The recent dry weeks (hopefully it has rained by the time you are reading this) stressed out quite a few living things. The garden seedlings were looking pretty sad, but I intervened and watered. The wildflowers didn’t seem to slow down, but blossoms didn’t last as long and upon closer inspection I noticed a lot of desiccated buds. Nothing grew much, but rather stayed the same size, patiently waiting.
More tragically, the dry spell killed a lot of things. The ditch at the top of the hill was teaming with toad tadpoles after the last rain. Alas, the puddle did not hold water long enough, the mud at the bottom cracked and parched. Many tadpole carcasses were curled into c’s like so many fossils. I could see beak marks where other stranded ones had been plucked out by turkeys. I felt a bit guilty that I hadn’t “rescued” them. But, and now I get to my point, sometimes it is okay to let things die.
Sheesh, that’s a harsh statement. I’ll say it again, though. Sometimes it is okay to let things die. Is it comfortable? No. Is it easy? No. Does it make me sad? Yes. Feel a bit guilty? Yes. I understand, though, that life depends on death. Things have to die so that others may live. It is part of a complex balance, and the majority of the time, it happens with ancient understanding. When human emotions are involved it gets a little tricky, but we shall get to that.
Animals and plants understand that the world is an unpredictable place. There are predators. There is weather. There are warm years, dry spells, and cold snaps. There is disease, disaster, and competition. To deal with all this, there are basically two (but always an intermediate gray area) ways of ensuring the survival of a species, or the offspring of a species.
One is referred to as r-strategists. This is the strategy adopted by many smaller animals, as they are significantly more affected by fluctuations in conditions. In a nutshell, they have a whole bunch of babies – hundreds per individual female – and hope that despite the vicissitudes of their environment, some survive. These are the voles, frogs, insects, mice, many fish, and countless others. They reproduce quickly, multiple times per year, and mature quickly. Many waste a lot of energy in frantic living, and don’t care long, or at all, for their offspring.
The r-strategists have populations that fluctuate wildly, which is why some years you have a million chipmunks, and others almost none. Same with voles, that seem to run in four-year-cycles, or rabbits and mice. This year it is chipmunks at my place, not sure about yours.
The flip side of that coin are the K-strategists. Typically, these animals are larger, conserve their energy, take excellent care of their young, often for many years, and so ensure the population remains somewhat stable. These are the deer, bears, humans.
As with anything, it is actually quite a bit more complex than this, I didn’t even get to plants! But this is enough information for me to finally get back to my point. Sometimes it is okay to let things die.
As a K-strategist we as humans are hard-wired to value the young, protect them at any cost, and save them if at all possible. Our survival depends on this, and so we translate the world through our understanding of it. It is the origin of compassion, caring for another who is in a bad place. It is an excellent trait, one that has allowed us to biologically flourish. Allowing something to die without intervening goes very much against this instinct.
That same compassion creates heartache when a storm blows a nest of hatchlings out of a tree, the puddle with the tadpoles starts to dry up, or a duckling gets injured by a snapping turtle looking for lunch. My heart wants to encourage you to embrace your compassion fully and rescue them all. But my head (and heart, too) want you to let nature be nature, to embrace that the death of those animals feeds other animals, that we cannot, in fact, have life without death.
It seems a strange thing to say, but that means there is beauty in natural death. (Human-caused or influenced death is different and a topic for a different day). A deer carcass half buried in the snow, serene. Around it is the beauty – footprints of those nourished by death, foxes, coyotes, crows, songbirds, rodents, opossum, weasel, and more. Come spring, the plants under the remains will be taller, richer. The rabbits that eat the leaves, the songbirds that eat the seeds, stronger and healthier because in that spot something died, decayed, and fed the world.
So, the nestling with no feathers that fell out of its nest and you can’t get it back in, it is okay to cherish and honor that life, place it under a bush, and let it die. It will bring life to another. The orphaned duckling, with no mom in sight, who is lost calling, it is okay to leave it by the edge of the pond. It will feed another hungry mother who is nursing its young. The baby turtles, swimming in the pond with the great big bass slurping them up like candy, it is ok to let them die for they are sustaining the bass. The tadpoles in the puddle… it was okay for me to let them die. The baby turkeys are healthier for it.
It is a cycle, one can’t exist without the other. And while I may water my garden in the artificial food-growing landscape I created, I do not water the hillside, the wildflowers, or the trees. Nature knows, even if it isn’t always pretty to my K-strategist heart, that death is the constant necessity for life.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. Though the Nature Center is currently closed, including restrooms, due to COVID-19 restrictions, drive-thru sales are available from the Blue Heron Gift Shop and Day Camps are open. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Sarah Hatfield is Education Coordinator.