A Poet's Reflection on Nature

This winter, the New Winston Museum invited Cornelia Barr to organize an Environmental Salon series that explores the interstices between nature, the environment, and history. The second event, on Feb. 23, brought together five amazing local writers who took early Moravian quotes about nature and the landscape, and “riffed on the similarities and differences between the Moravians’ appreciation of nature and the landscape and how we approach them today.

Writer, playwright and poet Grace Ellis wrote a wonderfully evocative poem about how we value and treat wildlife, which she has graciously allowed us to publish here. 

VERMIN

“In the early years of his work, surveyor Philip Christian Gottlieb Reuter identified and inventoried resources in the Wachovia Tract and produced a description of the land, its flora and fauna (ca. 1760). His categories included "trees and shrubs, fruit trees, wild plants, cultivated plants and grain, fungi or mushrooms, stone, wild animals, wild fowl and birds, domestic animals and fowls, fish, snakes, insects and running and creeping vermin, flying vermin and insects."

When Brother Reuter classified

the natural resources of Wachovia—

the trees and shrubs and wild plants,

the cultivated crops and grain,

animals and birds—wild and domestic—

fish, snakes, insects, mushrooms—even stones,

he added one more category—vermin

that run or creep or fly,

destroy crops, kill livestock, spread disease,

or make a nuisance of themselves

where human beings are concerned.

 

What creatures did he yank

from their family, genus, species

and dump into the bin marked “vermin,”

or, as his Appalachian neighbors would say, “varmints”?

 

In 1761, the European starlings

had yet to be let loose in Central Park

and Formosan termites had not hitched a ride

on boats to reach our shores.

But there were waddling possums,

raccoons with agile hands,

and odoriferous skunks

(Native Americans supplied the names

for these rogues, formerly unknown to Europeans),

as well as moles, voles, beavers, groundhogs,

squirrels, mice, rats, bats

that ate the trees, nuts, eggs, chickens,

berries, crops, and garbage.

 

Larger species—wolves, foxes, coyotes,

and the cougars also known as “painters”—

would prove to be a threat to livestock.

 

What did Reuter make of crows,

hawks, pigeons, and Carolina parakeets

descending on the fields

like Biblical plagues of locusts?

What of copperheads, water moccasins, and rattlers?

mosquitoes, hornets, wasps, cockroaches?

invasive ivy and honeysuckle?

munching caterpillars, egg-laying moths, vine borers?

 

How did he classify the slender deer

that could strip the bean vines in a single night?

Did Reuter revile them as destroyers,

revere their graceful beauty,

or simply label them as game—

a providential source of food for families?

 

What steps did the Moravians take

to round up and eradicate

the vermin class?

The problem is, of course—it’s complicated.

Eliminating any link in the Great Chain of Being

is likely to have unintended  consequences.

Without bats--gnats and mosquitoes flourish.

Killing parakeets unleashes

plagues of cockleburs.

 

Conversely, when lethal wolves

were reintroducedto Yellowstone,

the nibbling deer withdrew

fields and forests flourished,

banks held fast,

and rivers changed their course.

 

The question is: who is in charge of labeling,

since one man’s varmint is another’s marvel?

Suppose the whole created world were surveyed.

Would the most destructive vermin be

identified as homo sapiens?

 

—Grace Ellis, 2017

Thanks to all the writers who participated—Cyndi Briggs, Grace Ellis, Aimee Mepham, Edward Robson, and Ed Southern—for their thoughtful, funny, and engaging responses. And a big thanks to Martha and Mo Hartley of Old Salem Museum & Gardens for selecting the quotes and for all their support of the Gateway Nature Preserve.