Nature is not benign, it's responsive

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When I got home from the cottage Monday, there were signs of struggle in the kitchen, like scratched, torn packaging on rice cakes. Mice? But why didn't the cat disperse them as he always does? Rats? Later I heard scuffling and went back in: a squirrel!

It's shocking how menacing they look in there, versus through the backyard window. Panicked and dangerous -- the squirrel that is, but me too. I had no real idea what to do: fetch a broom, open doors -- but he found a way out as he'd got in, through a sliver of space atop a hinged window, the only unscreened such space. I shut it tight.

There's such a sharp separation involved: them out there, us inside. Panic looms if it breaks down. When most people lived on farms, the division may've been less dramatic, though farm animals are domesticated too. They live in the larger household, you could say. When I'm at the cottage, I sit on the dock and marvel at how much genuinely wild life I see: bald eagles, merlin hawks, snapping turtle, cormorant, heron, loons. When the eagles swoop low it's a thrill, but no menace, since we're never in each other's space.

This suggests that our amicable divorce from nature has led us to lose touch with its danger and power to disrupt by re-entering our space. Pets in a way make the division murkier. They're supposed to keep us connected to the nature we're part of but they're deceptive since they aren't wild and independent. They're utterly dependent on us. Even mice blur that distinction.

Take the two turtles. The red-eared slider at home, who counts on being fed, and makes intriguing rearrangements with the fake logs and doodads in his tank, implying some serious thought processes on his part and whose quality of life I worry about. Versus the snapper at the lake, who lurks around the dock, seems antediluvian, patrols the same route I swim on with only beak and tail showing, like twin periscopes, and once took a bite at my big toe as I swam around the point. (I now wear water shoes.)

The Trudeau cabinet, in its showily modest retreat in Sudbury last week, stressed the "hard choices" it's grappling with, especially on climate change "while promoting natural resource development." Meanwhile, the BBC ran a long piece on the same conundrum, reprising shots of Fort Mac scorched down to the earth in many blocks and neighbourhoods. It seemed even more appalling, four months later. Might that help in making those hard choices?

People in places like Fort Mac don't seem as distanced from nature as we are. It surrounds them and they go out into it, mostly to enjoy (hiking, climbing) or conquer it (hunting, fishing). They're careful but in control; in a way they treat nature as we treat pets. But nature doesn't come in turn to them, into their homes, until those wildfires invaded -- not like a city fire, started by a stove or arsonist (and even if it was, it spread as a wild fire, not a contained urban one). Then nature didn't just attack their space, it obliterated large chunks of it, like the squirrel in my kitchen writ huge.

That was nature red in tooth and claw versus the romanticized nature that urbanites maunder on about ("I love Nature."). It's the nature that can overflow coastal cities and disappear small island nations. It's not benign, it's responsive.

There's a reason why Indigenous peoples everywhere have led on dealing intelligently with climate change: not because they're wiser or nobler but because they haven't experienced a rupture with the non-human world to the same degree as most of us. They remain aware of the ways we're part of the natural realm, and how dangerous and menacing it can be if, like any relationship, that one is left unattended or gets misshapen by a power imbalance. If you live oblivious to something you're intimately part of, the odds don't favour you, ultimately.

Now when I look out the kitchen window and see the squirrel (not "a" squirrel anymore: he's become an individual, with motives and capacities), I don't think of him as "scampering" (too cute and generic); more like lurking, working and perhaps pondering a revisit. You could say we've entered a relationship, with mutual regard.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Viv Lynch/flickr

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