driver, with New York plates and her hazards flashing on her Mercedes SUV, tried to drive across a hormonal stream. The water took the car for a joy ride, flipping it over and over in the creek bed.
All of that water washed out roads, farms, and 6,671 yards of the Quechee Lakes Lakeland golf course. In a rainstorm that had no name and didn’t even get an interruption into the Ice Road Truckers on the Weather Channel, the Winooski river put feet of water on the streets of the Capital.
On our island, we have accepted that swimming with seals and sharks is okay for us and for our children. Fifty years ago, a movie about a large voracious shark kept millions from going to the beach, and that shark was mechanical. Today, the sharks patrol the eastern shore and chomp seals in half. We sent that video to all of our friends (the ending is not for the squeamish). Then, we put the kids in the Yukon, crank the air conditioning, and deliver them to the predators. I am sure they will be fine.
We live in unprecedented times—so much so that we don’t even notice when the precedent dips under the rising water. The hottest days on record were this month. The hottest month on record was last month. The Caribbean is warmer than ever, and the water around the Florida Keys is 90 degrees. It’s the hottest summer ever…or, as Homer Simpson would say, “yet.”
The new normal is about a century away. In the intervening time, the precedents will keep slipping out to sea with the sand and the bluffs. Next year will be stormier, hotter, and weirder. The year after that will keep going. This will be the best summer to be on Nantucket for the next one hundred years.
Here we are, on God’s Favorite Sandbar, without enough firefighters, without a fire boat that could get to Tuckernuck, and with thousands of beachgoers to witness the Greatest Collection of White Sharks outside of Australia. The fish all have trackers and names; we could print Pokemon cards for each one. Instead of fires, sharks, and erosion, the island selectmen are worried if wetlands regulations will prevent the new houses from having pools. It makes sense to swim in a pool if the sharks are playing in the waves.
When I remember Momma Duck, I think about her last remaining duckling. The two of them hadn’t gone waddling back into the woods, shocked and grief stricken at the loss of three fuzzy fellows. Instead, they stood in the breakdown lane, staring at the traffic. Like many of us, those ducks must have figured that if they ignored the traffic, everything would be just fine.