Our love-hate relationship with nature

July 4, 2010


When I was young, I fell under the spell of Winnie the Pooh, Brer Rabbit, Mr. Toad and a host of other animals who exhibited human characteristics, with or without our darker flaws. I can still read the magical words, “The Mole had been working very hard all morning, spring-cleaning his little home,” and be transported back into an enchanted world, simpler but also a mirror of our own.

So I’m sympathetic to the tendency to anthropomorphize our furry and feathered friends. And in most conflicts between animals and human beings, I side with the animals. When I first read that Douglas County Public Works had removed a beaver dam in the Baker Wetlands, my righteous indignation was stirred on behalf of the beavers.

Then I read that animal rights advocates had laid a foundation of rocks, brush and logs in hopes of encouraging the beavers to rebuild. Another reaction came to mind: How can we presume to know the desires and best interests of wild creatures? I wondered if this story would end with a campaign to fund Beaver House, a resort with amenities such as easy slots, giant slides and a multi-plex cinema. Perhaps a Disney movie was in the offing: “Come Back, Little Beavers.”

It’s easy to romanticize beavers in terms of the adorable, buck-tooth characters featured in the Hamm’s beer ads. However, from what I know of them, if the beavers wanted to rebuild, they would rebuild, with or without human encouragement. You can “leave it to the beavers,” as it were. Beavers are said to be “excited” by the sound of running water, which inspires them to build dams promiscuously, a trait that they share with human beings.

You can’t help admiring the industry of these ingenious engineers. And it’s inspiring to come upon one of their dams and its tranquil, trout-filled pond in the mountains. But beavers in some remote wilderness and beavers in your own backyard are two very different things.

My own fondness for beavers was disrupted one morning when I woke to discover that, while I’d slept, a gang of them had wantonly, maliciously cut down 20 ornamental trees I’d planted and nurtured for years. It was an act of vandalism no different from the periodic bashing of our mailbox by a carload of rural teens.

I began studying methods of retaliation, some of them murderous. I envisioned traps, snares, pits, poisons, even the construction of some kind of tatterdemalion designed to terrify beavers. I was in the grip of a paradox. My desire to befriend nature had become perverted into a rabid animosity towards nature.

One of the motives of our move to the country ten years ago was to make our acreage favorable to wildlife. Restoration of native grass and planting of plum thickets has attracted quail, orioles, fly catchers, threshers and other birds we admire. But we’ve also created a happy hunting grounds for hawks, owls, feral cats, raccoons, skunks, coyotes and other predators which like to eat the creatures our aesthetic prejudices favor. In effect, our conservation agenda is a form of racism which divides the animal kingdom into “desirables” and “undesirables.”

The same principle applies to the plants we try to conserve and those we try to eradicate. We prize gayfeather, purple coneflower, prairie larkspur. We loathe iron weed, ragweed and cheat grass. I spend much of my time in dubious battle against weeds designated “noxious.” In a futile attempt to defeat them, I spray the countryside with noxious chemicals. Sometimes it seems like a kind of madness. Yet, if I let nature take its course, the property would soon revert to the wasteland of thorn trees and thistles it was before we moved here, a place where the sight of a bird or rabbit was rare.

The truth is that we’re in love with nature and at war with it. We want to control it, but nature ignores our wishes. And yet finding some way to balance our needs with those of nature is the key to our survival. I understand the appeal of misanthropy and have no trouble imaging that the planet might be better off without us. I also understand that we may be contriving our own extinction. But until that happens, we must co-exist with the rest of nature.

The idea that animals have “rights” won’t help. Rights are a human conceit and there are some human societies that don’t observe them. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a moral obligation to take care of the non-human members of nature.

By the way, do the carpenter bees have a “right” to reduce my house to sawdust? Do the deer have a “right” to destroy my wife’s garden and orchard? Don’t we have as much right to defend our crops as a cougar has to defend its kill? Again, why are there teams called “Hawks,” but none called “Buzzards,” even though buzzards perform an heroic service? Why do we put out seeds to attract finches but fashion scarecrows to drive away black birds?

Another consideration: Our feelings about animals depend on their numbers. Superabundance of deer and geese has demoted them to the status of pests. As to the beavers, there are enough of them in our neighborhood. I’ll begin to worry about beavers when they become officially endangered and seldom seen.

Footnote: According to my cookbook, beaver meat “tastes just like roast beef.” It may be stewed, roasted, grilled or fried.

— George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


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