Recently I was awakened unceremoniously by the dog going ballistic. Now, Greta is large and persistent, and she has taught me to rouse myself to respond to her instinctual alarms. So, down the stairs I plodded with Greta barking to hurry me up. At that moment a hideous death scream came from outside. Something was unwillingly being killed. Grumbling, I opened the kitchen door as the dog pushed past me, and burst into the frigid late night air.
There, in the alley at the back of the house, lit by a mercury light on a utility pole, loped an adult coyote with something limp in its mouth, a large enough ’something’ to be seen. Now coyotes are not uncommon here within the city, but as Greta charged the fence and demonstrated the coyote‘s urgent need to move on, I watched this particular coyote, struck by its ease, its casual assumption of place.
Comfortable again in my home heated by natural gas, I reflected on this ease, the casualness of this coyote. 300 years ago, clinging to the coastal regions of this continent, we burned wood for warmth, for cooking. That wood came from the forests which opposed us and seemingly stretched forever. Within 250 years we cleared 250 million acres of forest, pushing its other inhabitants back into near extinction. We built our farms, villages, cities comfortable in our knowledge that we had tamed the wilderness, isolated it to our parks and our backyards.
By 1900, the number of white-tailed deer, for example, had dwindled to an estimated 500,000 on the whole continent. Today that number is an estimated 25 million to 40 million. What happened to the tamed wilderness?
The answers to that question, on reflection, seem obvious, but, of course, are less so. We hunted creatures for food. And we hunted their predators to insure our food supply. We hunted to deprive others of that food supply. Deer declined, and their large predators were shot or trapped or poisoned into the void. Beaver were disruptive and had useful pelts (until silk replaced beaver for European men’s hats). Even in our parks and backyards, Nature would comply with our needs or perish.
But something happened on the way to extinction. We built a culture around gas-powered vehicles. We abandoned farms, expanded our cities, built suburbs and then exurbs,small clustered areas of human habitation and work. In the process we opened these spaces to those other creatures.
We planted trees and plants we do not burn or eat. We reforested the Eastern half of the continent. New York City boasts an estimated 5.2 million trees or 24 percent of its land mass. Even Quincy, Illinois, eager to be counted among the Tree Cities of America plants trees with abandon, Bradford Pears which bear no fruit and split easily, Moraine Locusts which send strong root systems to uproot sidewalks and invade sewers and which will succumb to a 65 mile prairie wind, and ash which must now be sprayed often to protect against the ash borer. Yet each tree harbors its denizens. Taken together, these trees offer a sparse but effective forest environment.
The culmination of our change lies in our mythos, a Walt Disney view of Nature itself as benign with all creatures living happily together. The coyote and its prey, rabbit or cat, would possess a less sublime comprehension than Bambi and Thumper. As a part of that mythos, we enact laws to curtail hunting, protect animals no longer endangered, weep at the unintended death on our highways of the ’innocent’ creature. We even created an expression, ’roadkill‘, to denote this inadvertent slaughter. Guns kill so guns become evil, while geese fly into jet engines, squat on our runways, parks, golf courses, starlings roost by their hundreds in neighborhood trees, deer hurl themselves into our moving cars, and the coyote slinks with a bounty on his head. We make it unacceptable to litter, yet when you are disgusted at the sight of someone leaning from his truck to toss a McDonald’s bag onto the street, the crow looks with anticipation.
We have disabled rather than managed the prime predator, ourselves.
As we move more indoors, heated, air conditioned, absorbed by our computers and wide-screen televisions, fenced from our neighbors, commuting in our self enclosed vehicles, viewing Nature only on screen, our mythos will change only slowly, while the animals with whom we share this continent will continue to increase, prompting a backlash from our offended sense of Nature gone disorderly. Rather than understand that we do, in fact, share this land with others, however uneasily, we are likely to strike out, to once again try to drive the ’others’ into extinction.