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I was walking in the woods last Sunday and found a curious and troubling thing. It was a golf ball, lying half covered by leaves in the path, and when I picked it up I found that one side of the dimpled covering had been chewed off, revealing a pink core of what looked like rubber. Much of the rubber had been chewed into. It can only have been done by a squirrel, I thought, or some other gnawing rodent, hoping to uncover a source of nourishment. I was walking in a wood that abounds with hickory, black walnut, and oak trees, the ground strewn thickly with nuts and acorns. There are so many acorns on the ground that earlier this fall I took a bad spill while mowing the lawn–it was like walking on marbles. I felt so sorry for the little animal that had wasted its time (and perhaps made itself ill) chewing on this artifact of human design. I do not golf and do not know how the ball came to be on my property.

All animals are hungry most of the time. I have often remarked that as I age, I seem to be always hungry. I could stand up from one meal and easily devour another, were it placed before me. And of course, like most modern people, I sometimes make myself sick by eating too much. I have read that our most ancient ancestors had stomachs significantly different than ours, able to hold and digest huge quantities of meat devoured in one sitting. That’s the way it was back then: we just killed a woolly mammoth, we’d better eat it before it goes bad.

With the advent of agriculture as humanity’s basic way of life, we rounded out our year’s supply of food, at least in good years. We could eat what we wanted when we wanted–as long as what we wanted was lentil or barley porridge–and didn’t have to gorge ourselves when a meal was available.

Winter festivals like Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrate agricultural abundance, among other things. The harvest is in, and the people who labor all year to plow and plant and reap have some leisure time. Herds of animals are culled, and many slaughtered. Newly harvested barley and grapes are turned into beer and wine. Times are good. I was at a Christmas party on Saturday night where guests were treated to a wide variety of delicious food, and I confess I ate several plates of tempura shrimp, sashimi, braised short ribs, roast beef tenderloin, meatballs–and a little salad. I could have used that Neanderthal gut that evening.

But humans are among the few animals that have been this good at creating their own food supply and ensuring steady abundance. Honey bees, maybe a few others. All the others have to romp around in forest and field and the wide open sea seeking their meals. They eat what they can find, and very often, it’s each other. It’s a constant battle to survive, and I am so happy that I am among those beings who can just write a list of what I’d like to eat for the next week and go buy it (I don’t even have to have money!) at the grocery store. With regional and international shipping, there is almost nothing in our food supply which is not available throughout the year, as long as we can look the other way regarding the immensity of our own carbon footprint.

I don’t like being one of those beings who make it difficult for other animals by leaving delectable looking, but ultimately disappointing toys lying about in the woods. I do hope the little squirrel, or whatever hopeful forest friend it was who gnawed so long on the golf ball, was not made ill by the synthetic material inside. I hope it finally cast about and realized there was an abundance of nuts on the forest floor. I say this knowing that if the creature is healthy and active come spring, I will curse it for getting into my garden, eating the vegetables planned for my own abundant table.