Right after I arrived at Komchén a few weeks ago someone went to the saltflats just north of here and shot flamingos. Several were killed outright but most - - over 30 mostly young birds -- died when they flew blindly into high-voltage lines. Well, no one guards the birds, and there's not even a sign up saying that birds shouldn't be shot.

I can't think of that incident without recalling something from my childhood. Back on our isolated farm in Kentucky, each spring for several years in a row a certain Great Blue Heron, or maybe a series of them, landed at least once in the top of one of our Lombardy Poplars next to the pond. My father and I were always anticipating the visit because we wanted to see who could shoot it down. After several attempts by both of us over several years we never succeeded, but I fear the bird or birds were often wounded, because we were pretty good shots.

When I got into my teens something happened inside me, almost overnight, that suddenly caused me to fill with shame just thinking about shooting at those beautiful birds. I wish I knew what the thing was that caused me to suddenly shift my perspective so drastically, not only with regard to shooting herons but also to my feelings about civil rights for Black people (these were the 60s), vegetarianism, and a whole bag of other concerns that ultimately brought about my isolation from the culture in which I was embedded.

I've never understood what caused those changes, but just because I've thought so much about the subject of how humans come to decide what is right and wrong, I think I've attained a certain very simple insight. That is, human civilization is a thin, fragile, maybe temporary veneer of learned civility enveloping humanity like the shimmering surface of a very fragile bubble -- ready to shatter at any moment.

Moreover, humanity, from what I can see, still runs mainly on dumb, uncritical instinct, not rationality (viz the last US election). The unfortunate thing is that humanity's instinctual urges have been programmed in our genes over millions of years of primate evolution, and it overwhelmingly expresses itself in primal urges for sex, territory and status, and not much else. Niceties such as not shooting herons and letting people unlike ourselves live in dignity is purely cerebral stuff that can be and will be forgotten as soon as conditions get rough for us.

Whatever the case, with regard to humanity's thin veneer of civility, my opinion is that it's something worth protecting and expanding.

If violent, consumption-focused commercial TV continues to program our children, the good will of our teachers continues to be abused, and our politics and religiosity continue to grow ever more extreme, we're all going to end up shooting flamingoes and herons.

The problem with that is that it's not only hard on the flamingos and herons, but also an ugly, damnable way to be.