September 2013

Arts & Letters

Jim Sterba’s 'Nature Wars'

By Gail Bell

Reading Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars (Random House; $49.95), I was struck by a new thought. In my own small way I have been unwittingly contributing to a developing and complex urban phenomenon, spelt out by the author in the subtitle of his book, The incredible story of how wildlife comebacks turned backyards into battlegrounds.

In his introduction, Sterba provides a thumbnail of what’s happening in his part of the American continent right now. The decimated forests have grown back, families are moving deeper into the countryside, and the wildlife is moving in with the families. “I have seen neighbourhoods so fenced to keep out deer,” he writes, “that their residents joke of living in prisoner-of-war camps.”

Shouldn’t we be saving trees, preserving habitats and forestalling extinctions? Sterba (who does not argue against the historical evidence of species extinction or land degradation) begs to add a corrective to the prevailing ecological mood, a counter to what he calls “the narrative of environmental loss trapped in [our] minds like an unrelenting memory loop”.

Sterba is a seasoned reporter and foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and, on weekends, a dweller in a forested part of upstate New York. He is also a duck hunter and friend of trappers and fisherfolk. In recent times, he’s had cause to consider his rural retreat with a reporter’s eye. The news he delivers doesn’t require hasty flights to far-off war zones or dashes into bombed-out houses to hone his powers of observation. He merely has to walk out his front door and onto his local golf course, or to drive to the shops. In each location he meets wildlife that once kept to itself “off in the woods”, “up in the air” or “over the horizon”.

The droll artwork on the book’s cover illustrates such an encounter. On a footpath edged by astroturf-perfect grass and modern townhouses, a middle-aged executive meets a white-tailed deer (one of some 40 million that now roam the American suburban sprawl). The man has stopped and drawn himself up to his full height, his briefcase hanging low, his tired face set somewhere between bemused and annoyed. The man is affronted and confronted. The stag is just a beast on its way somewhere.

On another day Sterba is likely to encounter a flock of Canada geese fouling the parks and honking up a storm at his approach. Canada geese, we learn, squirt out wet faeces five times an hour, snarl at all comers, and terrify family pets and small children. Sterba points out that a Canada goose has flight migration built into its DNA. He sets out to discover why such large numbers are now milling on golf courses and in public spaces in his part of the world when their natural bent is to wing back and forth across continents. The answer, he writes, “is not what you think”. His “stay-put” Canada geese are the descendants of early wild migrating geese that were kept as live decoys, “some tethered, others trained … to bob in the marsh or strut in the cornfield” to lure flying geese in close enough to be shot by hunters. The live decoys worked so well that they were kept and raised, their numbers blowing out to more than four million. Attempts to move them out of the suburbs have spawned a new breed of entrepreneurs who employ trained border collies to herd the geese onto someone else’s patch, which in turn demands another forced land migration by a different company of dog handlers.

The intrusive creatures of Nature Wars are mammals and birds peculiar to the US: the exotic-sounding racoons, skunks, beavers, muskrats, coyotes, weasels, moose, black bears, deer and vultures, and the more familiar ducks, crows, foxes, possums, owls and feral pigs and cats. The list of “comeback” wildlife sharing Australian cities, suburbs and working farms includes kangaroos, emus, dingos, three species of deer, fruit bats, white ibis, bush turkeys, cassowaries and even koalas, when they are translocated to sites that are then over-browsed.

On Google Earth, I can see that Sterba’s part of upstate New York shares the same heavy tree coverage as my own part of the world, an hour and a half north of Sydney. We live on a headland, 92 metres above sea level, our fenceless northern boundary abutting a national park. We came here in 1986, as a sort of sea change before we were old enough to need one. At that time, most of the houses were fibro beach shacks of the type used as weekenders by city people. For provisioning, there was a pie shop that fed hungry surfers and a small general store stocked with out-of-date tins of nothing you would want to eat. Our road was a dirt track winding through a green tunnel of interlinked trees.

I often find myself blind to the accumulation of changes over time. The natives we planted to screen off the road dust all those years ago have grown into giants. The understorey adds another layer of density. Driving past, if not for the telltale carport and letterbox, it would be difficult to say if a house existed at all. The bird-attracting trees (blueberry ash, lilly pillies and the towering loquat) mingle with the turpentines and Gosford wattles, bloodwoods, ironbarks and original apple gums and God knows what else (my husband is the gardener), so fully expressed now that the aerial photo catches only a glimpse of our pale-green tin roof.

In stark contrast, at the lower end of the street, successive owners have knocked down the fibro shacks and any tree higher than waist level to erect statement houses of such solidity and presence that they seem to tame nature out of existence. These residences demand their views of the Pacific. Each rises a little higher than the next. When someone moves out (the average stint is seven years), all is ripped down and rebuilt with wraparound glass-panelled balconies and high thick walls with intercoms.

Up here, an abundance of creatures treat our yard as a sanctuary. Possums drop like cannonballs onto the tin roof and race each other to their night feasts. A blue-tongue lizard feeds on my small strawberry patch. Bush rats, funnel-webs and water dragons never give up their quests to live indoors with us. Isn’t this what tree-changers hanker after? A benign cohabitation with nature? Well, yes and no. Sterba would argue that by allowing (indeed helping) our plot to re-green over decades, we have left the door open for less-welcome wild creatures. Not ibis or feral pigs (not here, not yet), but it’s true that over the past five years bush turkeys have become a major pain. Down the hill in the manicured grounds of the statement houses, turkeys find nothing to detain them. In my backyard, as with the executive on the cover of Nature Wars, I often come face to face with the gobbler that has ravaged my garden and I am not amused.

“People have very different ideas regarding what to do, if anything, about the wild creatures in their midst,” Sterba writes. “Enjoy them? Adjust to them? Move them? Remove them?” I admit to feeling similarly confused. Which of us in my street has got it right? Sterba argues that we in the First World have become “denatured”. We have “forgotten the skills [our] ancestors acquired to manage an often unruly natural world around [us]”, and largely taken ourselves inside to watch television, often documentaries about wildlife, or “reel nature” as he calls it.

Compare our modern way of living to that of early white settlers, he suggests. They cut down trees by the thousands to let in the sunlight, pushed out open spaces to maintain clear sightlines against invaders, planted crops and hunted animals for food, and generally subdued the land so that it worked “to create a path of plenty”. In the process they effectively banished wildlife over the horizon, obviating any confusion about whose backyard it was.

Now, where the boundary between bush and backyard has begun to blur, people like me who feed wild birds are putting out fuzzy messages: the welcome we extend to whipbirds, lorikeets and king parrots is also taken up by bush rats, turkeys and dive-bomber currawongs.

Sterba brings his perspective as a farm-raised son of the Michigan soil to bear on the conservation movement, and it is here that I begin to squirm. His contentions are familiar to me; I’ve heard them from farm-raised members of my own extended family. Nature is not Bambi or Skippy. Animals are not like us.

He takes aim at those who defend particular creatures. These committed groups and individuals – as Sterba puts it, usually baby boomers who want to live close to nature but don’t really understand the natural world – take up their causes with “self-righteous conviction”. Paul Theroux calls these defenders “single species obsessives”; Sterba prefers the term “species partisans”.

Sterba is not kind to the partisans, but neither is he cruel. Sterba has little tolerance for the tactics employed by some partisans. As a young reporter, he covered anti-hunting demonstrations for the Wall Street Journal and observed strange contradictions inside the ranks of those opposing the hunters and their guns. Feral cat protectors faced off against songbird activists. Deer lovers discounted the concerns of the goose league. When sharpshooters were hired to cull the deer population in Princeton, New Jersey, “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”.

The author’s central point seems to be that after long periods in our world history when wildlife was slaughtered indiscriminately and whole species were wiped out, those with conservationist leanings began campaigning to save as many species and habitats as possible, but under our noses some of the threatened groups “are now not only plentiful but overabundant enough to cause serious problems for people and ecosystems”.

“Early postwar suburbs weren’t very friendly to wildlife. But that didn’t matter because, except for the odd squirrel and a few birds, there were precious few wild creatures around,” he writes. A lot happened after World War Two. Land was set aside for bird and animal sanctuaries and conservation movements began their worthy campaigns to respect and save what was here before all the killing and clearing. But, writes the author, “What the founders of the conservation movement didn’t think about was sprawl.” Clear delineations between city and farm melted away as towns grew outwards, under pressure from families (and their millions of postwar babies) who demanded more space. These children came of age “in front of the television set” and “played” outdoors, rather than learning how to hunt and hew and pluck chickens like their forebears.

The reaction from conservationists, says Sterba, was one of understandable alarm and outrage on behalf of wild creatures whose habitats and safety were compromised by sprawl and swing sets. The message that stamped itself into our psyches was that thoughtless humans were hurting wildlife for the sake of tidy lawns and better views. Sterba sees this as only half the story. Some wild creatures, like my turkeys and his coyotes, adjusted well to suburban life. Others not only adjusted but thrived. They “proliferate[d] in far greater numbers than they would [have] in the wild” by inhabiting greenbelts, foraging along railway lines and finding places to hide from predators thanks to the re-greening provided by suburbanites.

The Australian experience of nature wars, or what Sterba calls “the new arrangement of man, beast and tree”, finds its most common expression in the newspaper headlines and organised protests you see whenever a cull is announced or a controversial proposal like hunting in national parks is endorsed. The kangaroo is such a national icon that culling it feels inherently wrong. Kangaroo defenders, like Animal Liberation, report horror stories. Roos “die in a horrific way”: some are hit over the head with blunt instruments, others are left to die from multiple injuries. I am as moved as anyone by these descriptions. Yet Sterba has got me thinking. In the open spaces around Canberra, kangaroo numbers are reported to be increasing by as much as 60% each year. As kangaroos overgraze, so small birds and insects are lost, crops are vandalised and the number of road collisions increase (the Kangaroo Protection Coalition estimates 200,000 collisions between cars and kangaroos occur every year).

Is it worse to replace the roo’s natural predators – dingos and thylacines – with trained sharpshooters with a 99% kill rate? Sterba has known the answer since he was a boy on the farm. Hunting and trapping, the old ways, are the most ready means of regulating “too much of a good thing”. The white-tailed deer will no longer manage his forest. By placing humans at the top of the predator chain and re-introducing “human oversight” of wild populations, he argues, we have a chance of correcting past mistakes.

In our cities and towns along the east coast, another native, the white ibis, which traditionally breeds in inland waterways, is fast becoming a pest. Where it once fed on insects, yabbies and mussels it now dines from city rubbish bins and landfills. Droughts, coupled with agricultural irrigation, have depleted the wetlands, causing the birds to migrate towards the coast in the breeding season. Culling hasn’t come into the equation yet, but measures to discourage them, like removing nesting vegetation (palm trees) and spraying their eggs with canola oil to suffocate the embryos, are already underway. I’m with Richard Major of the Australian Museum, who is quoted as saying, “We should remember that these are native birds, and they are under stress. We should cut them a bit of slack. Seeing them in the cities is a real alarm bell to me of what’s happening to those inland wetlands.”

There are alternatives to hunting and culling: quarantining ibis to island sanctuaries; translocating koalas; sterilisation. “Re-wilding” is a theory that suggests introducing a missing (non-human) predator into the vacant position at the top of the chain. Tim Flannery, in his 1994 book The Future Eaters, famously proposed komodo dragons as a replacement for the missing goanna-like top predator that kept lower order feeders in check. (I get a mental picture of Sterba shaking his head as he loads up the shotgun.)

Small acts by individuals may discourage wildlife from cosying up too close. We can stop leaving food scraps out for nocturnal animals to dine on. We can stop putting out birdseed: in the US, the availability of Wild Bird Cuisine menus has helped the market grow to $3.5 billion annually. Sterba calls public rubbish bins outside takeaway shops “cafeterias for wild creatures”. We can thin our trees. We can give wild creatures reasons to be afraid of us again by making noises. Sterba goes a step further and asks us to let go of anthropomorphising sentiment.

Here in my own green glade I feel nature pressing in. Creepers and tendrils latch onto the brickwork. The tree canopy tries to link arms across our roof. I have the sense that if we left for an extended period, mammals and reptiles would move into readymade apartments inside, and our house would disappear, like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake, under a net of spider webs and coiling greenery.

This book exposes the tangle of my own confused attitudes. I wept when calicivirus was let loose on the rabbit invasion in my district. The little family that nibbled grass under my study window disappeared and I was left with terrible imaginings of their fate. Yet I can turn a sniper’s eye on the bush turkey my husband gently shoos aside as he redistributes the mulch it has raked into a hopeful pile.

I’ve never plucked a chicken, but as a young girl I watched my mother deal with freshly beheaded hens over a laundry tub of boiling water. The smell made me ill. Increasingly, I spend more hours watching trees and birds and our share of wildlife through the large window in my study. Sometimes I wonder if the window isn’t another version of a television screen and the curtains I drag across at night my “off button”.

Gail Bell
Gail Bell has worked as a pharmacist, educator and writer. Her books include The Poison Principle and Shot: A Personal Response to Guns and Trauma.

A cassowary visits Jan Shang’s backyard in Innisfail, Queensland. © Eddie Safarik / Newspix

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