Wild Side : Navigating the natural world
The wild side. That's where I live. I fit best in the natural world. Cities make me nervous, while the woods at night feel safe. The behavior of humans bewilders me, while that of birds makes perfect sense. While you're appreciating the scenery, I'm speculating on what lives in it.
To be sure, I love my friends and family, appreciate the virtues of the Vineyard's human community, and make shameless use of the comforts and conveniences of the artificial world. But I'm always aware of how that artificial world depends on and affects the natural one. And a portion of my mind constantly processes input from the natural world, keeping track of what's happening out there, alert for the interesting or the unusual.
The Vineyard is a fine place for people like me because nature abounds here, and because the Island teems with kindred wild-siders - birders, fishermen, hunters, and other maladjusted sorts for whom reading the natural world comes more naturally than reading a newspaper. Vineyarders intuitively grasp our reliance on nature. Ringed by water, it's easy to see the limits of the resources available to us. And increasingly, it's easy to see the vulnerability of our home to a warming climate, altered precipitation patterns, and a rising sea. The wild side really matters here.
But even so, it's getting squeezed. Some of us, coming from off-Island places where nature is less prevalent, have only a selective interest in the Vineyard's wild side. And among natives, the struggle to remain afloat in one of the most expensive places in the universe often overshadows the relationship we ought to have with the natural environment.
More and more of us, it seems, have limited contact with nature, and therefore limited appreciation for it. Increasingly, our landscaping habits, the distribution of our housing and business, and the sheer increase in our numbers erode the natural systems we depend on. The wild side, increasingly fragmented and invaded, is fading from our collective consciousness, morphing from a central fact of life into just an occasional source of entertainment or annoyance.
Also fading may be our grasp of how the wild side differs from the human world. Concepts like loyalty, justice, mercy, and generosity don't count for much out there. Killing to survive is not just routine, it's essential. That robin nesting in my back yard may look cute, but trust me, I feel lucky I'm larger than he is. Your basic robin is a capable little predator, and he'd eat me in an instant if he could figure out how. Wild animals regard people as threats or resources, not as friends, and a simplistic, anthropomorphic, or sentimental view of the wild side can be as bad as no view at all.
Last week both Island newspapers reported a sorry drama involving the death of a wild turkey in Chilmark. An aggressive male turkey assaulted two delivery people. Responding policemen were also attacked by the bird, and one officer, left with no good option I can think of, employed a traditional response to problematic wildlife and shot it. A kind-hearted neighbor, angered by the discharge of a firearm and the shooting of a turkey that he had befriended "as an orphaned chick," ended up arrested for allegedly battering a police officer. "As for what caused the turkey to become so quarrelsome," opined a Vineyard Gazette reporter, "The answer may never be known."
Nonsense; there is no mystery here. The wild side and the human side collided head-on. Docile, secretive, or gregarious at various times, tom turkeys are belligerent, and the turkey's social system features an all-or-nothing competition among males. By feeding this bird, the neighbor unwittingly cultivated a feathered sociopath, adding human beings to the list of things (along with female turkeys and younger male ones) that Tom Turkey felt entitled to bully in pursuit of food, territory, or sex.
The turkey, that is, simply acted like a turkey. It would be hard to invent an episode that better illustrates the strained mix of good intentions, imperfect knowledge, and pragmatism with which our community views nature, or the volatile emotions that result from the clash of differing visions of our relationship with the natural world.
I hope this column can promote understanding of the wild side: what's out there, how it lives, why it matters, what we do to it. In my columns, I'll introduce you to some of the complexities that keep me fascinated with the natural world. And I'll try to illuminate some of the ways in which the human world and the natural one interact. I hope you'll join me on the wild side.
Oak Bluffs resident Matt Pelikan, program director of The Nature Conservancy Islands Program, is an avid field naturalist. A former editor of a publication of the American Birding Association, he has published work on everything from butterflies to bats. His column will appear monthly in The Times.