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Busting People

Monday, September 11, 2006

Piping plover family, watercolor by JZ. Commissioned by the USFWS as a retirement gift for Chincoteague's wonderful preserve manager, who probably had to bust thousands of people in his time.

Wow. Damn. Twanging a chord with this post. I think everyone, at some time in their lives, has run afoul of petty authority. It's everywhere; you don't have to look far for it.

In the mid-80's, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I worked for The Nature Conservancy's Connecticut Chapter. I was a "Preserve Designer," which meant that for the sum of $1200 per season, I drove my own car all over the state looking for rare and endangered plants and animals, attempting to find the best of the last. Then, I mapped out the habitat that each population seemed to need to survive, looked up the land records, made contact with some landowners, and made recommendations to the chapter on how to go about protecting those species. I couldn't help but notice that the least tern and piping plover nesting colonies along the Connecticut coastline were completely unprotected. No signs, no fencing, nothing: people driving ATV's and trucks through; people sunbathing and partying in the colonies; dogs running amok. The state DEP wasn't interested at that time; you can't hunt 'em, they're no good to eat; and the hook-and-bullet crowd held sway. (Things have changed quite a bit since then!)

Connecticut was such a stark contrast to my former residence of Massachusetts, which had had its beach-nesting bird chops going for years by then. I was appalled. Here, people were stepping on eggs, gathering up chicks, letting their dogs chase piping plovers! Agggh! I decided to do something about it, and started the Least Tern/Piping Plover Recovery Program. For three years, I put up signs and string fencing, and patrolled the beaches to protect the birds. Also published a newsletter to let people know what I was up to. I hated weekends; I prayed for rain. A sunny weekend meant that I would have to hit the most crowded beaches, and bust people all day long. To this day, I still love Mondays and rainy Saturdays! TNC was kind enough to fund me (again, $1200 per season, no benefits, use your own car, good luck!). I had as many as 30 volunteers working with me at the peak season. In 1987, the State of Connecticut stepped up to take over the program, and I decided to starve myself instead as a freelance artist. I liked the work. At least I didn't have to bust anyone anymore.

The tern and plover work was exhausting. I looked like a living skeleton at 118 lbs, toasted brown. But in the end, it wasn't the endless coastal driving or the need to be eight places at once that got me. It was having to bust people who were just having a good time. People are not exactly at their best when they're at the beach. They're partying; they're relaxing, and they don't want to be told they've spread their towel in the middle of an endangered bird colony, or let their dog chase a Federally threatened species. Some of them were nudists; some of them were nudists AND perverts, and they used the bird colony for their...whatever... BECAUSE I had fenced it off. They did not want to see me coming down the beach. So they were inclined to be nasty more than the norm. I tried my best to befriend them or at least not threaten them as I asked them to respect the birds. It's hard to befriend a baggy ol' guy who's waving his naughty bits at you as you're trying to kick him out of a tern colony. But I got pretty good at it, even as I hated raining on their parade. I just hated being a cop. So I've been on the enforcement side, for three long summer seasons, and I know how to treat people when you're trying to get them to do your bidding.

I also know how not to treat people. There is a certain type of person who is into law enforcement for the wrong reasons: because they actually enjoy busting people. We've all been stopped by just such a cop, or brought up short by the high school hall monitor who just seems to be doing a low simmer all the time, who needs to take it out on someone else. And I think the dozens of comments on my last post are coming from people who've run up against such folks, and have their own stories of petty tyranny to tell.

Phoebe and Liam saw firsthand last weekend that such people exist. Might as well learn that young. They saw their mother screw up and make bad choices. They saw punishment that could only be called outrageous; punishment that could never be said to fit the crime. And they saw their parents question authority. Our kids aren't growing up with a blind respect for anyone in a position of authority, much as the public school system would like them to. When someone abuses their authority, my kids' unfairness radar goes off, even as young as they are. And they're good, solid citizens, destined to grow up to be considerate adults who think.

Ultimately, it's much more interesting to me as a writer to have a misadventure than a peaceful, relaxing weekend. It may not be restorative; it may not be fun, but it is inspirational. I could have come back all glowy and written, "Oh, we had the most wonderful anniversary! We fished and canoed and sang around the campfire (whoops, can't do that at Herrington Manor either! Just briquettes!) and hung out with our friends. It was marvelous!" And you'd have thought, well, fine, how nice for you, and stifled a yawn. But instead, you're all jiggy and hopping up and down and writing letters and stuff, and I'm reading your comments and laughing out loud. Thank you. You rock.

A big, heartfelt thanks to the dutiful, just doing our job ma'am, Ranger and Rangerette who, in their zeal to make a really big bust, netted an illicit Boston terrier and made two children and a grown woman cry; who put us out on the highway fighting sleep and dodging deer from 10PM to 2 AM; who bummed out sixteen good people who will never set foot on Herrington Manor soil again; who inspired two blog entries and 30-plus comments. We never asked their names; it doesn't matter. They are who they are. May they draw their state paychecks in peace. We came home, wrote, cleaned our house, got a day's jump on a big week, and went on with our lives, lives enriched by contact with you.

My gosh! Got to get to bed!


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