How often do you get to stop and look up into the branches of the tree that stood out front of your childhood home? Not everybody even has such a tree and most of those that do probably don’t get to revisit too often. It’s Thanksgiving night and I’m pressing my hand against the ancient white oak that survives on Sheridan Street, in Easton, where my parents still live. A thick vine encompasses the rough trunk and I stare up at a squirrel highway next to the mailbox where I found my college acceptance letter. I’ve lived here my whole life, but I’ve never stopped to inspect this particular tree up close.

How lucky I am to have this place where the built environment meets the woodlands. Even in a place as well developed as Easton, Mass., we have a remarkable economy of plants and critters. My parents’ yard is a grazing ground for wild turkey, whistle-pigs, and deer. Their birdfeeders attract cardinals, blue-jays, nuthatches, and chickadees.

In May, a mysterious illness among birds in the mid-Atlantic caused MassWildlife to recommend that everyone take down their feeders. By August they said we could put them back up again. My father lost little time in returning his feeders to their posts. He rages against squirrels that steal feed from the songbirds. Together, we spend the holiday observing the backyard with binoculars.

I moved to Maine to get away from the built-up places but find that we are still a bleeding edge between the wilderness and the semiurban environment. Mary’s car and mine have both been infested by fieldmice who poop on our dashboards. We see deer every day because the cougars, coyotes, and wolves that used to hunt them have been exterminated. Black bears prowl in commercial dumpsters, ungoverned.

We are tempted to destroy the mice. I don’t want their viruses hopping into my system. But then I think of the philosopher, Peter Singer, who asks an important question: “If possessing greater intelligence does not entitle one human to exploit another, why should it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans?” What right have I to murder a mouse?

And yet sometimes there needs to be a hard barrier for the sake of public health. Deer are serene and beautiful, but they do bring ticks. Tick-born illnesses are no joke. The coronavirus made the leap into humans through some kind of edge interaction. Bats can make us sick but it’s not their fault.

It’s easy to raise money to research exotic rare animals like the pangolin and the white rhino. But who thinks about the white tail deer, the raccoon, or the grey squirrel? Even the dog is “man’s best friend” and we barely understand them as a species.

On Thanksgiving Day, we visited with my cousin who lives in Houston. His daughter is seven years old, and this is only her second time visiting New England. We built a big bonfire in the late autumn sunshine and felt the primal entertainment of burning brush.

The American landscape is burning due to misguided forest management. Wildland firefighters are caught up in the madness, preventing the fires that could thin out the ferocity of future fires.

Dogs are our prisoners even when we claim to be protecting them. Sometimes we treat dogs better than we treat our fellow humans.

Dogs wouldn’t have evolved as they did without humans; humans wouldn’t have evolved as we did without dogs. Everybody eats together.

All of the above applies also to cats and horses and all the other livestock. We’re all part of the same spongy mesh and it is probably all controlled by fungi.

Maybe we are all just the subjects of the microbes that inhabit us. Maybe we are all just mitochondria in the stomach of a far greater being.
We harvest meat from the bodies we shoot with arrows. We break down the corpses we know better than our own innards. We can’t imagine adjusting to a plant-based diet. And now we can’t even eat the deer we hunt because their bodies are full of microplastics. So, too, are ours.
Yet we have knowledge of how to grow plants that predates recorded history. We ourselves are edge species, who gather sustenance from the landscape we build on.

We build castles on the landscape and seek to separate ourselves from the plants and animals that surround us. Then we set about imagining the animals and plants that live in distant lands. We absorb them in theory and observation while labelling our own backyard neighbors a nuisance.

So, what does the future hold? Do we go back to the land that raised us or do we save it by building cities in the sky? That’s a question for tomorrow that is seeping into today. In the meantime, I will be working to become better acquainted with the successful species that live beside me. The seagulls and the snapping turtles, the foxes, and the fisher-cats. They are not going anywhere anytime soon. I may love the Giant Panda, but the skunk is my neighbor and my nuisance. I will try harder to look past our natural conflicts and see into his soul.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

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