Skunks were an important part of night-life when I was a kid in the 1950’s spending idyllic summers in a sleepy community on the Rhode Island shore. Any trip outdoors after dark – to fish on the beach, visit friends or look at the stars – was accompanied by whistling or gently repeating “Here I am, Mr. Skunk” to avoid startling these typically peaceful cohabiters. When my mother spent summers there alone after my dad died and I was away at college, she regularly left a few food scraps for them in our small yard. “They’re my guard dogs” she’d respond, if asked why.
My dad had built a three room cottage on piers when land was cheap after the area had been ravaged by the Great Hurricane of 1938. Thickets of viburnum, beach plum and even Japanese honeysuckle remaining in the salt-ridden soil were celebrated by those fearless or foolish enough to rebuild.
Now, of course, the area is cheek-by-jowl spacious second homes. The crawl spaces underneath the modest open-stud, unheated summer cottages have been replaced by concrete foundations and cellars housing central vacuums, water softeners, air conditioners, furnaces and playrooms. It is the rare resident who doesn’t have landscapers maintaining their property and keeping it manicured and brush free.
The skunks, of course, are gone. There are no longer open, dry crawl spaces or cozy brush piles in which they can sleep, make nests or raise their offspring. They’ve all moved on, and in all likelihood met their fates crossing a strange road or at the jaws or talons of a predator as they wandered, exposed, in unfamiliar territory.
It is difficult to pick up a newspaper these days without being faced with a headline about our housing crisis. The accompanying article typically details tent cities, blocked sidewalks, and heart-breaking human interest stories. Please notice and reflect on the words “our” and “human interest”.
The irony is, of course, that ours is far from the only species experiencing a housing crisis. And while it may be difficult to get an accurate count of the number of homeless Homo sapiens in a city or state, it is hugely more difficult to even begin to count the number of other species, let alone individuals of a species, made homeless by habitat loss. But when an investor buys a 1000+ acre tract of open land with the intent of erecting 4000+ homes surrounding a golf course and connected by paved roads and sidewalks, virtually no publicity is given to the hundreds of thousands of birds, arthropods, annelids and mammals to be, at best, displaced and, more likely, to be disappeared.
Until I outgrew it, I was an avid bird hunter. Shortly after I moved to Reston, Virginia in the 1960’s I made friends with a fellow hunter who knew the local hot spots. One weekend he took me to his favorite quail covert. That was the only time I got pinched by a game warden.
At the time, Reston was at the western edge of Washington, D.C. sprawl and the covert was a couple of miles to its west in the area now heavily built up around Dulles Airport. We parked beside a large excavator which we were later to learn was obscuring a “Private Property, No Hunting” sign and spent a fruitful afternoon terrorizing coveys of bobwhite quail. On return to the car we were greeted by a game officer. “I see you fella’s can’t read.” he said, pointing to the sign. Despite our protestations we were both issued citations.
The following spring, as I drove by the site, several other pieces of heavy equipment had joined the excavator – all of it now mercilessly tearing up the habitat. The No Hunting sign had been replaced by a large poster advertising “Luxury Homes in a Happening Neighborhood” A couple of hundred Homo sapiens were going to render an untold number of other species – including lots of quail – homeless…… and reduce the quality of life of two avid sportsmen.
“Home” is a tricky concept. Is it the place we grew up, the place that is currently sheltering us, the place where we raise a family, all of the above? Robert Frost gave this some thought in his classic “Death of a Hired Man” In it, a woman talks about an itinerant and apparently unreliable old hired man’s return: “He has come home to die.” In response, her rather more hard-hearted and cynical husband scoffs: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”Verlyn Klinkenborg in Smithsonian Magazine comes at it from another direction: “…..it’s more than just a place. It’s also an idea—one where the heart is.” Leaning into it a bit more, Klinkenborg points out that a vireo’s true home is her habitat while her nest is “merely a temporary site for breeding”.
As generalists, our species can make our home in so many different habitats, as can our usual coinhabitants – rats, pigeons, starlings and English sparrow – that speaking of a human habitat feels off. Climate change, however, is making clear that even our generalist nature does not protect us from habitat loss, as waves of immigrants risk their lives to escape increasing desertification or inundation. Viewed in this light, climate change exposes the typically overlooked truth that we are just another species – not some unique life form deserving special treatment by a benevolent greater power. The sooner we learn that lesson the better for all of us – and here “we” refers to we human beings and “us” refers to all living species – “we humans” included !
There is an award-winning children’s PBS series called the WildKratts which features a pair of brothers who visit a variety of habitats. Each of its 225 short animated episodes showcases a species dwelling in that habitat and that creature’s special creature power. A tiger’s ability to hide in the tall grass of its habitat is, of course, its stripes. For orb weaving spiders, living in habitats with stiff vertical structure, it is their amazing ability to spin sticky silk so strong that, if scaled up to the size of a pencil, could stop an airliner at its landing speed of 80 meters/second. For grasshoppers living in open grasslands, it is their ability to jump many times their body length. You get the idea. Of course each of these creatures has additional supportive but not unique powers – for tigers, teeth and claws; for spiders, immobilizing venom, for grasshoppers, their coloration and supplemental wings. But what each episode highlights is the starring specie’s unique, or at least unusual, power developed to the extreme.
As far as I know, the Kratt brothers have not yet taken on the super power of Homo sapiens. Were they to do so, I suspect it would involve our extraordinary brains and their ability to see the utility of so many foods and materials around us and figure out how to extract their energy or fashion protection and comfort from them. Yuval Noah Haran in his wonderful children’s book Unstoppable Us describes this as storytelling – one dimension of which is the ability to use our brains to visualize an as yet only imaginary future.
E.O. Wilson, the brilliant myrmecologist turned evolutionary biologist, has offered a variation on this train of thought. Wilson suggests that like ants, we have a nearly unique ability to be altruistic towards members of our particular tribe or group while also being fiercely hostile against members of our own species who are not members. Robert Boyd and others writing in PNAS suggest that culture – the ability to learn behaviors from one another – is an important supportive, though not unique, superpower.
Possession of this combination of unique and supporting super powers has made Homo sapiens the most powerful as well as one of the most prolific species on earth. Unfortunately, it has also led to the extraordinary crises the present generation faces – global warming, consumption of all the resources upon which we and the rest of life on earth depend, and perhaps even (despite its histrionic tone) the eventual extinction of virtually every current life form on the planet.
The critical questions we humans now face are 1. Can enough of us use our special powers of imagination to foresee the impoverished future towards which we are headed in order to build a culture within which we and the rest of life can live? 2. Can we figure out how to sustain ourselves without consuming every calorie the earth’s arable land and fertile oceans produce? And 3. Most importantly, can we be sufficiently altruistic to share the habitats and resources of planet earth with the incredible variety of non-human species we have not yet driven to extinction? More and more of us seem to be answering these questions with a resounding “yes” and a growing number of those seem to be rolling up their figurative sleeves and taking whatever action suits them best to turn those imaginings into reality. They are our bonafide heroes and leaders.