When James Herriot, the now infamous British veterinarian, chose titles for his memoirs of veterinary life in Yorkshire, he used lines from a familiar hymn: "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful: the Lord God made them all." The themes of that 17th-century hymn have been repeated often throughout the years. Just a few years ago, Bill Staines was singing about how "all God's critters have a place in the choir."
But for all our songs proclaiming the supposed inclusivity of the animal kingdom, we seem prone to choosing favorites. On any given summer day, I hear the question "Ever see any moose around here?" so many times that it tries my patience and starts to produce snarky answers. The focus and determination so many people devote to seeing a moose often means they look through other, more plentiful critters that surround them. I mean, when's the last time you heard anyone say something nice about mosquitoes . . . or ticks . . . or black flies. And those buggers are all over the place!
Cook County is not exactly farm country, although a few brave, determined souls farm the rocky, clay soil and keep livestock. Despite our lack of farm animals, we have a veritable menagerie of wild animals in our backyards whose lives intertwine with our own. Each drive down Hwy. 61 demands that we keep our heads on a swivel to avoid bumping into an ever capricious deer. Our compost piles are careful barricaded to prevent black bear destruction. We construct high tech fences to keep the produce in and the woodchucks out of the garden.
For those who live here, our interactions with wildlife often smack of inconvenience. It can be easy to forget that we're the ones intruding on the wildlife's homes, not the other way around. And maybe because our run-ins with wildlife can be so undesirable, sometimes we forget to practice what we preach.
We might believe in all things bright and beautiful, we might want all critters to have a place in the choir, but when you've just shoved your hand into a pile of poo the pine marten left in the shed's recycling bin, it can be hard to feel very tolerant. Tourists rarely believe me when I tell them I never really enjoy my moose sightings, but it’s true: Watching a moose teeter out in front of the car on the icy road at dusk on a winter’s day just isn’t prime moose viewing to me.
We’ve woven a tangled web with wildlife around these parts. We either have a singular obsession with certain beasts of the forest or we’ve grown to dismiss wildlife as a slight annoyance. Yet long after we’ve ceased to marvel over every wildlife sighting, there’s still joy in watching a beaver swim laps in a roadside pond or a Mama moose and her calves feed. Despite the pine marten’s less than sanitary habits, I loved watching him and the songbirds gather on our porch this winter to share birdseed. A dragonfly perched on a thick blade of grass, drying its lacy wings, is as exquisite as any orchid.
Whether great or small, each critter has a special role to play. While no other animal can knock the moose from its “king of the forest” throne, we have to remember that even the irritating mosquitoes feed the bats and dragonflies, who in turn feed the birds and so on. And, our role, more often than not, is to observe, to watch the theater of nature play out before us and to enjoy all that is bright and beautiful.
Airdate: July 6, 2011