Death from Above
Reading Lauren Markham’s essay about human-animal conflict resolution [“The Crow Whisperer,” Miscellany, April], I was reminded of a strange experience my own family had with birds. My in-laws have a large black-and-white tomcat—generally friendly, but with one notably unfriendly habit: hunting pigeons.
Week after week, my father-in-law would discover the butchered remains of pigeons scattered throughout his house and garden. One day, he heard a scuffle outside and ran into the garden, where he encountered an unusual spectacle: his gentle tomcat cowering near a wounded pigeon, the cat’s eyes dilated in fear. Dozens of crows had begun to gather around the scene of the crime. They perched on fences and on the roofs of neighboring houses. In her article, Markham writes that crows can sometimes “seek retribution for perceived harm.” These crows screeched at the cat in witness and rage. In the ensuing chaos, the injured pigeon escaped, and the cat scurried back into the house. The crows flew off but only gradually, as if to keep an eye on the property.
The pigeon murders have since stopped. The tomcat still strays into the garden, but he rarely brings anything back. He has become a model citizen. What else could one expect, after that sort of incident? The crows are watching. They have always been watching.
Christopher Ketcham argues that national parks suffer from a “human tide,” and that “visitation might threaten conservation” [“The Business of Scenery,” Revision, April]. I don’t entirely disagree, but I have doubts about his proposed solution. Ketcham suggests that the best way to conserve national parks is to designate them as wilderness. This vision strikes me as an elitist one, whereby only recreationists capable of hiking in and camping overnight would be allowed to enjoy the scenery.
National parks exist to be accessible to the general public. To restrict access on the basis of hiking and camping ability—athleticism, essentially—seems as egregious as doing so according to personal wealth.
Most national parks aren’t crowded. The six most visited parks—1.5 percent of the total land area—account for a quarter of all recreation visits, and the top twenty-three most visited—6 percent of the total—account for half. For that matter, more than half of national park system land is already designated as wilderness. If you include land that’s not wilderness but is managed as such, the total creeps above 80 percent.
Public support is critical to the conversation surrounding national parks. However well intentioned, attempts to eliminate “machines and noxious crowds” are likely to have unintended and exclusionary consequences.
Thomas J. Straka
In exploring the potential dark side of meditation, David Kortava demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the practice [“Lost in Thought,” Report, April].
Can meditation have adverse effects? Certainly. But so can marathon running, drugs (legal and illicit), movies, video games, the internet—in short, anything that can alter or reorient our habitual states of consciousness. In its most basic form, meditation is a glimpse of one’s own mind. For some of us, that can be a treacherous place to look.
Kortava describes meditation as a $1.2 billion industry, but he fails to mention that the vipassana center under discussion is free to attend. Moreover, he does not quantify the frequency of adverse responses to meditation. (One of the studies he cites as a damning piece of research had only twelve subjects.) He relies on rhetoric, framing the tragic story of Megan Vogt as a case study in the dangers of meditation. He makes little of the fact that Vogt had stopped taking Zoloft just before her psychotic break, or that stopping psychotropic medications cold turkey—rather than tapering one’s dosage—can be dangerous and is generally not clinically recommended.
My relationship to the subject of mental health is personal. As a college student, I fell into a depression so severe that my school forced me to take medical leave. My understanding of vipassana centers is also personal: over the years, I’ve been to multiple ten-day courses. Right from the start, you’re warned that it might be the most challenging thing you’ve ever done. When I signed up for my first course, some twenty years ago, a teacher called to ask whether I was sure I was prepared for it, given my medical history.
Meditation is about being present in the moment. There’s no magic to it, though any practitioner could speak to its difficulty. It’s also something one chooses to do: no one ties you down or forces you to sit still. We all struggle to sit in stillness these days; many of us turn to our smartphones in an effort to stay sane. Maybe that’s a story worth reporting.
M. M. Deen
Because of an editing error, “Lost in Thought” incorrectly stated that meditation began among Buddhist renunciants in the fifth century bc. That was when Buddhist meditation began, but there is evidence for meditative practices long before that. We regret the error.