The writer’s country cottage in Virginia is surrounded by lawn and meadow, and then forest. Wildlife stays in the woods, where there is both food and shelter from predators.
I realized recently, with a sickening thud of recognition, that maybe I’m part of the problem. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. And, boy, am I sorry. What’s the problem? Bears, for one thing. Deer. Bobcats and pumas, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, and flocks of wild turkey. But mostly, where I live, bears.
When three bears – a mama and two half-grown cubs – suddenly appeared in my field of vision the other day it didn’t register at first. Wow, I thought, those sure are three big shaggy black dogs walking up the middle of the street…off leash. Uh, wait a minute. Those aren’t dogs, they’re bears! Beautiful beasts: lustrous, muscular, and in no big hurry. Unless they are.
“Something’s wrong with this picture,” I thought. Not: bears are bad; rather, this many bears in my central Asheville, N.C., neighborhood at midday is new and disturbing.
Sure, it’s common knowledge among locals that there are bears in the city. But over the dozen years that I have lived here their incidence has changed radically, from occasional bear sightings in the more remote and wooded parts of town, to frequent sightings in the closer suburbs, to, now, the appearance of groups of bears in a downtown neighborhood full of kids, pets, Airbnb visitors, delivery trucks, and a few old folks like me. I
Seeing those bears appear and disappear so fast – emerging from one clump of vegetation and slipping away into another – alerted me to all sorts of unpleasant possibilities. I understand that black bears are not particularly aggressive unless threatened with their cubs alongside them. But it wasn’t part of the social contract when so many of us humans moved into these walkable center-city neighborhoods that we would be sharing the sidewalks with 300-pound free-range omnivores rocking two-inch claws.
And then I remembered that earlier in the year, July of 2018, some neighbors had sent me video of a large bear walking up the steps of their house, eager to get at the grapes that festooned their front porch. This wasn’t just any house: my husband and I had designed and built it some years earlier and later moved two doors away on the same block to build another new house. I had planted those too-successful grapes and carefully trained them onto the porch supports, and I had planted the pawpaw trees that were loaded with ripening fruit, and I had planted the Asian persimmon tree in the front yard; now that it’s mature, the plump dusky orange fruits come ripe and drop like sugar bombs onto the sidewalk in autumn. I had planted the apple tree too. Insert either video clip or photo grapevines porch woven.
I Invited Bears Into the ‘Hood
More landscaping, more edibles and drinkables from our city lots. That was my cry for years, both in print and on the lecture circuit. See what I can grow? Everything! And I had the nerve to tell audiences to take away their bird feeders and keep kitchen compost out of the yard so that “critters” wouldn’t be attracted. Now I see I was missing something.
Looking around the city, though, my self-criticism was tempered by the realization that everyone else is doing the same thing. Planting, planting, planting. And in five years, or twenty, or fifty, it all goes so wild, because it’s so foreign to our nature to kill a tree or root out a shrub. And it’s simply a plant’s nature to proliferate.
These grapevines growing in central Asheville, carefully trained through porch railings, will eventually attract bears right up to the owners’ front door.
Insert your own city wildlife stories here, my urban homesteading friends. In Asheville at any rate, the common wisdom is that humans have encroached onto bear territory, so naturally there will be encounters.
I just don’t buy it. Look back to photos of 100 or 150 years ago in many parts of the United States – and in the case of Virginia or New England, earlier still, well before photography existed – and you will see the hillsides denuded, clear cut for the voracious American timber industry. Around Asheville the bare mountains were often planted with tobacco or left to erode, certainly not creating bear habitat, nor habitat for much of anything else.
No, I think today’s bears -- and bobcats and deer and turkey – are re-colonizing, re-occupying the habitat that we now supply for them ourselves within our densely planted cities: forest, forest understory, and the margins of forest. We are willfully, if unwittingly, growing wildlife habitat, confusing lushness in the city for rationality, whereas what we might need is a look back to Old Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America: their ornamental gardens smaller than small, sometimes only a few potted plants in a courtyard; orchard lands typically situated out in the country, easily patrolled; and vegetables grown behind walls or fences.
What has called this issue to my mind so strongly is the move that my husband and I are making this year from the big city – Asheville – to an old farming community near the New River, in southwest Virginia. We are retiring, seeking dark skies at night, a different way to see the world by day, and a way to take a zero off our living expenses. Our small Virginia house, 800 square feet, is surrounded by a few acres of lawn and meadow, and beyond that nothing but forest.
Just now we’re in the phase when we go back and forth to Virginia every few weeks with car loads of books and pots and pans and winter clothes to drop off.
>Living more and more in the country, where deer and bear and turkeys and bobcats all thrive, I have been shocked not to have seen a single bear all year, and only a few fleeting deer. Several shy turkeys that sped off as soon as they perceived a human. These are wild, wild animals in their natural habitat, and in contrast the closely cropped lawn surrounding our Virginia house makes anything that moves a target for some predator. Every living thing is eating something else. Even the bears get eaten, as hunting is encouraged but highly regulated in order to keep populations in check; Virginia hunters harvested more than 2,800 black beras in 2017, North Carolina almost 3,500, leaving the breeding population intact.
Out of whack bear populations, then? With hunting prohibited inside cities, and with every leafy suburb likewise a hunting-free zone, it’s no wonder that wildlife and people are facing crisis together.
My apologies for encouraging this imbalance in the past. My call now is: Plant Less. Remove More. Open up the yard or put a wall around it. Take out a tree.
Move to the country, where the wildlife is wild. Or stay in the city, making every square inch of landscaping a wildlife-free jewel. It’s time to look at a bigger picture.
Nan K. Chase @drinktheharvest, tends her edible, drinkable landscape in western North Carolina, concentrating these days on the allium family (onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, chives), perennial herbs, rhubarb, serviceberry and crabapple trees, plus greens and carrots in the shoulder seasons. She is the author of Eat Your Yard! and co-author of Drink the Harvest, and her crabapple jelly has won a blue ribbon at the Mountain State Fair.
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