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Russell Baker on the Denatured American

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 7, 2013

Feral cats in Baltimore (Photo:  Vincent J. Musi)

Feral cats in Baltimore (Photo: Vincent J. Musi)

 

I am kind of thrilled(because, honestly, I thought he was dead) to see that Russell Baker, my favorite columnist of decades past, has a nice review in the New York Review of Books.  It’s about former Wall Street Journal reporter Jim Sterba’s book Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds.  Baker holds it up between thumb and forefinger for an examination that does not exactly amount to an endorsement.  Here’s a sample:

This kinder, softer American, Sterba notes, has only a remote relationship with the natural world he inhabits. Over a span of some four hundred years Americans necessarily cultivated a close grasp of nature’s laws and whims in order to survive the cruelty of a primordial wilderness, and to level forests, make land productive, and become competent at hunting, fishing, trapping, and animal husbandry.

Now, in little more than a single generation, this long relationship with nature has withered in a culture that finds Americans giving themselves up to the indoor ease of the technological way of life. Today’s average American spends most of the day indoors or inside an automobile traveling some hellish commuter road between workplace and home. Experience of his own natural habitat comes largely from watching beautifully photographed films on television. In Sterba’s word, he has become “denatured.”

Denaturing has produced an unrealistic and somewhat sentimental view of woodland creatures, which, as Sterba construes the situation, is one reason so many seem to feel they can trespass in our gardens with impunity.

His book, written with considerable charm and more wit than commonly found in works that deal with ecosystems, includes extensive and often entertaining treatments of such common nuisances as beavers, Canada geese, and feral cats, as well as various animal support lobbies that make life miserable and sometimes dangerous for wildlife control agents. For the denatured reader, there is a wealth of useful statistics.

Is it generally known, for example, that the beaver is the largest rodent in North America, that the adult male may be four feet long from nose to tail tip and weigh as much as sixty pounds? Or that the giant variety of Canada goose, weighing ten to twenty pounds, does not migrate but likes to settle in groups of hundreds, sometimes thousands, on golf courses and public parklands where, with their distinctively hyperactive digestive systems, they must void their bowels approximately fives times an hour? Or that the population of feral cats is thought to be somewhere between 60 and 100 million, that they have human supporters—even “national cat protection groups”—that wage bitter struggles against songbird lovers who see the wild felines as a threat to the future of beauty on the wing?

Sterba refers to human champions of this animal or that as “species partisans.” Though sympathetic to their devotion to animals and their care for the environment, he clearly disapproves of some of the tactics they employ in pursuit of their high-minded objectives. Officials of an upstate New York village planning to rid the community of an infestation of Canada geese find themselves, for example, confronted by TV crews summoned to cover a protest against a pending “goose Holocaust.” After sharpshooters are hired by Princeton, New Jersey, to cull its deer population, “the mayor’s car was splattered with deer guts and the township animal control officer began wearing a bulletproof vest after finding his dog poisoned and his cat crushed to death.” People “denatured” from their own habitat tended to treat the environment and its other inhabitants in mindless ways, unintentionally and often with the best of intentions.

Early environmentalists, like Thoreau, wrote of a landscape despoiled by ignorance and exploitation, and this narrative of loss through human meddling—the idea of “man the despoiler,” in Sterba’s phrase—still ran strongly through the last century’s environmentalist culture. Sterba writes that this idea led to the notion that the natural world “was a benign place” where wild creatures lived harmoniously among themselves, and only man was vile:

This idea was in striking contrast to the amorality of a Darwinian nature that was indifferent and random, its creatures living in a world of predators and prey, struggling to eat, reproduce, and survive. In a benign natural world, wild animals and birds not only got along with one another but were often portrayed as tame and peaceable, with human habits and feelings.

This, in exaggerated form, was the world of faux nature packaged for delivery to people who wanted to believe that animals were just like us.

Bambi and Lassie are two of the best-known practically human specimens that warm the popular heart. Those who seek something closer to Darwinian reality may prefer Bugs Bunny.

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