Two questions I’m often asked by people who have read my new book, Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds: How can we reconnect to nature? How should we deal with mounting conflicts between people and wild animals and birds?
The answers intersect. The first is easy: Unplug your screens, take out your earphones, turn off your digital devices and go outside. Nature’s creatures abound right outside your door. Thanks to conservation efforts over decades, deer, geese, beavers, coyotes, even bears, moose, and other creatures not seen locally for generations, are turning up in backyards, along roads, in suburbs, even downtown.
In fact, as I say in my book, it’s likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wildlife in parts of America today than anywhere on the planet at any time in history. And when the inevitable conflicts arise, we often don’t know how to respond — except to fight among ourselves over what to do, if anything. We have a mess of overabundant species and denatured people. How did this happen?
Baby boomers had the last tenuous connection to the natural landscape and its wild creatures on or around their parents’ and grandparents’ farms. But boomers and their offspring lost direct touch, growing up in towns and suburbs and getting their nature indirectly — from movie and TV films often cropped and edited to portray wild creatures as behaving like people, children or pets. When I was growing up on a farm in Michigan in the 1950s, I watched and loved Disney’s True Life Adventures and Zoo Parade. But when the TV was turned off, I returned to a real working landscape in which farm animals were raised and killed for food and wild creatures were hunted to eat. Boomers lost that option. Outdoor know-how and the idea that people can be good stewards of the landscape weren’t just forgotten. They were forsaken.
Meanwhile, right under their noses, wild animals and birds were proliferating in their midst. These creatures didn’t act like pets, or people. Today, in the sprawl, where the majority of Americans now live, we attract proliferating wild critters with our yards, gardens, garbage cans, mulch piles, dumpsters and all sorts of place to hide and, procreate. And sprawl has almost no predators — except the family car.
And when some critter turns up, we either think of it as a wild pet, and toss it a cookie, or we are repelled and call in Critter Control, or some other nuisance wildlife mitigation company. For them, business is booming.
The first thing those pros will tell you is that if you have a nuisance wildlife problem, you have to get rid of food sources around your home: Take down the bird feeders, bear-proof your garbage cans and mulch bins, fence your garden off from deer. But meanwhile, the people selling birdseed and backyard habitat design, ponds and equipment, want you to create places that attract wildlife to bring nature closer. They say you’ll attract birds, butterflies, frogs and salamanders. But very often skunks, raccoons, foxes, opossums — and, increasingly, coyotes and bears — turn up too. These are things delightful to see or have around, until they become problems.
Deer are beautiful creatures too — until they smash into your car windshield. Canada geese are majestic — until they make your child’s soccer field unplayable. The sad result is that instead of appreciating them we demonized them as long-legged rats and lawn carp.
We need to manage the ecosystems around us for the good of all inhabitants — plants, animals, and, yes, people. Our past messes don’t absolve our current obligation to be to be good stewards of our own patches of nature. The first step is reconnecting.
Go outside before sun-up. Sit under a tree quietly and patiently. Watch and listen to nature’s day begin. It may be a revelation — and a start.