Chapter 47: Big-Wheel Ecosystem

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–Rabbit Lane is a short nothing of a dirt road in Erda, USA.–

The air was crisp but warmer than a typical January day.  The sky hung gray, and pockets of darker clouds dropped round, soft pellets of dry snow.  Shades of orange accented the western mountaintops.  Feathers of unseen House Swallows rustled from inside Wild Rose and Willow bushes.  The scene made for an idyllic late Sunday afternoon walk on Rabbit Lane.  Idyllic and peaceful . . . except for Hannah (3) riding her big-wheel tricycle behind me.  The wide, hollow, pink plastic wheels ground over the disintegrating asphalt, radiating into the peacefulness the racket of an ore crusher.  I couldn’t hear my wife talk or myself think.

“I’m tired.  You can pull me now,” Hannah announced magnanimously, as if bestowing upon me some privilege.  I unwound the rope leash from the handle bars and yoked myself, the family ox, to pull the tricycle past Witch’s Tree.  A few minutes later, she interrupted her own rendition of Puff the Magic Dragon to inform me, “I don’t need the rope now, Daddy.”  Stopping, I wound it again around the handle bars.  (I had thought that bringing the rope would be preferable to carrying the tricycle.)  She wheeled past me, her long blond hair flowing out from under the cap Laura (14) had crocheted as a Christmas gift: white, pink, and purple, studded all over with purple crocheted knobs.  Hannah wore the cap proudly, even though it had slipped forward to all but cover her eyes.  Turning her head back, she lightly patted the tricycle’s flank as if to urge it forward.

The boys were busy searching for treasures.  Hyrum (8) held a barred pheasant feather.  Caleb (10) carried a walking stick fallen from a dead Cottonwood.  John (12) discovered a mouse skull complete with long incisors.

Rabbit Lane today—recycled asphalt pressed cold onto rutted, hard-pack dirt and gravel—has deteriorated seriously in just a few years time.  Large patches have become bowls of pulverized asphalt dust, devoid of oil from their old life somewhere else in the county.  Large chunks of pavement break loose and grind to gravel and dust under high chassis.  Where the chunks break clean off from somewhat cohesive pavement, vehicle tires fall in suddenly with a clang and a clunk, jolting the occupants severely, at odds with the pastoral serenity on either side.  Children on bicycles seem to fall into the holes, whereas they used to roll into and roll out of smoother wok holes with a gleeful whoop.  Whole sections of the asphalt road stretch out in a worse condition than the previous gravel washboard and mud-puddled chuck holes.  Again, now with some hindsight, I question the wisdom of the County officials who ordered the lonely road paved in the first place.

Rabbit Lane, in its present helpless and neglected condition, seems to me a symbol of the deterioration of other things that Rabbit Lane knows so well.  Our tender memories of the land, our visceral connection to the land, our fond feelings for the land: the crop land and the pasture land and the tree-lined ditch banks, the ducks and muskrats and pheasants.  Once we felt the need to preserve and nurture the land as it preserved and nurtured us.  We loved it as if it were our own offspring, in whom we both found heritage and left legacy.  More and more these values are considered quaint, hardly relevant to our plugged-in modernity.  We put them behind us in favor of the developer’s dollar, arguing the sacrosanct nature of private property rights while we turn away from the land’s inherent virtues, both corporeal and metaphysical.  How much can I get for it? is the only question we regard, to the exclusion of the paramount questions of a more balanced, georgic age.  Old Cottonwood is slowly dying, dropping its thick bark onto the road to be ground up, its dry dust mixing in to brown the gray of the oil-less asphalt dust.

Rabbit Lane forms its own linear ecosystem, vertically from the ditch bottom six feet below the road to the tops of the cottonwood trees, and about 20 feet wide.  Yes, an ecosystem—with a dirt road at its heart.  So, what is the relative value of the Rabbit Lane ecosystem to this planet of ours?  Is it great, or even noteworthy?  Is it de minimus?  In truth, it doesn’t matter what our answer is.  Every ecosystem is of vital value to those who comprise it, who eat and are eaten, who drink up water and breath in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, who wriggle through mud and who swoop down from the trees and who trot across on all fours.

Many, perhaps most, would say that the world would not mourn the loss of such an insignificant ecosystem.  It wouldn’t be missed.  But I know that I would mourn.  I would mourn the loss of the barely audible trickle of the water through Watercress, the splashing of a surprised Muskrat as it submerges in sudden escape, the yellow and black stripes of the Monarch larva winding its way through fragrant pink Milkweed blossoms, the Mule Deer peering at me from behind Russian Olive trunks in the early-morning mist, the Great-horned Owl springing noiselessly from its tree-top perch.  Pipe the water, slab over with asphalt, rip out the trees, and you have lost something.  You have lost the whispering memories of the Jack Rabbit that fed the farmer’s family a century ago, the echoing hoof beats of old Moses carrying the 1930s paperboy, the delight of laughing boys riding bicycles through mud puddles, and the paw prints of the raccoon in the ditch-bank mud.  A living part of us is departed.

Every night, it seems, new lights appear on the bench lands that sit amidst the feet of the Oquirrh mountains and look over the valley farms and subdivisions.  The lights appear to advance like an army of glowing insects seeking to conquer the higher ground.  We have always coveted the high ground.  It invariably fetches a higher price in our speculations over land.  I suppose we prize the views.  Yet for every foothill house that sighs over its valley views, thousands of other houses look up to see the natural foothills disappearing.  Vinyl siding replaces Gambel Oak.  Better to preserve the high ground as a natural asset for the enjoyment of the commonwealth.

Climbing up out of the valleys has created new divisions of class.  The Contour Class finds its prestige in a map’s contour lines and elevation numbers, in ridiculous driveway slopes, and in the profusion of retaining walls.  It is as if by buying tighter lines and higher numbers, we purchase a license to look down upon the valley dwellers.  Instead, they should gaze gratefully at those that humbly grow the corn and wheat and beef that sustain them and us.  They should acknowledge that the inhabitants of both foothill and valley share the same generous heritage and together lay a common legacy.

During the hours of daylight, front-end loaders, earth scrapers, track-hoes, and back-hoes gnaw their way across the land, the same land that is grazed less and less by cattle, the same land that once housed the stick-and-mud huts of the Goshute Indians, the same land that hides the bed and bank of the ancient Lake Bonneville.  The land itself is a living fossil of prehistoric ocean beds thrust up into mountain spines fleshed with fertile, voluptuous valleys.  More and more it is becoming a land of asphalt, concrete, and boxes we call homes, in one of which I live.

Development is ever approaching with its subdivision sprawl, like an engorged caterpillar bulging forward one bloated section at a time, slowly but steadily, always in one direction: toward the green.  Most people around me see it as the positive, undeterred march of opportunity.  I built a house, too, didn’t I?  Is there a place where one can reasonably draw a line and say, “There, that is the right place for the line”?

“If we build enough houses to reach a population of 50,000,” one public official told me, “we can get our own Costco.”  Perhaps the Costco line is the magic line.

My surroundings seem to be always changing their proportions, like an amoeba that changes shape as suits it.  The weight inevitably changes, tipping the scales, the balance changing between people and nature.  In more and more places, one end of the scale has hit the table, to rest there, flat.

I may have to face the likelihood that the loss of Rabbit Lane, at least its wildness, is inevitable.  The new high school opened its doors at the road’s northern end; the marching band’s drum beats and horn toots drift over the fields.  At Rabbit Lane’s south end, a new One Way sign attempts to alter old habits.  Historic farms have been scraped off for new roads and one-acre-lot subdivisions.  Roadside trees that used to form a verdant tunnel have been felled.  The ditch is dry: the water than ran openly for a century and a half has disappeared into a 12-inch-diameter pipe.

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Others easily accommodate such changes.  I, on the other hand, can’t seem to appreciate the future for my overwhelming sense of loss of the past.  But the Canada Geese still fly, honking, overhead.  The Red-tailed Hawk still shrieks on the wing, searching for field mice.  The Milkweed still blooms roadside, fragrant and pink.  The Mule Deer still hide in the copse.  The cock Ring-necked Pheasant continues to crow.  And I can still feel the leaves of the Russian Olive trees pass through my fingers as I walk down the lane with my arms stretched out.

If it isn’t already obvious, I will confess that I sometimes feel that I own Rabbit Lane, as if it were mine and no one else’s.  The presence of others—cars, joggers, even other walkers—can feel threatening.  Why should I feel this way?  Perhaps it is because on Rabbit Lane I find the peace of solitude like nowhere else, and I don’t want to lose it.  On Rabbit Lane no one can demand anything of me (if I leave my phone at home).  No one can pull me back or prod me onward or knock me off course.  I can simply be.  To be sure, my movements remain linear, together with the movement of time: always forward.  But life doesn’t rush by in a drowning torrent on Rabbit Lane.  Rather, life cradles and caresses, gently turning and rocking as if in a streamside eddy, helping me to see life more calmly, more clearly, from new points of view.  When I rush through my walk—like the mother instructing her child to “hurry up and play!”—I have launched myself into the torrent, and risk missing whatever Rabbit Lane would teach me that day.

So is Rabbit Lane just a short nothing of a doomed country road?  Or is it something more?  You can decide.  As for me, Rabbit Lane is everything.  Rabbit Lane enlightens.  Rabbit Lane teaches.  Rabbit Lane soothes.  Rabbit Lane strengthens.  Rabbit Lane heals.

On a Sunday morning walk on Rabbit Lane before church, I discovered what I had searched for thousands of times and rarely found, a large Monarch larvae feeding openly on a Milkweed leaf.  I left it alone, but told Hannah (8) about it upon my return, gauging her reply.

“Can I raise it into a butterfly?” she asked excitedly.

Short on time, we drove to the spot, carefully picked the leaf upon which the caterpillar fed, and placed them together inside a screen-walled bug box.

“Which end is the head?” Hannah asked, seeing the faux horns on both ends of the worm.  “Oh.  I see,” she answered her own question as the caterpillar began to move.

“You’ll have to feed it fresh Milkweed leaves every day.  Every day,” I enjoined.

“Oh.  I will,” she promised.

Hannah faithfully fed her new tiger-striped friend.  Within a week, it formed a beautiful hanging chrysalis with a black-and-gold band and gold spots.  We used the jeweler’s loop to examine up close the exquisite chrysalis.  Its gold spots and band glimmered like real gold leaf in the sun.  We checked the chrysalis frequently for any change in color that might signal the butterfly’s emergence, though I suspected it to be weeks or months away.  To our surprise, less than two weeks after pupating, a beautiful male Monarch emerged.  He hung on the clear skin of the spent chrysalis, slowly opening and closing his large orange-and-black wings.

Inserting my hand into the box, I coaxed the creature to step onto my index finder, then withdrew him for Hannah to see.  Holding Hannah’s finger with my other hand, I encouraged the butterfly to walk from my hand to Hannah’s.  Hannah watched, elated, in wonderment, as the Monarch crept up her finger, onto her palm, and slowly up her forearm.

“It tickles!” she giggled.

Although the Monarch’s wings were fully extended, they flopped flimsily.  I knew that, in the sun, the wing veins would harden into flight-worthy sails.

“Let’s take him out into the sun,” I suggested.

Hannah carefully walked with her butterfly out the front door, and allowed him to step onto a Milkweed flower cluster that waved in the hot July breeze.  Within minutes, the Monarch lifted himself upon wings into the wind, and we watched him fly around and fly away.  A longing sadness began to settle onto Hannah’s face.

“You did it!” I burst out.  “You raised a beautiful Monarch butterfly from a caterpillar.  You’re amazing!”

“Yes.  I did it,” Hannah agreed quietly, beginning to realize that she had cared for, and raised to maturity, one of planet Earth’s beautiful creatures.

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6 thoughts on “Chapter 47: Big-Wheel Ecosystem

  1. Harv Russell

    Someone once said “everything changes and nothing stays the same”. Thank our dear God that He blessed us with Rabbit Lane. And folks like you to keep it alive and help those who never had this privilege to experience the things that we did to know that there are actually places like this in this tired old world that are or has been exactly as you have said that Rabbit Lane is ..and maybe even in some cases a little more-so.
    But I am still hoping that you will be publishing printed material soon . (if you haven’t already that is).

    Liked by 1 person

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