Illusions of Nature
Picture the first place you thought of as nature. Maybe it was nothing more than a vacant lot in the middle of a city, or a patch of scrub along a riverbank. It might have been a cottage or campground that you visited year after year, or perhaps your childhood home opened onto a forest, a beach, a mountain. Whatever your original vision of nature was, fix it in your mind.
Myself, I grew up on a prairie that had no name. I’ve looked into the question, hoping to turn up some lost but interesting name like those I’ve known from other places—Joe’s Snake Field, or Our Lady of the O, or Fountain of Bones—and have come up empty handed. The best explanation I can give for the anonymity of my home prairie is that it seemed to have hardly any history. Why give a name to a patch of grass where nothing much had happened?
Even to say it was a prairie doesn’t seem quite right, because it wasn’t flat or even rolling, but instead spilled down from high ridges to a river valley. Still, it was grassy and open to the sky, and in every practical sense it was infinite. My childhood landscape was the northernmost tip of the rain shadow drylands that sprawl up most of western North America, and I could have stepped out of my house and walked a thousand miles to Mexico and been thirsty all the way. It was rattlesnake country and black widow country, and as a boy I was brown skinned and blond haired and so much a son of that sunbaked earth that I wouldn’t flinch if a two-inch-long grasshopper thudded down on the bare skin over my ribs as I ran through the fields. I knew the prairie in the hands-in-every-crevice detail that only a child can, and it was, for me, a place of magic. The miracle of a mouse skeleton compacted in a pellet of owl scat! The mystery of snow flies hatching onto ice! One winter my father stopped his truck to chase down a giant, bone-dry tumbleweed that was pinwheeling in the wind. He set up that huge ball of prickles on the patio, threaded it with lights, and sprayed it nightly with water until it glittered with golden icicles. It remains the most beautiful Christmas tree I’ve ever seen.
The fiercest animal on the prairie, and therefore my boyhood symbol of wild nature, was the red fox. The sporty, lolling, yipping red fox. It’s an extraordinary animal. An adult red fox is able to run at forty-five miles per hour. They’ve been observed trying to race airplanes down runways, the way dogs will chase the wheels of a car. When hunting, a fox can leap twenty-five feet and land with enough precision to pin a mouse beneath its forepaws, meaning that at takeoff the fox has accounted for its own speed and trajectory, the speed and trajectory of the mouse, along with other factors such as wind and ground cover, all without ever actually seeing the prey. Such a pounce is so carefully controlled that a fox will, at times, beat its tail to one side or the other in midair to adjust its flight path. There were always fox dens on my home prairie.
I finished high school and, as people do, I moved away, coming home to visit ever more rarely. One day I returned to find that the nameless grasslands had finally been given a name: the Royal Heights housing development. Suburban homes now spread across the land that held my first memory of snow, my first night in a tent alone in wild country, and of a thousand other adventures.
A small rump of prairie remained, and I went there looking for fox dens. I found none. As I walked away that day, I saw the red fox as a martyr for every harm ever done by humankind against the wild, an icon of the ceaseless retreat of fang and claw and the relentless advance of the bloodless and tame. Every year more grasslands were erased to make way for lawns or shopping centers, with the fox gradually disappearing from the unsung hills as surely as the buffalo once vanished from the Great Plains or the whales faded from the sea. My childhood home had become my lost Eden.
Just about everyone on earth, I suspect, has their own version of this same story—the childhood wilderness despoiled. For me, it was the beginning of a journey that would change the way I see the natural world. I came to realize that we, you and I, cannot hope to make sense of this thing we call nature by looking at what surrounds us, or even by seeking the wilderness. Instead, as science has begun to recognize, we need to reach back and revisit the past—tens, hundreds, even thousands of years ago. What we find there is the living planet at its most extraordinary, often so far beyond what we know today that it challenges our expectations of what life on earth can be. The good news is that time travel is just the way we imagine it, full of marvels and surprises, odd beasts, ancient mysteries, and lands that have never known a human footfall. But the history of nature also takes courage. It calls on us to remember losses, not only in the wild, but within ourselves. The past asks us how, what, and why we allow ourselves to forget.
When I began to look into the story of the foxes, I expected to uncover the usual sad chronicle of decline, another species vanishing point by point like stars obscured by city lights. Instead, I learned that the foxes of my youth had trotted onto the scene only a few decades ahead of my own arrival as a five-year-old boy—that they were, really, not much more a part of the natural order than the housing development that had displaced them. In fact, if you live in North America and have ever seen a red fox, have ever taken delight in the briskness of its movement and intelligence of its expression, then what you have seen is almost certainly an animal that is not a part of the native wildlife.
When the first Europeans to settle in North America arrived on the east coast, they found themselves in a land apparently devoid of the red fox. Beginning in the 1700s, they began to import the animals so that they could pursue them for sport as they had done back home, in English-style horseback hunts. Some foxes escaped and, like the European colonists themselves, began to drift westward. People later introduced red foxes in other corners of the continent, accelerating their spread. By about the 1980s, the canine known to science as Vulpes vulpes had taken over North America from east to west.
Biologists consider the red fox an invasive species—they can do serious harm when they move into a natural system they were not a part of before. Red foxes threaten some two dozen rare animals in California, including such federally endangered species as the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander, least Bell’s vireo, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and giant kangaroo rat. Introduced red foxes have caused major declines in many of Australia’s wonderfully named small beasts, from rock-wallabies and brush-tailed bettongs to quokkas and numbats. They can spread diseases such as rabies, distemper, and mange. Not every introduced species is a problem, but the red fox makes the top one hundred list of the world’s worst, as compiled by the Global Invasive Species Database.
In places, introduced red foxes have even driven native fox species off the landscape, and this is where the issue becomes confusing. As it turns out, North America actually was home to red foxes before Europeans introduced the animals, but these native foxes were adapted only to northern boreal forests and to certain mountain ranges in the west. I hoped to discover that I grew up among native foxes, but biologists considered it unlikely and every clue I turned up suggested that foxes were not present in the past. In the 1860s, for example, a pair of British immigrants ...