My brother-in-law phoned me yesterday afternoon. He’d locked himself out of the house, and could I let him back in? Someone else might’ve been annoyed, but I was thrilled to get the call. More than once I’d done the exact same thing. Accidentally closed the locked door behind me and marooned myself outside. In fact, I’d done it earlier this week and had to call my sister over to rescue me. Luckily, we all have each other’s house keys and live close by.
On the way to Craig’s place, I switched on the radio. It was already tuned to WHQR, the local public radio station, and was in the middle of an interview. I tried to fit the pieces together. A man was talking about battling a wildfire, trying to save his house. I assumed this was in California. He spoke of stomping on the fire for seven hours straight, his boots melting, his legs aching. At one point, he said, he tried using kayak paddles to beat back the flames, because his legs were just too tired. When a fire truck finally arrived, instead of getting the help he expected, he and his friends were admonished: “What are you doing here? It’s dangerous. Get out.”
As harrowing as his tale was, the part that took my breath away was an offhand remark about a bear who came bursting out of the woods, fleeing the blaze. Just as the bear escaped from the inferno, the man said, the animal saw him and immediately turned and ran back into the flaming forest.
What does this say about us, about humans? What are we to think when wild animals fear us to the point that any other option is preferable?
And it’s not just wild animals, of course. Earlier this week I watched a video clip on Facebook. A truck carrying pigs to slaughter was barreling down the road. The pigs were stacked so that the animals on top were at least ten feet from the ground. The video showed one pig intentionally leaping from the top tier of the truck. She crashed onto the pavement, her body rolling and bouncing like a pink fleshy boulder across the opposite travel lane and onto the shoulder. That’s where the clip ended. A few of the comments cheered the pig on. But the jump had probably broken both her front legs, and other body parts as well, I surmised. And the pain and terror she experienced in her attempted escape must have been horrific. But just as the California bear took his chances in the conflagration rather than face a human being, so this pig, despite infinitesimal odds, preferred any situation but the one humans had put her in.
Is this our species’ legacy? To be worse than suicide.
I mourn many things in this life. But animals’ fear—their reasonable, rational fear of us—fills me with a sorrow like no other. I’m reminded of Scott Russell Sanders’ essay “Sanctuary.” In it, he tells of visiting a nature preserve. He goes there hoping to give himself an hour or so’s reprieve from the grim news of war. When he arrives, he notices the animals fleeing from his every step. He can’t tell them that he’s not there to harm them. And it even if he could tell them, why would they believe? Our species has committed, and is still committing, acts of genocide against other species at a pace and scale beyond comprehension. Of course they’ll run, even if they have no place to go.
Today is Easter Sunday. My sister had invited me to a friend’s Easter brunch, but knowing that everyone but me would likely be feasting on flesh, I declined. I too used to eat that way. I don’t anymore. One of the greatest joys of my life came when I learned that I could live, and live well, without having to consume the bodies of other animals. What I’ve chosen to do instead is to take a walk in the woods. A nearby state park is offering a hike this morning. I called to ensure it was actually happening. A hike on Easter morning in the “Have a blessed day” South? It turned out to be true.
The animals there will certainly flee us, too, will cry their sounds of alarm just as they did with Sanders. But I’ll bring my camera and binoculars anyway. Not a gun or a trap, not a crossbow or a bulldozer. Just my sadness and apologies. And my awe. Awe for the ones who have survived, despite our species’ active efforts to destroy. Despite our species’ apathy and neglect. Parks and preserves are not enough for the flora and fauna of our planet to flourish though. A few, or even many, isolated islands set amid devastation disguised as “development” simply will not suffice.
On a walk with my husband last month, there was much chatter about a recent alligator sighting. A woman we encountered on the path asked us, Did you see the gator? Fearfully, she told us exactly where he been sighted, how big she’d heard he was. I wish I’d reminded her the alligator had much more to fear from us than we from him. Instead I smiled, a Southern reflex, and Tim and I continued along our way. It was our first time visiting that walking trail and I didn’t like it. With its high fences everywhere and its fake lake in the middle. I doubt I’ll go back. I hope the state park will be better. I hope I’ll find some smidgen of hope this bright Easter Sunday.
Most times, I want to run away from humanity too. Like the bear, I want to turn my back and flee from all that terrifies me. Other times, I feel I am living in the burning woods already. Everywhere I look, everywhere I turn, I see the flames of cruelty, killing, and routine brutality. Like other animals, I don’t know where to go or what to do. Do I run? Do I leap to my death? Or do I stay on the truck and go in the direction everyone else is going?
I try my best not to be part of the world’s slaughter, the world’s erasure. Confused and disheartened, I walk in the woods or along a riverbank or shore. I gasp at the beauty I encounter. I take photos I can marvel over later. An Anole shedding his skin. An Osprey building her nest. That Yellow-bellied Slider who stayed boldly on the log while the other turtles slipped into the water. And the red-eyed dragonfly who stood still on the end of a twig and allowed me to photograph her again and again and again. It took me forever to get her transparent wings into focus. She could have darted away at any time. And yet she stayed. And yet she stayed.