Picture the first place you thought of as nature. Maybe it was nothing more than a vacant lot in the middle of a city, or a patch of scrub along a riverbank. It might have been a cottage or campground that you visited year after year, or perhaps your childhood home opened onto a forest, a beach, a mountain. Whatever your original vision of nature was, fix it in your mind.
Myself, I grew up on a prairie that had no name. I’ve looked into the question, hoping to turn up some lost but interesting name like those I’ve known from other places—Joe’s Snake Field, or Our Lady of the O, or Fountain of Bones—and have come up empty handed. The best explanation I can give for the anonymity of my home prairie is that it seemed to have hardly any history. Why give a name to a patch of grass where nothing much had happened?
Even to say it was a prairie doesn’t seem quite right, because it wasn’t flat or even rolling, but instead spilled down from high ridges to a river valley. Still, it was grassy and open to the sky, and in every practical sense it was infinite. My childhood landscape was the northernmost tip of the rain shadow drylands that sprawl up most of western North America, and I could have stepped out of my house and walked a thousand miles to Mexico and been thirsty all the way. It was rattlesnake country and black widow country, and as a boy I was brown skinned and blond haired and so much a son of that sunbaked earth that I wouldn’t flinch if a two-inch-long grasshopper thudded down on the bare skin over my ribs as I ran through the fields. I knew the prairie in the hands-in-every-crevice detail that only a child can, and it was, for me, a place of magic. The miracle of a mouse skeleton compacted in a pellet of owl scat! The mystery of snow flies hatching onto ice! One winter my father stopped his truck to chase down a giant, bone-dry tumbleweed that was pinwheeling in the wind. He set up that huge ball of prickles on the patio, threaded it with lights, and sprayed it nightly with water until it glittered with golden icicles. It remains the most beautiful Christmas tree I’ve ever seen.
The fiercest animal on the prairie, and therefore my boyhood symbol of wild nature, was the red fox. The sporty, lolling, yipping red fox. It’s an extraordinary animal. An adult red fox is able to run at forty-five miles per hour. They’ve been observed trying to race airplanes down runways, the way dogs will chase the wheels of a car. When hunting, a fox can leap twenty-five feet and land with enough precision to pin a mouse beneath its forepaws, meaning that at takeoff the fox has accounted for its own speed and trajectory, the speed and trajectory of the mouse, along with other factors such as wind and ground cover, all without ever actually seeing the prey
. Such a pounce is so carefully controlled that a fox will, at times, beat its tail to one side or the other in midair to adjust its flight path. There were always fox dens on my home prairie.
I finished high school and, as people do, I moved away, coming home to visit ever more rarely. One day I returned to find that the nameless grasslands had finally been given a name: the Royal Heights housing development. Suburban homes now spread across the land that held my first memory of snow, my first night in a tent alone in wild country, and of a thousand other adventures.
A small rump of prairie remained, and I went there looking for fox dens. I found none. As I walked away that day, I saw the red fox as a martyr for every harm ever done by humankind against the wild, an icon of the ceaseless retreat of fang and claw and the relentless advance of the bloodless and tame. Every year more grasslands were era
The Nature of the Problem 1
1. Illusions of Nature 3
2. Knowledge Extinction 16
3. A 10 Percent World 33
4. The Opposite of Apocalypse 47
The Nature of Nature 67
5. A Beautiful World 69
6. Ghost Acres 81
7. Uncertain Nature 96
8. What Nature Looks Like 112
Human Nature 127
9. The Maker and the Made 129
10. The Age of Rewilding 142
11. Double Disappearance 163
12. The Lost Island 182
Selected Bibliography 217