I saw some Mexican tourists feeding the raccoons on Mount Royal last summer. It’s illegal to do so. And there are “Don’t Feed the Raccoons” signs all over the place. But most people ignore the law. Including the police. So far as I can tell, they rarely, if ever, enforce it. A police cruiser passed right by the lookout point while we were there. Slowly. The cops saw the tourists feeding the raccoons and they did absolutely nothing. Nobody got a ticket. Not even a finger-wag or a frown. The officer in the passenger seat stared right at them. And smiled. Which is as it should be: because it was beautiful and awesome. Of course I’ve heard all of the arguments about why we shouldn’t feed the raccoons. And yet I find myself strangely unconvinced.
There’s something deeply hypocritical about this whole “Don’t Feed the Raccoons” thing. How can you take away 99% of a creature’s habitat and then piously declare that they shouldn’t eat human food? As Yuval Noah Harari rightly observes in Homo Deus (2017): “The world is populated mainly by humans and their domesticated animals. How many wolves live today in Germany, the land of the Grimm brothers, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf? Less than a hundred. . . . In contrast, Germany is home to 5 million domesticated dogs. Altogether about 200,000 wild wolves still roam the earth, but there are more than 400 million domesticated dogs. The world contains 40,000 lions compared to 600 million house cats; 900,000 African buffalo versus 1.5 billion domesticated cows; 50 million penguins and 20 billion chickens. Since 1970, despite growing ecological awareness, wildlife populations have halved . . . . In 1980 there were 2 billion wild birds in Europe. In 2009 only 1.6 billion were left. In the same year, Europeans raised 1.9 billion chickens for meat and eggs. At present, more than 90 per cent of the large animals of the world (i.e. those weighing more than a few kilograms) are either humans or domesticated animals.”
We’re a part of nature; we’re not outside of it. That’s clear to these raccoons. And it’s clear to the ecstatic children who feed them. But it doesn’t seem to be clear to many of those who fancy themselves nature-loving Friends of the Mountain. There’s no way to put this genie back in that bottle: raccoons are in a symbiotic relationship with us. Have been for years. To pretend they’re not, and try to erect these imaginary walls between their world and ours, is about as silly and impractical as Trump’s proposed Mexican wall.
People who say the raccoons on the mountain are nothing but a nuisance remind me of those who used to say that buskers and street artists were nothing but a nuisance. Look on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. Tourists love our raccoons. If Mount Royal is a restaurant that specializes in trilliums, tank-tops, and Tam-Tams, our friendly raccoons are the dapper hosts and gregarious hostesses who greet our guests with smiling eyes and outstretched hands, as if to say: “Bonjour Monsieur, Bonjour Madame. Follow me, if you please. We have a lovely view waiting for you right over here.”
We’re brought up to view the living things around us the way the slaveholders of old viewed the living things on their plantations. We’re taught that the value of the plants and animals in our midst is solely dependent upon whether or not they’re useful to us. This instrumental perspective has been key to our success as a species, but it’s come at a cost. Our children and grandchildren aren’t just inheriting a shitload of environmental problems from us; they’re inheriting a way of seeing that’s a recipe for alienation from Nature, from Place, and, ultimately, from themselves.
Will feeding the raccoons lead to potentially unsustainable population growth? Perhaps. That’s clearly what it’s done to our population. Still, my guess is that it won’t happen to the raccoon population. Not for long. Because there’s a new apex predator in town: the coywolf, a truly amazing product of evolution—part dog, part wolf, part coyote. They’re bigger than coyotes, faster than wolves, and perfectly adapted to urban and suburban life. They eat squirrels, groundhogs, skunks, raccoons, rats, and much else. And they’re going to bring some much needed balance to the urban and suburban ecosystems of Eastern North America.
Mexican tourists aren’t the problem. The real reason we have all these raccoons running around our city ought to be obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of North American ecology: we’ve killed off almost all of the apex predators (that is, the animals that eat raccoons). The Eastern Mountain Lion (Puma concolor couguar) is gone for good. Same is true of many other apex predators. Those that remain in Eastern North America are, as a general rule, insufficient in number and ill-suited to life in urban and suburban areas. That’s precisely why the coywolf is such a godsend.
Camels started off in North America. After migrating to Asia, Europe, and Africa, their ancestors were hunted to extinction in North America by our ancestors, who started off in Africa. After migrating to Asia, Europe, and North America, some of the humans concluded that some animals and plants belong here and some of them belong there. And the gods laughed.
Biology would like to believe that it has long since transcended politics and history. But what is the notion of an “invasive species” if not an echo of the 19th-century obsession with origins and racial purity? During the vitriolic public debate over the Parti-Québécois’s proposed Charter of Quebec Values, it was hard not to notice the parallels between the way some environmentalists talk about the threat to native plants and animals posed by invasive species and the way people like Mathieu Bock-Côté talk about the threat to our delicate Québécois culture posed by new immigrants.
How can you look at a beautiful burdock bush (Arctium lappa) on the sunny slopes of Mount Royal—covered with bees and butterflies, feeding entire colonies of winged insects—and decide that it doesn’t belong here because it happens to be a relatively recent immigrant to our island paradise from a place we still strangely refer to as The Old World? How can you look at this gorgeous flowering plant—which has become an integral part of the mountain’s ecosystem—and decide that it needs to be ripped up from its roots and burned, so that “native species” might flourish? How absurd this is!
We are all immigrants. We are all invasive species. And, for that very reason, we need to get past this silly, outdated conception of pristine, untouched and unchanging, virginal nature, and learn how to intelligently differentiate between “invasive species” (like burdock and dandelion) that enrich the ecosystems they join, and “invasive species” (like English ivy and the cane toad) which impoverish the ecosystems they join. Clearly some “invasive species” are problematic, but so’s the notion that they’re all evil just because they’re not “native”.
It’s important to remember that the theory of evolution was developed by a man, Charles Darwin, who was studying the way life works on tropical islands. We should bear in mind, as well, that life doesn’t behave the same way in colder regions and deserts (where the elements are your primary threat, not other living organisms), or on continents like North America (long exposed to fierce competition). Our notion of nature as pristine and untouched and fragile is largely an artifact of how and where the theory of evolution emerged: on fragile, pristine, untouched islands. What’s true for the islands of the Galapagos isn’t necessarily true for the island of Montreal.
Rousseau could be so nasty! “Everything,” he famously maintained, “degenerates in the hands of man. He forces one soil to nourish the products of another, one tree to bear the fruits of another. He mixes and confuses the climates, the elements, the seasons. He mutilates his dog, his horse, his slave. He turns everything upside down, he disfigures everything, he loves deformities, monsters. He wants nothing as nature made it.” How odd to hear someone who lives in the 21st-century West talk about what’s natural; it’s like hearing Rick James tell someone to ease off on the coke at Studio 54. It’s not that lovers of all things natural are wrong; it’s just that we’ve been on this road for awhile now, and, if memory serves, we left the Great State of Natural a long time ago. I vaguely remember, at some point, crossing the border into whatever-the-fuck-this-is, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, retrace my steps. “We have,” as Nietzsche put it, “left the land and have gone aboard ship! We have broken down the bridge behind us, nay, more, the land behind us!”
Why I’m Sick of British Nature Porn
While hiking up Mount Royal last summer, a curious young boy of about eight or nine came up to me and asked me what I had in my hand. I told him it was a blue-spotted salamander. Much to my surprise, however, the kid really wasn’t that interested in seeing or touching or talking about the living, breathing salamander in front of him. Instead, he wanted to tell me about another salamander and give me a little pop quiz consisting of one question: “Do you know why the fire salamander is called the fire salamander?”
I was puzzled by the question. After all, the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) is native to Europe. And we’re not in Europe. I turned to the boy’s parents and asked them if they were from Europe. They said they were not. Any family in Europe? Nope. Had he seen a fire salamander on a European vacation? Nope. The kid had never been to Europe. Not even once. This, my friends, is what’s wrong with nature shows! This, my friends, is what’s wrong with nature books for kids!
It’s sad that most of the kids I meet in Montreal can tell me the names of ten dinosaurs or ten animals from the African Savannah or ten marine mammals, but they can’t name ten Montreal animals. This tells me that their boilerplate globalized knowledge of Nature comes from nature shows and mass-market children’s books produced by multinational corporations based in New York and London. Their knowledge of Nature ought to come from an intimate connection with the world immediately around them, with the plants and animals who share this island with them. Instead, it’s derived primarily from what I call “nature porn” (e.g., British-accented nature shows with their zoom lenses, impossible camera angles, and all-seeing eyes).
The difference between real Nature and the Nature depicted in a David Attenborough documentary is roughly equivalent to the difference between real sex and the sex depicted in Debbie does Dallas (1978). Just as a kid who learns about sex from porn is going to have some seriously messed up ideas about sex, a kid who learns about nature from nature shows is going to have some seriously messed up ideas about nature. Nature porn reinforces the Romantic conception of Nature as a pristine place you visit: in the summer (e.g., at camp, at the cottage), or on vacation (e.g., on a Costa Rican eco-tour).
We live in an increasingly globalized world where every thing and every one and every place is supposedly expendable, unimportant, and interchangeable. The company your dad works for moves the factory to China to save a few bucks and kills a small town in Idaho. The New York movie you’re seeing tonight was shot in Toronto, and the dystopian DC show you watched last night on Netflix was shot in Montreal. The malls in Missouri look just like the malls in Ontario, and, though you’ll never admit it, you went to McDonald’s when you were in Italy because “you know what you’re gonna get!”
So much of our global culture—the very same way of life that’s systematically destroying the living systems upon which we depend—is based upon a radical denial of place. As such, one small way to struggle against this global culture is to stubbornly insist upon the placeness of place. It may seem odd at first, but it’s really no different than saying: “I don’t love humanity in general, I love you. And I don’t love cities in general or rivers in general or mountains in general. I love this city, this river, and this mountain.” Never before has the real been so radical. Place matters. Reality matters. Now more than ever.
Homeless No Longer
In one of those amazing essays that made her famous—the one that made Claude Lévi-Strauss a household name in the English-speaking world—Susan Sontag rightly observed that: “Most serious thought in our time struggles with the feeling of homelessness.” These feelings of homelessness are understandable but not insurmountable. We no longer have to live like royalty in exile. We can take back the Kingdom: fall in love with the earth beneath our feet. We can make any place home if we wish to, if we choose to. But to do so we’re going to have to slow down and get to know, really know, the living things around us. We need to shut up and listen to them. Give them our full attention. Then, like Adam in the Garden, we have to call them by their rightful names. Perhaps it’s then that we’ll realize, at long last, that the world’s still enchanted. And we never really left the Garden.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here: A Love Letter to Montréal (2018)