by Sarah Hatfield
Shelter me. Keep me safe. Protect me from that which may do me harm. Some may call that a prayer, some may call it a plea. Some may call it a request or a favor. To nature, it is a daily, or nightly, sentiment.
Third graders know this. “What do all animals need in order to survive?” I ask. Sometimes with hands raised and other times in jubilant voices they shout the answers, “Food! Water! Shelter! Air! Space!” And in fact, even plants and inanimate objects need those things, in a sense.
Do the things in the forest know for what they ask? Do the moths in the rainstorm know the significance of what they seek? It is one of the essential needs of life, rounding out the list with water, food, and air. It is shelter.
What comes to mind when I say shelter? House? Tent? Evergreen trees or cave? What images do you conjure to define the word? Your home? Your parent’s home? The rambling farm you grew up on? The Eastern forest, American West, or city streets? Is it the arms of a loved one wrapped around you or an umbrella in a rainstorm? What is shelter?
Well, that’s depends on who, or what, you are.
To the sparrow, shelter is an apple tree. Perched high atop it, singing with passion, the sparrow only has to dip into the tangle of branches to escape the hawk. From the driving wind and rain, the leaves are a roof, shielding it from all but the most furious gusts. Shelter is an apple tree.
To the apple tree, shelter is a farm. With full sun and plenty of rich soil, the apple tree thrives. On the edge of a two-hundred-year-old field, it soaks up rain and is lovingly maintained. It does not compete with weeds, and while it was young the farmer kept the deer from nibbling the tender shoots. Shelter is a farm.
To the farm, shelter is a human. To be everything it could be, to be better than it once was, the farm needs a human. The human plows the ground and fixes the barn and harvests the hay. The human keeps the fields ready for crops and the forest as bountiful as it was. The human knows the farm has a soul, one older and tied to the ground, and keeps the ground in good health. Shelter is a human.
To the human, shelter is a house. One standing for a century and a half and counting. Made of wood from the farm, heated with wood from the farm, built from the land the house protects the human from cold and rain, snow and wind. It keeps out predators and keeps in comfort. Shelter is a house.
Shelter is a tree, a farm, a house, a human, a hole, a rock, an old piece of tin. Shelter is Zone 5, forest, topsoil, or temperate regions. Shelter is the place that keeps harm from reaching you. There are so many things in the world that cause harm and as a result there are just as many places that can be called shelter.
I know – the farm and the tractor and house aren’t “alive” and so don’t need shelter, except that they do. A farm without a human can’t stay a farm – harm befalls it in the form of storms and rot and erosion. A tractor without a barn (or human) becomes static, stuck in place, and eventually is no longer a tractor. Shelter provides the opportunity to survive to continue. It doesn’t always work, but often it does. The apple tree will fall one day. The sparrow may get eaten. The house may get bulldozed and the farm may fade to forest. But that safe place exists for each – in time and in space. It is something we all seek, all the time.
As you walk around, shift your thoughts for a minute… that isn’t a pile of sticks but rather shelter for a mouse or rabbit. That isn’t just a bunch of rocks in a ditch but rather shelter for insects and snails. That isn’t just trash in a field (though it is also that) but it is shelter for voles, and snakes, and crickets and weasels.
And it gets deeper. That isn’t just a hospital waiting room, it is shelter for a worrying heart. It isn’t just a city park, but shelter for natural sounds in an urban setting. It isn’t just a few tomatoes in a bucket, but rather shelter for a way of life that once included living off the land. It isn’t just a nature center, but rather it is shelter for the childhood we all want our children to have.
To a bumblebee, shelter is a thistle blossom. A soft place to spend the night, surrounded by spikes as formidable as the front line of cavalry. It is protection from the damp ground and insect-eating mammals that roam dark fields and forests. It is a sunny perch to catch the next morning’s warmth and launch into the new day. Shelter is everything.
You can visit the Nature Center anytime from dawn to dusk to discover myriad shelters. The building is open from 10:00am until 4:30pm daily except Sundays when we open at 1:00pm. We are located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. Call (716) 569-2345 or visit www.jamestownaudubon.org for more information.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon Nature Center.