Once upon a time — not all that long ago — most of North American was “open” space. There was room for predators. Room for herds of antelope, bison, deer and elk. Wild goats lived in the mountains with mountain lions and jaguars.
I remember England in 1979. I was shocked at how little wild spaces they had. The moors were full of sheep. The woods were full of houses. That was before the U.S. raped our open spaces. Those years, we had huge parks of old forest. We had recently re-introduced wolves. The American Eagles had gone off the “critical” list of endangered species. The buffalo (American Bison) were expanding their range. New England and Canada were full of moose and bears.
England seemed so TAME by comparison. I can’t begin to express my shock when I realized Sherwood Forest was a subdivision with a few well-maintained ponies so the tourists could see them. I don’t know what England looks like now, but here? Unless you travel far north and west into the Rockies, everything is “developed.” Humanized. Which mean if it is bigger than a cockroach or a pigeon, it’s kaput.
The Arizona desert is basically Phoenix. It was a small town in the 1970s. Now, it’s huge and sprawling and goes on forever. Los Angeles had borders and the Cascades didn’t have roads. You had to hike if you wanted to explore them. The only section of the U.S. more treed than built-up is New England — 70% trees (overall), with places like Maine and Vermont closer to 85-90%. Massachusetts is 70% and we live in the woodsy section. It would be worse, but there’s no employment here, so no one has bothered to develop it. The Berkshires were wild just a dozen years ago, but well-to-do retirees discovered it so it’s all full of fancy retirement villas. Ditto the Appalachians and Great Smokies down south.
In Massachusetts, we have mostly young forest. Oaks have grown back covering areas that were previously farmed. We have 2.43 acres, but behind us are another 70 or 80 acres that have reverted to unoccupied wooded land. For the most part, it isn’t selling to developers. Yet. The only reason it hasn’t been sold is we are too far from a city. Farmers have mostly retired or moved to places where the land is fertile and flat — and not so rocky. The last of the dairy cattle disappeared last summer. We do have quite a bit of horse breeding, goats, miniature horses and a few llamas — but “real” farms are disappearing very fast. Local corn? Nope. We still have orchards. The apples are great.
All of this human expansion has pushed predators further and further from their original locations. There are bears here. Bears had been gone for hundreds of years. We don’t have wolves, but we have coyotes and deer (who never left). The Fisher (a big, furry weasel) has come back. They had been hunted to near extinction and are predators in a permanently bad mood. We have beavers. Since Beaver hats are not in fashion, we can hope they hang around for a while. We have de-polluted most of the Blackstone, so we have a lot of water birds. Swans, ducks, geese, divers. They tend to look for areas where the river widens into ponds, usually before a dam.
There isn’t anywhere else for the predators to go. Canada has grown. Montreal and Ontario are 10 times bigger than they were when I was a kid, driving through in the back seat of my father’s 1957 Chrysler while getting carsick.
It’s people. ALWAYS people. We drain wetlands, cut down trees, build flat grassy lawns that we poison to keep the birds and woodchucks off. Golf courses, cemeteries, endless roads — ever wider roads — and bigger (but not better) houses. Developers and their subdivisions have ruled the world since the 1970s. Malls. Parking lots. Office parks. And “human” parks, all carefully refined to create easy-to-use paths, stairs, and picnic tables. Big grassy spaces so our dogs can run.
We live in an area that was farmland. It’s rough country. These woods are too rocky and hilly for housing and a lot of it is wetland (half our property is designated wetland). As a result, we collect animals who have been pushed out of other parts of the country.
We have to STOP BUILDING. We need to limit the size of cities so that we build up, not out. If we don’t, we will have nothing. There used to be millions of alligators along the Louisiana and Texas coastline. Now, they are down to a few hundred thousand. The levees built in the Mississippi delta destroyed the wetlands in Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. There are more plastic flamingos than live flamingos. We’ve lost 10 billion songbirds over the past decade and we continue to lose millions more every year.
We used to have nesting eagles in our back woods, but we’ve had 10 years of drought and they moved on. We have fewer hawks and now, bears have shown up, pushed out by housing and malls as well as a changing climate and less food. Locally, we see their tracks, but when they fully arrive — the moment they are here — down come the feeders. A bear can do a lot of damage fast and they like seeds. Our houses are not nearly tough enough, even for our small black bear.
This is why I get frantic about climate change and our endless push to expand and expand and expand. House cats that roam loose kill as many as 7-million songbirds annually. They kill baby birds sometimes whole nests. I had cats that did that and it took me years to realize that it was a serious problem and start keeping my cats IN the house.
Poisons used to kill crabgrass have also destroyed most of the robins until finally, last year, they banned the poison. Everyone knew how lethal it was, but grass is important and birds aren’t, Monsanto was uninterested. By the time they decided to take it off the market, the robins were fading fast. I saw one this year, the first robin I’ve seen in five years. The variety of birds is half what it was when we first moved here. Weather changes have driven away a lot of transients down from Canada. They wander here because we have feeders.
You can find more squirrels on Boston Common than you will find in our woods. There are no predators on Boston Common, except for an occasional falcon (they live on the ledges of tall buildings).
This is a “don’t get me started” subject for me. I get into a bit of a frenzy trying to imagine a world with the wild things gone. I worry when I am gone, who will feed them? Birds are so messy, most people just don’t want to turn their decks into what mine looks like. It’s disgusting, but that’s what happens when you have flocks of songbirds eating and flying. Our feathered friends aren’t neat.
I don’t understand how come I can see this but somehow, our legislators figure a little extra money now is worth destroying the environment permanently. Think about all those old malls. They are huge and more than half of them are empty. Even when they build them, everyone knows they have maybe 20 years in them. After that, they will be abandoned. Useless paved miles of previously open country. Wetlands and waterways, woods and meadows — all gone, What remains are dead buildings and crumbling parking lots. Nobody wants to plow them down either. That would cost money, so these places sit and rot, providing no benefit to humans OR animals.
I look at it and I despair. We need to do more than lower emission levels. We also need to cut our own growth, limit the spread of city and suburb. Give the earth some breathing space. It’s why I wonder if we’ll be able to do it. The push for expansion is part of human DNA and I wonder if we can ever control it or if we’ll even try.