Which Stories Are Most Improbable: People or Wildlife?

September 29, 2012

While riding the tractor in slow circles mowing brush on a rare fine Sunday at home, I spied hanging clusters of ripening fox grapes. I might just as well have smelled the grapes first if it wasn’t for the diesel smoke. A rich autumn scent-scape includes cinnamon fallen leaves, musty mushrooms and that unique ripe-apple scent of harvest season. Soon, neighborhoods will be scented with wood smoke and the candle-singed pumpkin flesh of Jack O’ Lanterns.

In autumn, we smell in Technicolor, like a dog with its head out the car window or a bear on a cross-country circuit smells fallen apples, ripe corn and wild fox grapes from encroaching woods restrained behind an old stone wall. Both bears and foxes have been frequent visitors to my farm this summer. The hen house with adjacent fenced orchard has been a frequent point of interest and popular destination for local hawks, raccoons, skunks, foxes and weasels.

Want to see all manner of wild predators? Then why not keep a few backyard chickens yourself? You’ll obtain a graduate degree in front lawn feather forensics, fencing frustrations and nocturnal sleep deprivation. I’ll spare you the gory details but suffice to say we’ve lost a few. I considered installing neon “Open All Night” and “Coyotes Welcome” signs; all major predator credit cards are accepted.

The chicken coop is now the poultry equivalent of Fort Knox. Despite nailing-up more boards and adding more and larger rocks to holes dug weekly beneath fencing, the depredations of the nighttime tunnel diggers are undeterred. I fully anticipate comedian, Jeff Foxworthy will soon feature my experience. If you are outside at 2:45 a.m. following a barking dog ever deeper into dark woods through intermittent clouds of mosquitos while wearing pajamas, rubber barn boots and carrying a loaded .22 caliber rifle with a flashlight duct-taped to the barrel, you just might be a redneck.

Judging by innumerable conversations and rueful internet posts from other backyard chicken farmers or vegetable gardeners around the state, it’s been a banner summer for local wildlife Diner’s Club members. Even the vegetarian menu in countless gardens has served well-fed chipmunks, squirrels, crows, woodchucks, porcupines and deer.

In New Hampshire, wildlife stories are THE coin of our realm. From office water coolers where employees live on the exurban fringe, the weekend-farmer culture to the hunting and fishing camp story traditions of the North Country, residents have an ample stock of wildlife anecdotes they are more than willing to share.

Tales of unidentified screams in the dark, missing pets, chicken massacres or garden catastrophes provide a universal springboard into wider underlying social issues. Wildlife stories raise a mirror to our state’s diversity of social communities. NH residents reveal various degrees of familiarity or discomfort with wild neighbors. Opinions span a continuum from “shoot ‘em and eat ‘em” all the way to irrational fears of “being eaten.”

This past week, the private property rights debate flared over a 91-year old resident of Dalton who was court-ordered to stop feeding the bears in his backyard. Also this week a news story chronicled an attack in Derry on beloved family dogs by their canine cousin, the coyote. Conflicts with backyard predators fuel heated arguments about the ethics of outright killing the varmints vs. trapping and relocating them vs. using more sophisticated barriers or electric fencing.

Wild animals simply behave in accordance to how adaptation and natural selection have hard-wired them to survive best. People occasionally make poor choices in response. We might collectively learn from hard lessons provided by our mistakes and those of our neighbors.

Sometimes the wildlife stories people are most interested to share with me feature fantastical accounts of improbable animal behavior: cunning logic, feats of strength or lurid mating rituals that story-tellers purport to have overheard about or even witnessed. I know what comes next: “you should write your next column about THAT.” Then they laugh in self-approval at the challenge they’ve just presented. The gauntlet falls with an audible thunk. “Take that, forest column guy.”

You know full well that I can’t write that” is my reply. It’s a family newspaper and being provocative isn’t always funny. The most improbable stories obfuscate the beauty and ecological intrigue of our rich wildlife heritage.

What these friendly acquaintances are really saying, as they sandbag me to the point of sputtering, is they pay close attention to our woods and wildlife. They want to talk about which wildlife species live here and which do not…or at least maybe not yet. They also perceive the growing clash of cultures in the woods as more people share a finite resource. They want to talk about what is changing and what should never change. In short, they care deeply.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is Director of Education and Volunteer Services for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears once a month in the New Hampshire Sunday News. E-mail him at danderson@forestsociety.org or through the Forest Society Web site: forestsociety.org.