Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

This New Gilded Age

Laura and the Cubs' World Series trophy

I drove down to northern Illinois, to a tiny town called Stockton, a week ago Saturday to spend the weekend with my treasured lifelong friends Kathie and Steve, and also to spend a bit of time in the next town over, Freeport, to see the Chicago Cubs’ World Series trophy, which was on public display for a couple of hours that Sunday morning. I brought my dog Pip along for the ride.

The temperatures were bitter cold, but the sky was that intense blue that stands out so beautifully against a snowy landscape, and the northwest winds pushed me along, helping my mileage.

All along the drive, I kept thinking what a beautiful world I live in, and how rich I am—rich in friends; rich in my family of lifelong Cubs fans and in living this lifelong dream now come true; rich in having a sweet, loving dog; rich in having a husband who was holding down the home fort so I could escape for such a frivolous jaunt; and rich in the capacity to savor all these treasures.

I’ve always believed that the richest people aren’t the ones who have the most; they’re the ones who want the least. And during that lovely drive, I felt like the richest person on the planet.

While I was still in Douglas County along Highway 53, I saw two Bald Eagles and a Pileated Woodpecker. I’ve seen countless individuals of both species over the years, but for some reason this time I thought of the first ones I ever saw, both at Hartwick Pines State Park in Michigan in June 1976.

Back then, both species were at the top of my wish list—that was back when I was hungry to see new birds, and my field guide was like my personal Sears Christmas Catalog. Considering how many birds there are, and how many I yearned to see for the first time, I was in one way not at all “rich” in the sense that I wanted so very much. But oddly enough, even then I felt rich, because every time I did see a new bird, or got to see one of my new birds a second and third time, I felt a deep pleasure—and everywhere I looked I saw more new birds and ones I’d already seen once or more, but was thrilled to be seeing all over again.

That very first Pileated Woodpecker literally took my breath away. And the very next morning, my first Bald Eagle! Imagine that.

We birders can’t help but take these treasures for granted after a while, but just yesterday I saw a Pileated Woodpecker on the power pole in the back of my own yard and yet again, I could feel an electric surge of pleasure charging through my body. I wonder how many possessions a rich person in the monetary sense can acquire while still getting that rush of joy?

Mark Twain wrote in his Revised Catechism:
What is the chief end of man?--to get rich. In what way?--dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must. Who is God, the one only and true? Money is God. God and Greenbacks and Stock--father, son, and the ghost of same--three persons in one; these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme.
Twain was writing of an earlier Gilded Age, but his words seem appropriate as we usher in this new Gilded Age the very week that Oxfam released the news that the world’s 8 richest men, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg—just eight individuals—own as much wealth as the poorest half of the entire world’s population of over 7 billion people.

Our Republican Congress just passed a rules change for the way Congress calculates the cost of transferring federal lands to the states and other entities, to make it easier for members of the new Congress to cede federal control of public lands. Gold is hard and cold, and despite Forbes and Fortune magazine’s assessments, is not an accurate measure of a human being’s value, or of the value of real treasures like our public lands. Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director for the Wilderness Society, said, “This is not Theodore Roosevelt-style governing, this move paves the way for a wholesale giveaway of our American hunting, fishing and camping lands that belong to us all.”

Teddy Roosevelt worked hard to curb one Gilded Age. With luck, someone will step up to the plate to protect the many treasures and the real wealth of this nation before it’s too late in this new Gilded Age. In a world where the Cubs can win the World Series, which they last did during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, anything can happen.

Bald Eagle