Friday, February 15, 2013

Where the wild things are

        My granddaughter, Hailey, asked, “Do you have mountain lions there,” and I said, “Maybe. Why do you ask?”

“You must live in the wilderness,” she said. Her voice was thin and reedy and filled with a curiosity that bordered on uncertainty if not fear, and on this evening she was filled with questions about the local fauna. We’d already discussed spiders and squirrels and skunks and raccoons and woodchucks and badgers and bobcats and coyotes and cows and deer, and if it seemed each new species grew in girth, if not length of fang, I wasn’t entirely mistaken. After mountain lions came bears.

“We don’t have bears here,” I told her. “We have Republicans.”

“Daddy and Mommy are Republicans,” she said. 

“Yes they are.” 

A lengthy silence indicated deep thought from my little thinker. I almost felt badly about deliberately confusing her but I’m a firm believer in keeping youngsters on their toes. It’s only fair, after all, considering how she keeps me going in circles. Her line of interrogation had gone on for several weeks as she tried forming a mental picture of where we lived versus her life in suburban Denver, but without a personal reference point her compass spun wildly in all directions.

What delighted me was the timing of her inquiries. I’d just finished reading a lengthy article by Elizabeth Kolbert in the Dec. 24 issue of The New Yorker entitled “The Call of the Wild,” in which I’d discovered a new word equally applicable to Kansas as it was to the Netherlands: rewilding. Apparently the Dutch have created what’s being billed as the “Serengeti behind the dikes” on 15,000 acres of perfectly flat reclaimed land. More than trying to create a faux-wilderness area populated with mammals based on traditional but extirpated species, its designers set out to do one better—mastermind a Paleolithic ecosystem.

In many ways it’s worked brilliantly, so much so that in the course of letting nature have its way wolves have returned as well as white-tailed eagles and greylag geese. The movement behind the park’s creation, branded Rewilding Europe, was based on proposals to turn the depopulated expanses of the American Midwest into a semblance of what it once was when millions of bison roamed the Plains and cougars and grizzlies knocked humans a rung or two down the food chain ladder. 

While Midwesterners are far from agreeing about the future of their region, most bristle at the idea of returning the land to four-legged creatures of the wild variety. Still, the term rewilding rolled off my tongue like a piece of candy corn, sweet and satisfying but also triggering a philosophical rumination focused on the increasing numbers of cougar sightings and incursions from southwestern and southern avifauna such as white-winged doves, roadrunners and armadillos. It’s wild out there in northeast Kansas and getting wilder. Rewilding, indeed.

And here was our granddaughter trying to figure it all out. Where they live feral cats are their number one wild mammal, followed closely with (increasingly) raccoons. Coyotes can be seen on city streets, though many urban residents would be hard pressed to differentiate them from stray dogs. In almost all major American cities, predator animals are making inroads into suburbia, much to the dismay of poodle and cat owners.

Here, I tried to explain, things are also in flux, but people are in the minority and always have been. 

“Do you live in the country?” she asked.

“Kind of,” I replied. I tried explaining how living on the edge of a small rural community was about the same as living 50 miles from the nearest inhabitant, but never entirely succeeded. We proceeded onward to the toothsome stage of the animal kingdom whereupon Hailey was fixated on various means of dismemberment by talon and fang.

“Are you scared of being eaten by mountain lions?”

“I’m more afraid of old plumbing,” I said, a statement I regretted at once.

“What kind of animal is that?”

It was going to be a long conversation.


dearrosie said...

Hi Tom
I came over here from Shoreacres blog and I'm so glad I did. What a beautifully written post.

I was also inspired and excited after I read that article in the New Yorker. Funnily enough just as I finished reading the article a Dutch couple came up to my cash register (I work in a Museum gift store in LA) and I pulled it out to show them. They were very proud of the work that had been done there and were thrilled to learn that there was an article in the New Yorker about it

Virginia Allain said...

I live in a retirement community in Florida and blogged about the wonderful wildlife we see here. One reader commented, "How can you live in a place that has alligators and wild boars? I was considering your community, but now it is off my list." I think she would be better off moving to a highrise in Miami if that is the way she feels about nature.

Tom Parker said...

Virginia -- When we lived in Broomfield, Colo., a Denver suburb, coyotes and great horned owls were snatching poodles and cats at a record pace. People were up in arms, wanted something done. The city's answer: lock up your pets. The wild is outside our doors if we're lucky. Now that we live on the edge of a small rural town in northeast Kansas, wildlife are as much a part of the landscape as people. We love it--and we're also careful to look both ways when going outside at night. Skunks are fairly touchy and don't care much for surprises!

Tom Parker said...

Dearrosie-- The geographic similarities between what's happening in the Netherlands and what we're seeing on the Great Plains was the part I found the most fascinating. Sure, theirs was due to reclaimed land formerly underwater and ours due to rural depopulation, but the end result is almost the same: wildness that almost, but not quite, harkens back to a time before "civilization."

Now if we could just do something about the increasing proliferation of Republicans...