The Lantern Books Blog: Lantern Books 2005 Essay Contest Runner-Up, Jerry Davis
March 29, 2006 9:30am
As indicated in a previous blog post
, Lantern received many worthy essays that we feel deserve to be read, even though they were not chosen among the winners. Over the next few months, we'll include those that made it into the final. Here's one:
Rich Man, Poor Man
by Jerry Davis from Boise, Idaho
To be a productive member of society, and to provide the essentials for my family, I work for the local health department, inspecting those things that impact the public’s health. Some days I feel that my job is one constant argument, but the upside is I normally get to spend my time outdoors. At least I do not feel that I am wasting my days sitting behind a desk, daydreaming of feeling the sun on my face and the wind on my back.
One of my functions is to evaluate and approve (or disapprove) newly proposed subdivisions. I am not in position to force my will on developers and stop growth from happening and thereby protecting nature form the bulldozer, but, rather, I have a set of rules and guidelines to follow, and if the proposal meets all of the requirements, I have no option but to give it my blessing (despite my personal objections).
To evaluate developments that will have individual septic systems, my department has the developer dig test-holes with a backhoe to determine if the soil is compatible for handling the wastewater. While there, we walk the entire project site looking at each proposed lot and determining if there are any other potential limitations.
So it was that on a fine April morning I found myself in the desert east of town looking at forty acres that were being eyed for a new nineteen-lot subdivision. The weather was unseasonably warm for April (near 70 degrees) and the sun was shining, and I was glad for the opportunity to spend the better part of the day outside.
I met the backhoe operator on-site, and we began the day’s work, even though the developer had not yet arrived. With the preliminary layout of the subdivision in hand, I would direct the backhoe operator where to dig, then, as he dug, I would walk the proposed two-acre lot. Upon reaching the depth of eight feet, the excavator would leave the hole open for my review and drive on to the next two-acre parcel. I would examine the soil profile and fill out a log sheet and decide what the septic system requirements for some future homeowner would be.
As I walked around the project, my ears caught the pleasant song of meadowlarks echoing across the desert. First one close by would warble out his tune, followed by another off in the distance, and then more calls serenaded me from further away. One of the yellow-breasted birds flew out from under a nearby sagebrush when I passed close by. I visually marked the spot so as not to step on the nest, and went over and searched the area until I found it. The nest held four eggs concealed under the overhanging sage and was nearly impossible for me to see even when I knew exactly where it was.
To my left I heard the distinct call of a long-billed curlew. Years ago, when I first saw one of these birds, I was amazed to find that they nested in the desert. Every time I see these birds I am reminded of a television show I saw as a boy, somewhere around 1969 or 1970, called The Last of the Curlews, where man blasted the last of the curlews into extinction. Being as young as I was, I thought all curlews were the same, and I didn’t pay attention to what type of curlew the show was about. Now, when I look at my bird identification book, I think it may have been the eskimo curlew that hasn’t been sighted since 1959. I remember the show because I cried for the curlews, even though I had never seen one. Even at the age of eight or nine, I knew that having a species become extinct was a sad event for all of humanity.
But the birds in the Idaho desert are long-billed curlews (a different species than the eskimo curlew, which are actually quite common), where they nest in the wide-open sagebrush flats. If your wanderings take you close by one of their nests, they get very agitated, as do most birds in the sandpiper family and they fly around you making plenty of noise. They are large birds that stand nineteen inches tall, with a very distinctive downward curving bill that is four to six inches long. On this particular day, the males where filling the desert air with their mating call, and I would have been content to spend the better part of the day watching them.
High overhead, hawks hunted from the sky. I was able to identify both red-tail and Swainson’s hawks, but there were others off in the distance that I could not identify. This time of year, Richardson ground squirrels (locally called whistle-pigs) are everywhere, making a literal buffet for the hawks that come from miles around for the feast.
After a few hours, I was more than half way through looking at the test-holes, when Mr. Developer came driving up. He drove straight across the landscape in his gas-guzzling SUV, crushing who knows what on his way. He pulls up, jumps out of the vehicle and immediately starts in on me, “Why do I have to dig these stupid holes? Can’t you just give me your approval already? This is costing me money, and you, Mister Government Bureaucrat, are wasting my time.”
I explain why we have to look at each lot carefully, and the different things I am looking for, but he just rolls his eyes and looks at his watch. It is obvious that there is nothing I can say that will satisfy him. He begins to tell me all of the projects he is working on, and how busy he is. Then he tells me how much money he is making, how he builds houses worth $300,000 to $500,000, and that he has clients lined up for this property if I would just get out of the way and give it my approval.
As he talks, a flock of sandhill cranes fly high overhead. They are way up there, headed straight north to Canada. I can hear their gurgling primitive call. My eyes are drawn skyward, as the developer continues his ranting. I wonder where the cranes spent the winter. Where did they wake up this morning? How far will they travel today? Where will they spend the night? Where is their final destination? How long before they get there? Mr. Developer never stops talking and doesn’t bother to look up at the cranes a single time.
As we head to the next lot, Mr. Developer jumps in his vehicle and drives the 200 feet. I assume he can’t afford to waste time walking. We cross a dry creek bed that is carpeted with tiny purple flowers. These flowers seem very delicate and rare to be blooming where they are and I am drawn to them. He drives directly over them without even knowing of their existence, squashing them with his giant wheels. I want to stop and give them a closer look and smell their aromatic scent, but thought better of it. Instead I follow helplessly behind, feeling bad for the damage done to this rare piece of desert beauty.
This continues for an hour or so. One time, I found a thighbone of a deer or an antelope. I paused to look at it, while Mr. Developer grunted and looked at his watch. Apparently, every wasted second of his life is money down the toilet. The curlews and meadowlarks continued to sing, and the hawks gracefully patrolled the skies, but there is money to be made in this world. Mr. Developer does not care about such useless things as meadowlarks, hawks, curlews or tiny purple blooms.
Finally we are done, and I have seen what I needed to see to give my approval for the project to proceed. Mr. Developer jumps in his massive vehicle complaining about how much money I cost him, and, more important, how much of his valuable time I wasted. He speeds away, throwing dust in the air in his haste to depart, covering me with the fine particles. As I watch him leave, I feel sorry for him. I am left alone as the meadowlarks continue to send their melodies undulating across the desert. I watch the keen-eyed hawks circle high overhead, and listen to the curlews call out to me. I stand in silence on nature’s beautiful carpet of purple flowers and think about the rich man who just left. Despite his millions, I can’t help but feel that Mr. Developer is a very poor man indeed.