One day in 1989, my husband, Keith Williams, and I traveled to Honduras to visit a friend who was in the Peace Corps. We stayed with her in her hut of a home, learning to live with the frogs, scorpions, ants and other critters that crept in through the open spaces in the walls. Early every morning, the call of the roosters woke us, and we prepared for the days’ adventure (and there were many adventures.)

But our friend pointed out the denuded hillsides surrounding her home, where floods frequently rushed down to destroy houses and livestock. The growing population used the wood for building and for cooking. Now the people had to go further and further from home to find their supply of wood, and they continued their forest destruction.

One day in the early 1990s, Keith and I found ourselves in the jungles of Guatemala. We traced the trails of the leaf-eater ants. We heard the monkeys rushing across the tree tops. We visited the ruins of Tikal, one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. We learned the fate of those temple builders. Several theories tell of their demise. One of the theories is that they were successful, but eventually became decadent and overpopulated. With their habitat in ruins, the population declined, and the site was abandoned in the late 10th century.

In 1998, Keith and I traveled to South America to the Pantanal, the largest wetlands in the world. Of course, Keith wanted to take a picture of every aquatic plant in the entire 75,000 square miles. The Pantanal traverses several countries, including Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. The land surfaces are submerged 80 percent of the time during the rainy season.

In addition to the diverse collection of aquatic plants, it is a paradise of birds. One day, our guide took us deep into the forest to find the illusive Macaw. He told us that not many years ago, the Macaw could be found throughout the region, but hunters had captured or killed most of them for their brightly colored feathers. We were able to see only about a dozen free-flying Macaw, as well as a few captive ones, so sad and quiet in their bird cages.

In addition to the loss of the Macaw, we learned that the Jacare (crocodile) had been threatened with extinction as well. Although we saw many of them lazing along the banks of the Paraguay River, and indeed awaiting a meal as we stepped into our small boats for the daily excursions, they are now protected by law.

When we moved to our small home near Highland Lake twenty years ago, construction crews were soon knocking down most of the trees in the area behind our home, preparing to build the luxury homes in Winslow Commons. I watched the destruction day after day. One morning, in desperation, I screamed at the top of my voice, “Earth rapers.” They neither heard nor stopped their work. I suppose I thought, “I am here now, no one else can come.”

How would the stories differ if the peoples of Honduras had been aware of the consequences of their overuse of their forest resource? What if the Mayans could have foreseen the consequences of their habitat destruction? Would we still be able to gaze in wonder at the amazingly colorful Macaw of the Pantanal if the peoples would have stopped the killing in time? Would the woods behind my house still have been a protected place for the owls, deer and frogs if the Falmouth planners had stopped the growth in time?

There are similar stories on every continent of this beautiful blue-green Earth. Will we learn the lesson? Will we be able to stop the overpopulation, the habitat destruction, and will future generations tell the story of our demise?

Sally Breen lives in Windham on land that she protects for future generations.


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