Moderation in All Things
The goldfinches that inhabit the trees in my back yard are some of the plumpest birds I’ve seen in the wild. Unlike Antarctic emperor penguins, these little creatures aren’t storing up enough belly fat to make it through a winter-long trek across glacial desolation. They live in Hollywood, and they’re just fat.
It’s probably my fault. I stock several feeders with the finches’ favorite food: thistle seed, a tiny black flake in the shape of a sunflower. They dine on this nutty morsel from dawn to sunset. The feed dispenser, a mesh sock with millimeter-sized holes in it for the birds to peck through, is supposed to limit them to one seed at a time, and it seems to work as intended. Even so, when you’re ingesting one bite at a time all day without pause, from dawn to sunset, the calories add up.
When I see how rotund some of the finches have gotten, I feel responsible. How are they to understand the concept of moderation? Animals in the wild instinctually eat all they can, driven by a haunting premonition that it might be their last meal. I, on the other hand, who have waist-trimming tips shouted at me from magazine headlines, evening news promos, and AOL welcome screens — well, I’m supposed to know better. I feel especially guilty when a Cooper’s Hawk swoops into the yard to hunt for slow-moving finches whose meatiness makes for a satisfying lunch. But the finches are so cute! And how else to attract these gorgeous creatures except for free food? Whistling a finch-like tune is pointless. (I’ve tried it.) And, to be honest, unlike dogs, birds aren’t interested in affection or praise. They want thistle seed, and they want lots of it!
The squirrels around here are similarly plump. OK, they’re the fattest squirrels you’ve ever seen. This is because of the corn carousel mounted on the guesthouse in the back yard. It’s an ingenious contraption built like a Ferris wheel, with ears of corn where the passenger cars would be. The squirrels spin the spokes with their paws and dial up a feast of raw corn, contentedly gnawing until a predator disturbs their repast. Since the most threatening animal in the vicinity is a 12-year-old mutt with arthritis — my hound Ella — there’s not much to moderate the squirrels eating. So they’re fat.
The average American is overweight. We’re a nation of goldfinches at sock feeders, a pack of squirrels with a constant corn buffet. Although we’re taught to exercise moderation in all things, in practice we seek excess in all things. More food, more sex, more drugs, more money, more possessions, more everything. We practice a cruel double standard: we scoff at fatties and admire those who “have it all.” Despite dire warnings from our doctors and nutritionists, our culture implicitly encourages obesity. Consumption — of everything from gasoline to space — is a necessary engine of commerce, and those that consume the most are the winners in our game of take-what-you-can-get. Lucky for us, there aren’t any Cooper’s Hawks around to snatch us away for supper. Our only predator is ourselves.
We need water, but too much and there’s a flood. We need sunshine, but too much and there’s a drought. We need food, but too much and there’s a mean headline on the supermarket tabloid. Moderation in all things seems like a fine way to conduct oneself, whether or not the seed is free.