It is a favorite pastime for libertarians to play the game “find liberty in unexpected places.” The objective is to artfully relate the lessons that freedom can teach us to a new audience. This is most effective with the medium of storytelling. Stories can instill a sense of wonder and excitement in people – stories are the soft mineral-rich puffs of peat that come in seed-starter kits, in which ideas can sprout into living things.

Often the game fails without a thoughtful narrative. Telling someone point-blank that we live in a police state isn’t going to go so well. But show them Hunger Games and they might come to some conclusions on their own. Smacking someone in the face with Jordan Page’s “War Machine” might scare the shit out of them, though the metaphors lurking in Rush’s “The Trees” might slip in the backdoor with its message. Stories make connections with people, and people connect the stories together. In poetry, rain is always something more meaningful than pellets of water. Cold, hard facts dropped from the sky make for a cold rain indeed.

There’s so much information out there, though, and so many genres and styles and things to find interesting. If the “find liberty in unexpected places” game came with a deck of cards, it would never run out. It’s simply a matter of finding something that interests you. The tragic story of Ross Ulbricht might resonate with a college student interested in technology or political discourse, though for your grampy might see a sparkle of liberty dance off into the woods behind Walden Pond on a nice springtime hike.

So whether it’s in your tiny cosmopolitan apartment or in the frozen fish department, may you always find liberty in unexpected places. Me? I like to look out into my own backyard. From the anthills to the stars – oh, and the skunks and birds and butterflies – lessons of liberty abound.

A favorite little book of mine is called Favorite Nature Stories, published by Reader’s Digest. Short, well-written, and endearing, these articles by nature enthusiasts and scientists are in-depth enough for any adult, but simple and witty enough for any child to read aloud to a room full of eager family members and friends. Or perhaps right out in the backyard under the ol’ oak tree. Written between 1945 and 1972, the tales are timeless, sharing with the reader a certain excitement and mystery that nature boasts. Weaved throughout the entire book is a magnificient series of lessons about liberty applied in nature. So while autumn whisks the last bits of sun and warmth away, how about I light up the fire pit and we enjoy the yard one last time before the snow comes? We can share a few stories while we’re at it.

004

I.

Did you know ants are the only other member of the animal kingdom to actively farm? Ants gather bits of leaves and purposefully compost them to grow a fungus that they eat. When the ants that are chosen to start new colonies are sent into the world, they carry with them a small selection of this fungus. “You might compare it to the yeast which a pioneer bride, in the days of our country’s youth, took with her to her new home, so that all under that roof might be given their daily bread.” Some species of ants keep livestock – that is, aphids that live off the sap of plants – and “milk” them for their sweet juice.

But before you go reminiscing of life on the pastural homestead anthill, forget not that ants by design are a “communal, collectivist species.” Ants are thieves, stowaways, kidnappers (of other ants), and slaveowners (of other ants). Some masters become so jabba-the-hutt-like that their slaves must feed them. Okay, but still, it must be nice to be queen, right? Think again. Once a queen, a breeding machine forever. “A precious prisoner in the dark, perpetually pregnant.”

Ants are just these dumb little black things that dig holes in our driveways and crawl into our dishwashers and cupboards. But it’s fascinating to see how the only two creatures that farm have developed compared to other animals. Humans live in big anthills called cities and let people farm them. Then their leaders become perpetually obese and eat until they explode, stuffed to the brim by their willing captives – but their unsustainable system continues anyway, starting anew every few generations.

This “blind tyrant instinct” that the ants and humans share must end if we are to progress out of our anthills and into a future that isn’t being baked on a driveway or crushed by a giant shoe.

One way we can do that is to take a walk on the Appalachain Trail. This 2,000-mile “green ribbon of solitude” is considered by some to be the great escape from the anthill that is modern society. “There are a few things that happen to you when you hike,” said one hiker, “that are like a perfect piece on a piano or a perfect play in sports. I guess you [hike] just for them.”

Perhaps if you’re walking about, you’ll come across the path of a skunk, “the animals that shoots back” – nature’s second amendment enthusiast. “Normally peace-loving, the skunk fires only as a last resort. If pressed, he will first face his aggressor and stamp his forefeet. As a second warning, his tail, all but the tip, is hoisted.” Much like a gunowner, the skunk is misunderstood and peace loving, not some trigger-happy murderer. He doesn’t want to fire – but the threat must remain very real. It is only when “he fails to establish peace, he raises the tip and, snapping into a U, with his head and rear toward the enemy, aims a charge at the eyes.” Hopefully you’ve started running at that point. If not, you deserve what you’ve got comin’…

As most folks know, animals are territorial, but did you know some animals honor property rights? One birdwatcher observed a cardinal flying into invisible wall after wall in a panic not long after a bulldozer had cleared all the trees. This “crazy cardinal” was not about to trespass onto the property of another cardinal.

“Sketched on a map, a [bird] community looks like an exurbanite settlement of people, with the size of each property varying according to the ‘social standing’ of the occupant; the older the male, the bigger, the stronger he is, the more land he gets.” Birds homestead by song – that is, if his singing goes unchallenged, the tree is his. If another bird replies, he better skidaddle before feathers fly.

Lady birds like two things: attractive singing and prime real estate. The birdwatcher relates a story in which a lady bird mates with a male but accidentally nests across the territory line on another male bird’s property. He lets her stay but her hubby refuses to cross the line. She has to meet him when he has food for the hatchlings. When the baby birds were able to leave the nest, the entire bird family moved back to the homestead.

But not all homesteadings go smoothly. Sometimes the government gets involved.

In 1945, a duck decided to nest in the rotted out section of an old bridge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For some reason this became a big deal and the duck was named Gertie the Great. It was controversial because the nesting spot was considered dangerous – the bridge occasionally rose to accommodate passing ships. The local government and media decided to propagandize with Gertie’s image and pretty soon she was on the front page of the papers, next to World War II headlines. Hordes of onlookers came out to see the famous bird; Boy Scouts “guarded” her in shifts; food was left for her consumption.

Enventually the environmentalists got involved: the Milkwaukee River was sure disgusting, they said. “This whole thing is headed for tragedy,” cried one. “What’s going to happen when those ducklings are hatched? If they try to swim, that river is so full of oil their little wings will mat and they’ll sink.” Well, this sure put a damper on the mayor’s day. “Anything for Gertie,” he proclaimed, and at the expense of the taxpayers, the city declared it would pump 2,500,000 gallons of clean water from nearby lakes every hour. “Nevermind the cost,” promised the mayor.

For a duck. A duck that picked the spot that was only available because it was on a bridge the government couldn’t take proper care of in the first place. But never mind that because when the ducklings were born, people threw bread and enjoyed the circus.

Then a thunderstorm hit. A patrolman on the bridge radioed in that the ducklings were falling into the river and that Gertie was gone. As the news found its way to various outlets, crowds gathered in the storm to watch. Gertie and her ducklings were rounded up and kidnapped by the government, for their own safety. After being put on display in a storefront for a while, the duck family was finally released into “the vast freedom of the skies.” What a mess.

003

II.

Thoreau was “impatient of those who spend so much time studying life that they never start to live.” His advice? “Why do we not let in the flood, raise the gates and set all our wheels in motion?”

As long as man has been part of nature, he has found economy. When left to his own devices – or not – he still will find action. The naturalist Will Beebe once said, “To some men the jungle is a tangled place of heat and danger. But, to the man who can see, its vines and plants form a beautiful and carefully ordered tapestry…..All about us nature puts on the most thrilling adventure stories ever created.” In other words, he sees opportunity. It is in man’s nature to find – and take advantage of – opportunity, whatever that may be. Some people call it entrepeneurship; some just see it as the only way to get anything done.

002Kaoro Ikeya was once a 19-year-old amateur astronomer, with a self-built telescope and a wide knowledge of astronomy. Ikeya’s father disapproved of his son’s hobby, and wished him to work in the family business. “Sound sense should show you, my son,” he told him, “that astronomy does not belong to our station in life.” Nonetheless, Ikeya’s dream was to discover a comet, and he worked hard when he could to set up his telescope on the roof and scour the skies.

Eventually his telescope crossed paths with a comet, one he couldn’t identify. He dispatched a wire to the Tokyo Astronomy Observatory and before long, he was a celebrity – a junior astronomer with a homemade telescope discovers a comet! When his notoreity increased and reporters began showing up at his place of employment – a piano factory – management decided to give him a grant to support his hobby off the clock. He built another telescope and discovered numerous more comets over the years.

Another hobbyist named Romnaldo d’Almeida loved butterflies. Since boyhood, he collected samples and read everything he could on the subject. Unfortunately his dreams of attending college were stifled by his father’s ill health, so he took a job as a postman. A postman who carried a butterfly net.

One fortunate day, d’Almeida happened to net a unique specimen – an undiscovered species. He spent an entire year writing a scientific paper and submitted it to two museums. Both rejected to publish the paper, because “only European trained scientists could make a contribution to so intricate a subject.” D’Almeida decided to subvert the bureaucratic system by brushing up on his French and rewriting the paper. He submitted the paper to a French science society and it was accepted. He decided later to write a book and it was published out of Berlin, Germany. Before long, this postal worker was offered an opportunity to carry on his studies at an Institute. He traveled the world and discovered over 50 new species of butterflies.

Humans have been learning from and profiting from nature since the very beginning. Fun fact: “At one time in west Africa, a young, healthy wife could be purchased for 60,000 cowrie shells…” Even the Shell Oil Company got its start in the shell game. “The company took on petroleum products as a sideline, and now look at it!”

And the coconut tree? Why, it’s a living supermarket. “What other tree is there that provides not only the material to build an entire house, but most of the furnishings, too: chairs, beds, mattresses, carpets, brooms, cups, saucers – even soap and toothbrushes? That not only heats your house with fire and cools it with shade and fans, but lights it, with a coconut wick burning coconut oil in a coconut lamp? That provides clothes for the whole family? That gives a fisherman materials to build his boat AND to equip it with sails, ropes, fishing lines and nets? That not only cooks your food but provides food to cook – and a variety of drinks?”

Take a look around your backyard and find the opportunities. Sticks that fall from trees can be bundled up as kindling. Edible plants can be picked. And you know, there was that awesome lunar eclipse recently – perhaps next time something exciting happens in the heavens, you can set up the telescope and invite everyone over for a viewing. Who knows what information will be shared and what stories will be told?

Of course, you don’t have to do it in your backyard if that’s not your fancy. It is getting pretty cold out. Let me douse this fire out and then we can go back in. Maybe you can find some liberty in unexpected places like on Tinder, or by watching House of Cards, or hell, just make a sandwich.