Êíèãà: The Human Age
Is Nature “Natural” Anymore?
PART III IS NATURE “NATURAL” ANYMORE?
The Slow-Motion Invaders
Is Nature “Natural” Anymore?
I am writing this in a bay window that floats halfway up an opulent old magnolia tree, which unfolds waxy pink brandy-snifter flowers in the spring, and offers lofts to wrens and chickadees, perches for owls and wing-weary hummingbirds, syrup for yellow-bellied sapsuckers, leafy pounce-ways for squirrels. Its neighbor, a colossal sycamore, hunches dozens of crooked branches to the sky, and catches sunlight in fuzzy leaves the size of bear paws. The deer turn to it for shade, the brown bats for shelter, the goldfinches for edible ornaments. Both trees fork and flow like river systems of sap with many tributaries. They bargain with insects and animals, keep their own time, and possess impulses and know-how I barely understand. Brainless the trees may be, but they have tiers of memory, powerful urges, skills, and faculties. We’re all offspring of one crusty planet, but we’re so different that we sometimes seem to inhabit alien universes. Even the criminal mind is more explicable than a tree—a quiddity we cannot enter, an essence that does not include us.
Like most other people, I find the magnolia, the sycamore, and the animals part of a wild green spontaneous expanse, where other creatures with other pedigrees are busy pursuing their own cycles and mysterious purposes. In a human-centered world, the otherness of nature is part of its great comfort and allure. For Bill McKibben, “nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.” Ancient beyond our imaginings, nature offers us a refuge from human affairs, a world free from social labyrinths, romantic tangles, hopes and hurdles. Or so it seems. But is this really true?
My magnolia belongs to a genus more ancient even than bees (beetles pollinated its ancestors), and certainly older than humankind. The story fossils tell is that a magnolia can trace its roots back a hundred million years. Its family has survived ice ages, the uprising of mountains, and continental drift. Its lineage may be older than the Finger Lakes hills. Yet it didn’t begin its life in my chilly yard. Aztec admirers named it Eloxochitl, the tree with green-husked flowers. Spanish explorers in the New World, enchanted by the large waxy petals that blushed like a maiden’s cheeks, ferried magnolia roots home along with the new luxuries of chocolate, vanilla, and brilliant cochineal-red dye. By the 1730s magnolias adorned many European gardens and were hybridized with other species, evolving into the robust ornamental magnolias that ultimately voyaged back across the Atlantic to grace southern homesteads, where they were usually planted in the front yard. In time horticulturalists sold their novelty to northern nurserymen, one of whom sold it to the original owner of my property, an entomologist, who no doubt watered, fed, and tended it lovingly.
This stately old magnolia is so bound up with human schemes and follies that it’s not exactly “wild” but rather part of our man-made world. It’s more akin to a domestic animal that lives in partnership with humans, providing beauty and a remembrance of the wilderness. The same is true of the sycamore. Although I live atop a hill, sycamores usually grow on the margins of rivers, or in wetlands, thriving on green banks between a field and a stream. Opossums, wood ducks, herons, and raccoons nest in a sycamore’s many cavities and branches. Native Americans sometimes used the entire trunk of one tree to carve a dugout canoe. It’s covered in apple-shaped fruits, each one a tiny Sputnik tufted with brown hairs and full of seeds. But my sycamore is really a disease-resistant hybrid of an American and an Oriental sycamore. So it, too, is a traveler, or at least its genes are.
As for the wild birds, I feed hummingbirds sugar water and put out seed for the dark-eyed juncos, nuthatches, and finches. Many of the crows wear armbands, as if in perpetual protest. They’re being studied by local ornithologists, and each band bears numbers, a favorite human logo. The tags are applied with care, and I don’t think they hamper the birds. I sometimes see a crow preening its tag into place as if it were another feather. But, like the trees, the birds don’t live detached, independent lives. Humans have meddled with their whereabouts, numbers, health, and gene pool.
In contrast to life indoors, I regard this landscape full of birds, trees, and animals as “nature.” From that perspective, the telephone poles and fence on the property line, the TV cable and metal mailboxes, the asphalt street and grumbling cars and distant arpeggios of downshifting trucks, all belong to the crafted world of humans, an artificial paradise filled with ceaseless blessings and hardships.
The myth of our sprawly, paved-over cities and towns is that we’ve driven native animals out and stolen their habitat. Not entirely true. We may drain the marshes, level forests, and replace meadows with malls, exiling some animals. But, because we also need nature, we create a new ecology that happens to be very hospitable to wild animals. For a few species, it’s more inviting than wilderness. Our buildings offer cubbyholes and crevices for animals to nest in. We install ponds, lawns, groves of edible trees. We leave garbage on the curb and design flower beds that are well watered and well fed, serving a smorgasbord of delicacies easily within a deer’s reach. In the process we keep fashioning new niches, most often without meaning to.
Anthropocene cities have created pools of a limited number of species, the ones that coexist well with humans—mainly deer, rats, cats, birds, foxes, skunks, raccoons, houseflies, sparrows, mice, and monkeys. One finds such city species wherever animals are forced to live in our shadow, feeding on our leavings, and joining the fossil record beside our steel and plastic. But we’re restyling their evolution, because urban animals (including humans) vary their habits and psychology to adjust to city life. Animals living in parks and zoos also adapt to our natural biorhythms and landscapes.
As more birds harbor in the cities, they find plenty to eat, but their biological clocks skip ahead. When Barbara Helm, a University of Glasgow ornithologist, compared blackbirds in Munich with their country cousins, she found that city birds start their workdays earlier and their biological clocks tick faster. Just like their human counterparts, they adopt a faster pace, work longer hours, and rest and sleep less in cities where upward-showering light washes out the stars and our handmade constellations cluster near the ground. Urban males also molt sooner and reach sexual maturity faster. In contrast, country blackbirds begin their day traditionally, at sunrise, don’t rush, and sleep longer.
“Our work shows for the first time,” Helm concluded, “that when sharing human habitats, a wild animal species has a different internal clock.”
Her colleague on the study, Davide Dominoni of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, added that for city songbirds, “early risers may have an advantage in finding a mate and thus a greater chance of successfully producing offspring and passing along their chronotype—the time of day their body functions are active—to the next generation. Other research has shown that chronotypes are highly heritable, so the process of natural selection could mean that city birds are evolving to favor early risers.”
Tinkering with evolution, we subject our pets and plants (as well as the wild animals who live near us) to our manufactured schedules of light and dark, sleep and waking, toileting, exercise, and feeding. Seasonal time has given way to a chronicity which has its own intricately satisfying beauty and a certainty one rarely finds in nature. We’ve not only rigged clocks to slice our days into tiny even segments, and lit up the night with noble gases trapped inside glass, rewiring our own circadian rhythms in the process, we’re also resetting the rhythms of the planet’s other life forms.
In Aesop’s fable “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” two cousins exchange visits, during which the city mouse turns down his nose at humble country fare, and the country mouse discovers that city life, while richer, is unbearably dangerous. I’d rather gnaw a bean than be gnawed by continual fear, he wisely opines. But thanks to us, today’s city mice are growing big brains to outwit the ambient dangers. Not just mice. According to researchers at the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, we’ve caused at least ten urban species—including voles, bats, shrews, and gophers—to grow brains that are 6 percent larger than those of their country cousins. Heavens, smarter rats! That’s a scary thought. As we felled and planted over their woods and meadows, only the cleverest animals survived, by tailoring their diet and behavior to the human-dominated landscape. Those who did passed big-brained genes on to resourceful offspring. And they were the lucky ones. Not all plants and animals can evade us or evolve; only the most flexible endure.
To cope with urban life, some animals have even begun redesigning their bodies at a pace fast enough for biologists to track. On a flat, horizonless Nebraskan highway, Charles Brown will often pull over to inspect a fresh piece of roadkill, provided it’s a cliff swallow. Chestnut-brown-throated, with white forehead, pale breast, and long pointy wings, cliff swallows favor cliffs, their ancestral roosts. I’ve enjoyed watching aerobatic crowds of them barnstorming the cliffs of Big Sur, where their calls—banshees quarreling in high, squeaky twitters—mix with crashing surf.
But cliff swallows do need cliffs. These days, faced with city sprawl, they’re plastering their gourd-shaped mud nests onto buildings, beneath highway overpasses, and tucked into railway trusses and trestles, building up colonies of thousands on our concrete cliffs.
A behavioral ecologist at the University of Tulsa, Brown has been observing their gregarious social life for thirty years, traveling from colony to colony, and often passing birds killed in the maelstrom of traffic. He’ll stop and check for a leg band and perhaps collect the bird for research.
“Over time,” he says, “we began to notice that we were seeing fewer dead birds on the roads.”
A bigger surprise was the length of their wings. The roadkill birds had longer wings than the swallows he’d caught in mist nets. These two changes—fewer birds dying in accidents, and a difference in the wing length of dead versus living birds—led him to a startling conclusion. To cross the road safely, cliff swallows had to weave and dodge at speed, favoring those with the short wings of dogfighting jets. The unlucky swallows with long wings more suited to pastoral life died in accidents, leaving the short-winged swallows to breed and become dominant. All in just a few decades.
“Longer-winged swallows sitting on a roadside probably can’t take off as quickly, or gain altitude as quickly, as shorter-winged birds, and thus the former are more likely to collide with an oncoming vehicle,” Brown suggests. “These animals can adapt very rapidly to these urban environments.”
How should we regard the blackbirds, cliff swallows, and other animals that are evolving in such a snap because of our technology? Will they become new species? Or are they just new citizens of our age?
What makes nature natural? It’s a quintessentially Anthropocene question. Nature thrived long before cities did, long before we coated the Earth with an immensity of humans. Wild animals live among us. Our toil and our machines are entwined in their fate. Even our densest city is a permeable space, although we try hard to live a world apart. We decide the limits of the wild and where a city begins and ends. Suburban sprawl has replaced the overgrown buffers we used to have, transitional land between the two worlds. Now wild and urban animals encounter one another daily.
We cherish a strong sense of place, rich with memories. But other animals abide by a sense of place, too. Banding studies show that ruby-throated hummingbirds travel the same route every year, zigzagging to their favorite yard. A familiar pair of mallards comes to canoodle behind my house every spring. Countless other critters return to a special mating or nesting spot, and will continue trying, even if we fragment their world on a grand scale by installing the materials, plants, and animals we prefer. When we claim a patch of real estate, scent-marking it with our stuff, and purging it of wild animals, we presume the animals will bow out graciously. As sensitive tyrants, it rattles us when they don’t and try to resettle their once-cherished digs.
Citywise animals are mainly invisible to us, hunting at night or creeping in shadows, and if we do encounter them, they surprise us by being out of place. We forget that the animal kingdom is a circle of neighbors who often drop by unannounced. Even if the previous residents have skedaddled, or rerigged their schedules, new species may begin showing up like furtive relatives from who knows where. By the time you realize they’re not just visiting, they’ve shot down roots, claimed a little fiefdom, disturbed some of your neighbors, and added a tiny codicil to daily life. Not always a welcome one.
Before the 1990s, no one saw coyotes on the streets of Chicago. Now the city offers refuge to two thousand, which prefer parks, cemeteries, and ponds and generally flee from people. But some have been tracked crossing more than a hundred roads a day and moving into residential neighborhoods. Moose regularly pay house calls in Alaska, stomping into yards and onto porches, looking for grub. Giant antlers and all, they can leap chain-link fences. On many a golf course in Florida, alligators create an extra water hazard, and lakeside settlers know to keep their Chihuahuas indoors. Mountain lions forage in Montana cities; cougars stalk joggers in California; elk stroll through housing tracts in Colorado. When one Jacksonville woman lifted up her toilet seat, a water moccasin leapt out and bit her; another woman, in Brooklyn this time, found a seven-foot-long python in her toilet. Leopards prowl the streets of New Delhi by night. In the Royal Botanic Gardens, in Melbourne, Australia, endangered gray-headed flying foxes built a colony of thirty thousand bats, drawn to the garden by all the cultivated native plants: eighty-seven healthy tree species with the fruit they preferred, a year-round oasis. Why risk the outback? And, maybe strangest of all, prairie dogs, those ground-dwellers of the open range, have begun digging their towns in our cities.
However, as it’s beginning to dawn on us that there’s no sharp line between the untamed and the built up, more people are trying to help wayward creatures find their way through our mazes.
When a lost eight-month-old coyote strayed into downtown Seattle, he became confused by the streets and buildings and grew frightened and disoriented. Dashing for what must have looked like a dark haven, he ran through the open door of the Federal Building, skidding on polished floors and around narrow hallways, bumping into glass, walls, and people in a panic. Then he spotted a cave to hide in—an open elevator—and darted inside, and the doors closed. For three hours, the poor creature paced that metal box until people from the state fish and wildlife department trapped him and set him loose outside of town.
It’s surprising how disruptive even a slow, lowly terrapin can be. One June day recently, more than 150 diamondback turtles scuttled across Runway 4 at JFK, delaying landings, halting takeoffs, foiling air traffic controllers, crippling timetables, and snarling air traffic for over three hours. Cold-blooded reptiles they may be, but also ardent and single-minded. Never mess with a female ready to give birth.
Graced by beautiful rings and ridges on their shells, diamondbacks look like a field of galaxies on the move. We think of the shell as a lifeless kind of armor, but it’s actually attached to their nervous system, not just a bulwark but an integral part of their inner world. They inhabit neither freshwater nor sea but the brackish slurry of coastal marshes. Mating in the spring, they need to lay their eggs on land, so in June and July they migrate to the sandy dunes of Jamaica Bay. The shortest route leads straight across the busy tarmac.
Don’t the plucky turtles notice our jets? Probably not. Even with polka-dot necks stretched out, diamondbacks don’t peer up very high. And unlike, say, lions, they don’t have eyes that dart after fast-moving prey. Ploddingly slow, they abide by seasonal time, so the jets probably blur into background—more of a blowy weather system than a threat. But planes generate a lot of heat, and the turtles surely find the crossing stressful. Not to mention the roundup. After a little light banter between pilots and air traffic controllers, Port Authority crews descended, scooping turtles into pickup trucks and ferrying them to a nearby beach.
“We ceded to Mother Nature,” said Ron Marsico, a Port Authority spokesman. “We built on the area where they were nesting for generations, so we feel incumbent to help them along the way.”
Mounted on the shoreline of Jamaica Bay and a federally protected park, indeed almost surrounded by water, JFK occupies land where wildlife abounds, and it’s no surprise that planes have collided with gulls, hawks, swans, geese, osprey, and even milky-winged snowy owls (an influx from the Arctic). Or that every summer there’s another turtle stampede, sometimes creating lengthy delays. As a private pilot, I remember well how airports used to treat animal “hazards”—at gunpoint. It’s heartening these days to find other solutions, from relocation to relandscaping, with canny coexistence the preferred option.
In my town, we’re blessed by lots of wild animal visitors, from star-nosed moles and eagles to otters, wild turkeys, foxes, and skunks. White-tailed deer are so numerous that they qualify as residents. Last week I was shocked to see a coyote toe stealthily up to the bird feeder outside my kitchen window, below which sat a plump seed-gobbling rabbit. When I opened the window to address the coyote, he turned tail and trotted into the tall grasses lining the driveway. Yesterday evening I caught sight of him once more, this time as a streak of yellow dots and dashes weaving through the bushes in my backyard. It took a moment for my brain to decode the pattern, and another moment to start worrying about the two baby rabbits eating clover on the lawn.
On a rainy morning so gray a dappled mare could get lost in it, my village held a public hearing to decide the fate of our local deer. Over a hundred residents spoke out against the proposed amendment to the firearms law, which would invite wildlife exterminators to bait and shoot the deer as long as they were at least five hundred feet from houses, schools, and yards. Lured with corn, the deer would be killed by high-powered bows and rifles. Because ricocheting bullets and arrows are possible, the village plans to take out liability insurance in the multimillions. If this sounds like a dangerous and extreme solution to the deer problem, you’ll understand the passion of the protesters.
Homeowners defended shooting the deer, which they regard as vermin. For them, it’s either the deer or the landscaping. Several gardeners conceded that deer had eaten many of their plants, but argued in favor of deer fences, not gunfire. One man grew tearful as he implored the board to live in harmony with nature. A psychologist accused the board of “groupthink,” in which deer have become a new demonized minority. Mothers worried over the safety of children walking home from school or playing outside amid stray bullets—and also over the psychological damage of witnessing the death of wounded deer.
One little girl asked her mother: “If they shoot all the deer, how will Santa deliver the presents?”
Another mother said that in her child’s elementary school, peaceful arbitration was being taught. She asked: “How can I begin to explain the hypocrisy of grown-ups solving their deer problem by hiring killers to gun down the deer?”
“There are so many deer fences—it’s like living in a war zone!” a kill-the-deer man cried. To which a save-the-deer man replied: “And you think snipers firing bullets around the village for the next ten years will be less like a war zone?”
Most protesters pleaded with the board to give fences and sterilization a good chance. Others argued that the board was legally bound to follow majority rule and should start shooting. Some debunked long-held myths about deer and Lyme disease (the white-footed mouse carries the agent, and killing the deer won’t banish the Lyme tick, which feeds on twenty-seven species of mammals, including cats and dogs). Or the idea that deer cause the most traffic accidents (speeding and alcohol do). Or that birth control methods fail (immuno-contraception has worked in national parks). Contraception is expensive, but so is hiring sharpshooters every year and paying for liability insurance.
What struck me as some kill-the-deer people spoke was the tone of dread and loathing, a panic about being invaded by wildness and roughly overtaken by the chaotic forces of nature. It’s as if we weren’t talking about the deer at all, but about what Freud called the Id, that wild demon of the psyche we keep just barely in check, and which otherwise would be slobbering, rutting, and killing all the time. What if its sheer feral exuberance took charge? Soon, neighbors’ yards would teem with tall gangs of unruly weeds. Or they might stop raking the leaves, and then clots of color would smother everyone’s lawn. Four-legged predators inspire the most panic, but if wild turkeys and deer can find their way into suburbia, can fiercer animals be far behind, ones with fangs and teeth, whose red eyes pierce the night?
Yet, at the same time, something deep inside us remembers being accompanied by animals. There was a time not very long ago when cows, goats, horses, and other animals slept indoors beside us, or at least shared the same roof. In some parts of the world, they still do. But most humans have pitched their plaster-walled tents in cities and suburbs, crowding out animals, especially wild animals, and pushing them farther and farther away, to the perimeters of daily life.
In the mists of the mind, we’ve lost our time-honed knack for coexisting with other creatures. We erect walls to keep nature out and take pride in scrubbing dirt and dust from our homes. Then we adorn our houses with bouquets of flowers, and scent absolutely everything that touches our lives. We seat windows in our walls, install seasons (air-conditioning and heat), and fasten at least one noonday sun in every room to shower us with light. Confusing, isn’t it?
Even indoors, we surround ourselves with pet companions who help bridge the apparent no-man’s-land between us and nature, between our ape-hood and civilization. A dog on a leash is not really tamed by its owner. It’s a two-way tether. The owner also extends himself through the leash to that part of his personality which is pure dog, the part that just wants to eat, sleep, bark, mate, and wet the ground in joy. We’ve all felt it.
Nature is dynamic and haphazard, and so are we—not a serene combo. Maybe it’s one that’s best described in paradoxes such as organized chaos, but we’re not beings who feel comfortable with paradox. Paradox tugs the brain in opposite directions, confounds our quest for simple truths, and throws a monkey wrench into the delights of habit. Faced with paradox, our brain automatically slaves to solve or squash it. And so here we find ourselves, disorderly beings, blessed or cursed with order-craving minds, in a disorderly universe we’re fully capable of bringing increased order to—but not absolute order, and not forever.
I SOMETIMES WONDER what Budi would make of our metropolitan jungles. Just like city monkeys the world over, leaping across rooftops, shimmying down drainpipes, nesting at night in the canopy of iron fire escapes, Budi would adapt to the hard surfaces of city life. On school playgrounds, children might see him using the monkey bars and jungle gym with a simian ease they only dream of. He’d find fruit to steal on many corners, densely treed parks where he’d mingle with the other species of great apes, many his own size and mental age, though physically much weaker and easily hurt. Some of the same urban animals that scare us would scare him: bears, coyotes, mountain lions, and such. Would he regard the city as another natural landscape, with blockish mountains, vast herds of humans, and their many watering holes and bazaars? Most likely he would. He’d not only adapt, he’d change his behaviors to suit the new realm, just as so many other urban animals (including us) have been doing with surprising success. It seems obvious that a city, or a cage in a zoo, is not what we mean by a “natural” environment, but in the Anthropocene, it can be hard to say what is.
IF WE DON’T want even more animals living with concrete sidewalks and feeding off human garbage, we must intervene. At this point, preserving the wild is not just a matter of hands-off, as traditional conservation decrees, but also the hands-on of creating other kinds of habitats, such as wildlife corridors. In my mind’s eye, I see flashes of the tiny green rainforest on Brazil’s Atlantic coast, an Amazon-like realm where the highest concentration of endangered birds in the Americas and the remaining golden lion tamarins cavort in small pristine Edens atop mountains riven by highways and towns. A dozen years ago, when I traveled there as part of the National Zoo’s Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program, another team was busy building a wildlife corridor, Fazenda Dourada, to link up the mountaintops and extend the birds’ and tamarins’ range. Not far away, snaking from Argentina all the way up into Texas, the Jaguar Corridor has gifted the scarce, almost mythic spotted cats with space to roam. It only seems fitting that, having rent the fabric of the wild, we at least stitch some green sleeves back together so that animals can rejoin their kin and migrate along ancestral routes. Around the globe countries have been avidly building these links, prompted by a fruitful mix of compassion and self-interest. The United States has some lengthy wildlife corridors, such as the Appalachian Trail, a thousand-foot-wide greenway running two thousand miles along ridgelines from Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. In India, the Siju-Rewak Corridor protects 20 percent of the country’s elephants from collisions with human civilization and its toys. Kenya has created Africa’s first elephant underpass, a tall tunnel beneath a traffic-snarled major road, which gives two elephant populations long divided by human dwellings a chance to migrate, mingle, find mates, and avoid terrified humans or terrifying traffic.
In Europe, the Green Belt Corridor will soon allow wildlife to ramble all the way from the tip of Norway through Germany, Austria, Romania, and Greece, deep into Spain, following ancient trails while searching for food, mild weather, and safe birthing grounds. Linking twenty-four countries and winding past forty national parks, it spans nearly 8,000 miles, some of it following the old historical line of the Iron Curtain, the 870-mile-long chain of fences and guard towers that once clawed the length of Germany, separating the East from the West. After reunification, what was once “no man’s land” lingered as a lifeless scar, until conservationists began reshaping it into a winding nature corridor. Transformed again by human hands, the blue-ribbon path now proclaims tolerance, not repression. The refuge naturally includes many different habitats, from sand dunes and salt marshes to forests and meadows. Ditches that kept vehicles from crossing are being crisscrossed by endangered European otters. Eurasian cranes, black storks, moor frogs, white-tailed eagles, and other stateless species are mingling safely.
In France, China, Canada, and other countries, more corridors are offering tunnels, underpasses, viaducts, and bridges to help wildlife cross their native range, while protecting them from vehicles and us from them. In the Netherlands, six hundred such over- and underpasses allow roe deer, wild boar, European badgers, and their kind to navigate around everything from railway lines to sports complexes. All this adds to a renewed sense of kinship: animals trotting, shuffling, climbing, and winging safely among us, visibly a part of life’s seamless web. Like any other close relationship, living with wildlife requires compassion, compromise, and seeking solutions that will benefit all. If peaceful coexistence were easy, there would be no divorce or political strife, only households and empires of domestic tranquillity.
Like many of my neighbors, I fence in the deer’s favorites: roses, rhododendrons, day lilies, hostas. In the front yard, I plant beauties the deer reject—iris, peony, cosmos, allium, false indigo, foxglove, monkshood, bee balm, bleeding hearts, sage, daffodil, veronica, poppy, dianthus, and many more—though they still find a lot to munch on. Instead of fencing in the whole property, I’ve left a corridor for the deer, foxes, coyotes, and other critters alongside a creek that ultimately winds north to Sapsucker Woods.
I enjoy sharing the neighborhood with so much wildlife, a kinship that greatly enriches my life. I’d rather the groundhogs didn’t burrow under my study, and the raccoons didn’t play chopsticks on the bathroom skylight and stare down with bandit eyes—but I haven’t evicted them. I relish the swoop of brown bats at sunset, elegant and enchanting little creatures that eat hundreds of insects every night. Sex-crazed frogs and toads party in the backyard, making a ruckus that can drown out TV or movie watching, but I find their ballyhoo a hilarious part of summer’s jug band music. Plying the water below them and adding to the fiendish din are water boatmen, dark copper insects with olive stomachs who swim on their backs, paddling with two oarlike legs, while carrying a silvery bubble of oxygen to breathe as if they were early argonauts. Though small (?"–?"), they’re adjudged the loudest animals on Earth relative to body size. During sultry summer nights, their singing penises (scrubbed fast over the stomach, washboard-style) can reach 99.2 decibels. That’s louder than standing near a freight train, louder than sitting in the first row of a concert hall during a thunderous symphony, even if the water muffles some of their clamor. I’m impressed by the platoon of male spotted newts doing he-man push-ups on the driveway and atop the fence, hoping to make females swoon. I’m delighted when a flicker beats heavy metal tunes on the stop sign—or even if he repeatedly rings my doorbell, as happened one summer. I enjoy spotting red-crested pileated woodpeckers, big as Cheshire cats, whacking the stuffing out of trees. Delving squirrels mean I have to plant bulbs under chicken wire, but I’m amused by their antics. I’m a bit sad I don’t have inquisitive black bears to contend with. Deer are the largest animals to pay house calls, and like the dogfighting hummingbirds, tree-climbing chipmunks, and rabbits engaging in an odd tournament of hopping jousts, they arrive unbidden but are welcome emissaries from the natural world.
Each year, I line up behind a dozen cars on a busy highway as a caravan of Canada goose chicks waddles across in a single line between guardian geese, apparently unfazed by motorized honking and the occasional impatient driver. Most people, like me, sit quietly and smile. Like the turtles at JFK, they remind us that, even with egos of steel and concrete plans, we’re easily humbled by nature in the shape of snowflakes, goslings, or turtles—all able to stop traffic. They also remind us how conflicted we really are about nature.
IS NATURE “NATURAL” anymore? Of course. But it’s no longer indisputably other. The earth scientist Erle Ellis has invented the term “anthrome” to refer to the “hybrid human-natural systems that now dominate Earth’s surface.” From our small vest-pocket gardens to our giant wilderness areas and parks, nature now reflects our preferences, and one of our most cherished ideas about nature is that nature should be human-free. So we have evicted the indigenous peoples from lands we wished to designate national parks, from the United States’ Yellowstone and Grand Canyon to Cameroon’s Korup National Park and Tanzania’s Serengeti, even though tribes may have lived there for ages, and coexisted to an inspiring degree with the environment.
For Europeans, the word “wilderness” used to mean a wild, barren, chaotic place full of plight and mischief, where it was simple to lose one’s bearings or mind. It’s easy to forget how ugly nature often seemed to people before Romanticism reexplored the ruggedness of natural beauty. Early-nineteenth-century writers found wildernesses grotesque—not just dangerous and obstructive and rife with bloodthirsty animals but actually a vision of evil. Now the idea of wilderness is just the opposite: a sanctuary, an emblem of serenity, a view of innocence.
Nature is always mutating, on a large and small scale—the lavish suns of summer, the dragonfly’s seasonal demise. Those regular turnovers can become humble as old clothes, nothing to raise a ripple of awareness, let alone concern, and too rarely a sensory cascade. The romance with nature—childhood—gives way to the companionship stage, a time of purposeful beguiling, when it takes more to capture your attention. But a nonmigration of geese, a neverthriving of crops, a carillon of snowdrops blooming a month too early, ripe berries way out of season, a bay full of lobsters ankling off to the north, the weird absence of winter—these give one pause. Our newest idea of nature is one of vulnerability, a vast, sprawling, interlaced organism growing weaker.
At precisely the moment we’re achieving unprecedented feats and ruling the planet on a grand scale, we’re discovering that our future as a species may suffer as a result. Nature isn’t separate from us, and part of our salvation as a species depends on respecting, if not rejoicing in, that simple companionable truth.
PART III IS NATURE “NATURAL” ANYMORE?
The Slow-Motion Invaders