Book Review by Nathaniel R. Dickinson
The Beast in the Garden, David Baron, W. W. Norton and Company, 2004
The author's prologue, entitled "Death in the Ecotone," encourages the reader to look forward to a logical, straightforward discussion of the problems that result from man's allowing wildlife species to lose their wildness and the prevalent desire to tinker with the natural world. By definition wildlife is wild and any efforts, intentional or unintentional, to tame them or make them roadside creatures should be discouraged and in many cases legislated against.
Boulder, Colorado is the setting and the date is January 1992. A search is being conducted for a healthy, athletic high school student who vanished on the outskirts of the city. They were not prepared for what they found. The boy's body had been sloppily mangled, hollowed out like a pumpkin, with the organs plucked out and the face removed. Surprisingly, the guilty creature watched from a point five yards away.
This reportedly was the first adult human being to be killed and consumed by a cougar in over a century. According to Baron, until that time Felix concolor was considered a timid creature of the wild that avoided homes and habitations, and that the community embraced the myth that wilderness, true wilderness, could exist in America. Unfortunately, rather than take advantage of the horrible fate of the youth to truly identify problems and needs, the author tries to make a case that wilderness is not possible with the United States becoming increasingly paved and sanitized, and that there exists a need for public agencies and private groups to preserve open space.
In the process, Baron totally misrepresents the complexion of our country in respect to land use. The Great Plains, for example, is experiencing what has been referred to as a catastrophic demographic collapse; comprising one-fifth of the nation's land area, but only four percent of its human population. Admittedly, the Atlantic and Pacific coasts are rapidly filling up but only contain 17 percent of the land area, while 53 percent of the people. And only six percent of the U.S.A. is considered residential, with 20 percent in farmland, 25 percent rangeland with the remaining 49 percent wilderness and woodland. The author's statement that Americans no longer see animals as merely an exploitive resource must be challenged. This is a slap in the face to the many true conservationists that proceeded. Wildlife has probably been afforded much better treatment than it deserved, considering its level of responsibility.
David Baron is, however, to be commended for chronicling the course of events that led to the horrendous conflicts between wildlife and humans and the lessons that should be learned. He notes the idyllic vision of Boulderites as to how they should live gently on the land in harmony with nature and appreciate the chance to bask in nature's glory from one's very own back porch. He stops short, however, of pronouncing that wildlife is wild and it must be kept that way by implementing control measures. Obviously, Boulder did not allow the necessary levels of hunting on their outskirts.
The discussion brings to mind a newspaper article of a few years ago that dealt with the wildlife situation in the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal which is designated as a wildlife refuge. Among other things free nature tours by bus were planned to satisfy the city people's hunger for contact with the natural world. Just how natural this would be, if it can be viewed out of a bus window? This, incidentally, is the design of the National Park Service, such as the vehicle caravans to view the "wild" wolf packs in Yellowstone.
A good point is made that animals normally flee when exposed to unusual, potentially threatening situations. However, repeated experiences, if not followed by negative consequences, may result in animals that do not flee. Again, conditioning and keeping them wild. Baron notes in his chapter "Return of the Native" that cougar tracks once again were noted in Boulder in 1987. Unfortunately, he gives too much credit to animals in respect to the thought process in saying that cougars, like humans, are possessors of the land and divide the terrain into home ranges. Do they not just do what comes naturally?
Then there is a chapter entitled "Happy Times," when cougar sightings became more frequent. Unfortunately, the author makes reference to charismatic megafauna, a favorite buzz term of the radical environmentalists. The dictionary definition of charismatic is having a special quality of leadership. Baron does a splendid job of documenting the sequence of events that led to the very serious wildlife problems in a chapter entitled "City of Nature." He notes that Boulder's passion for nature coincides with those for solar energy, recycling, use of organic produce, wildlife sanctuaries, and beautification plans. He notes that environmentalists nationwide hailed Boulder as an excellent example of how to combat urban sprawl. Their answer to the horrendous deer problems was tolerance. Ring any bells?
The chapters "Lion Search" and "Day Shift" do a good job of further identifying just what can happen. Reference is made to the "ain't nature wonderful" mode, the resulting abnormal wildlife behavior, loss of fear, among others. There should be many lessons to learn.
Chapter 7 entitled "Sterkfondein Redux" seems to lead Baron off on a strange tangent. It deals with humankind's connection to cat's caves where cats dragged victims, feline reign of terror, humankind haunted by ancestral memories, our tendencies toward war and violence, deep-seated fear of being devoured by a beast, etc. This all led up to taking control of the natural environment. But now in Boulder the cougars were usurping the caves of humans. The balance of power was shifting. This, of course, all makes sense.
This is followed by a discussion of cats and dogs that apparently deals with the fear that one species has for another and the resulting impacts. A number of drawn-out stories follow, the precise purpose of which are somewhat hard to determine.
Chapter 9 entitled "Trouble in the Canyon" apparently is intended to show that animals, like people, can develop eating problems. This is followed by "The Hunt" which begins with the statement that persecution of cougars was never based so much on fear for human safety as a concern over money, since it is a liability with no economic benefit to man. Sometimes it is difficult to discern how all these discussions fit together. Possibly the various accounts of episodes do have something to offer other than some form of entertainment.
For some reason or other the author devotes the following chapter to a discussion of the culture of the West, with what appears to be a rather slanted view of white-Indian relations. It is difficult at times to determine how this all relates to the beast in the garden. Then it brings up matters such as multiculturalism, feminism, environmentalism, and Native Americanism. Pray tell how this all fits together.
A meeting between Division of Wildlife personnel and interested parties on how to deal with cougars was summarized. Some sided with the cats. One referred to the cougar's rights very interesting. A statement is made that conservation was originally utilitarian, economically justified, human centered. What an insult to the many splendid original workers in a once noble profession. But praise is heaped on the modern environmentalists who he said passed unprecedented laws such as the Endangered Species Act, which, to put it bluntly, is a disgrace and an insult to sound, objective science. And yes, are not Greenpeace, Earth First, and other radical groups wonderful. Baron is certainly exposing himself. He states that this new environmentalism challenges religion, too. Indeed it is challenging all aspects of a free society. And yes, we must also salute Native American spirituality, whatever that might be.
Chapter twelve is entitled "The Long Summer." Here again the reader is exposed to a litany of stories, tales, philosophy, and shaggy lion accounts. Then there are more of the endless deliberations with governmental officials. What a wonderful commentary on how people should get along. This is followed by a blow by blow commentary on the fate of a high school senior in a chapter entitled "Final Run," and then comes "The Investigation," which is followed by "Exegesis" which according to the dictionary is explanation, critical analysis, or interpretation of a word. That certainly clears things up.
The epilogue is entitled "The Myth of Wilderness." Again another account of a hike on a trailhead and an encounter with a cougar. And then an apology to wildlife, since man is changing its behavior in unexpected and sometimes troubling ways. Everyone has an excuse these days. And then there is the statement that the accelerating spread of civilization obliges us to preserve what's left of the natural world before it is gone. This statement shows a total lack of appreciation of the natural world, which is in a constant state of flux, and species do come and go whether we like it or not. This is not to say that we should neglect what we can improve upon.
April 11, 2006