Nova Scotia is a forest province. The natural state of the land, with only a few exceptions such as coastal areas, is what is referred to here as Acadian forest–a primeval range of huge old maples, birches, pines, spruces, willows and a variety of other trees. The forest here is not too different from the forests of northern, westernmost Europe except for some slight variations in plant species, i.e., the Canadian elder which produces red berries and is slightly toxic as opposed to the European elder which produces black, fully edible berries. And by and large this is a gentle land. There are no great, dangerous predators in the wilderness. Other large wild creatures, such as moose, are timid and avoid humans. There really is nothing dangerous in this forest. So, it never ceases to amaze me how terrified most Nova Scotians are of their own countryside.
In my work as a therapist, I have heard clients make statements so many times along the lines of: “I would love to get out more, but I live in the country.” I’ll never forget one young lady in her late teens who was depressed and bored. She had stated she would like to get out but couldn’t because her family didn’t own a cottage, and I had suggested she and her friends just pitch a tent and camp out. Her eyes grew wide as saucers. The prospect of spending a night in the woods, outside the shelter of rigid walls, utterly terrified her.
I wish I could say this bizarre terror of one’s environment was unique to Nova Scotians, but I hear of it more and more from many sources. People email me to ask how to get their kids off the Play Station and out the door. People comment on FaceBook that they don’t go hiking because there is no place to hook up their devices. People plan bike trips according to where they can get cell service and wireless internet. There has come to be, in this current culture, some bizarre fear of being alone, not being hooked up, and perhaps most of all of the creatures that dwell in the natural world beyond one’s own door. I’ve always felt this was very odd given that the odds of coming to harm in the human world are literally thousands of times greater than of being harmed by Nature. For example, since the founding of Canada and the USA, there has been one person killed by wild canids, yet there have been literally tens of thousands killed in towns and cities by automobiles and other machinery and criminals. And yet, people see the town and car as safe, yet look at the harmless wolf with deep suspicion and fear.
Let’s look at what dwells in the natural world after dark. What should we fear? We’ll use as a basis the environment around the upper northeast USA and lower southeast Canada.
The Black Bear
Black bears are one of Nature’s survivors. They follow diurnal and nocturnal patterns–whichever works best for them. They will eat anything, from wild honey and berries to a hunted deer, though it’s quite rare a black bear would take a deer. The are large, powerful animals and can weigh several hundred pounds, but despite their size are quite capable of climbing trees. Bears are particularly noted for the females’ mothering instinct. Black bears are also very shy and will try hard to avoid humans. About the only time they make contact is if they are habituated, which is to say they learn that humans are a safe food source, which happens due to careless persons leaving out food scraps and garbage. Eastern black bear attacks on humans are virtually unheard of.
The North American wolves are pack animals. Extremely intelligent and almost tribal, they are very shy and work bard to avoid humans. They are hunting creatures and will take deer but often live on small animals such as rabbits and will live quite happily on rodents. In recorded history there has never been a documented death caused by wolves.
The coyote is a mid-sized canid, kin to the wolf–in fact, close enough genetically that they can successfully interbreed. Extremely clever, they are also pack hunters that will get by on large game when they can get it but generally subsist on leporidae such as rabbits as well as rodents. In fact, coyotes form an important natural control of rodents, and without them who knows what the wild rodent population would escalate to. Coyotes are not native to the East, though. They come from North America’s desert southwest and made their way here over the last couple centuries, following the food and opportunities created by human settlement. Attacks on humans are almost unheard of and there has only been one human death attributed to them, though myself and many other naturalists question whether the animals responsible were actually coyotes hybridized to domestic dogs (coy-dogs) which may have the hunting instinct of wild coyotes without the instinctive fear of humans.
Also known as mountain lions and pumas, cougars are one of North America’s larger wildcats. The cougar is a very elusive animal and its habits, therefore, are somewhat mysterious. Naturalists who know how to look for them consider themselves lucky even to encounter their tracks and spoor. It is a lucky person who actually gets to sight one in the wild. They may eat deer and other small to mid-sized animals, and they are solitary creatures that hunt alone. They are only found together when a female is looking after cubs. No one in the history of this vast northeast region has ever even been hurt by a mountain lion.
That is pretty much the list of big wild predators in the Eastern woodlands. It is bizarre that people should so fear them when they have done so little harm. In fact, every year hunters and trappers set out to kill coyotes and wolves and end up injuring and killing dozens of human beings by accident while year after year these animals do no harm to people whatsoever.
It must therefore be recognized that the fear of these animals can be nothing other than an irrational fear. Therapists such as myself refer to false and bizarre stories that people persistently believe as delusions, and so those who believe they are in danger due to these wild creatures can be nothing less than delusional. Those who persistently and irrationally believe they are in danger due to bizarre and unfounded reasons are diagnosed as paranoid. Therefore, it can only be said that persons who believe the creatures of their surrounding wild country are a danger to them are diagnosably paranoid.
How did we come to this, as a culture? How did we come to believe that the green world around us is a danger zone? Only a generation ago boys and girls regularly trekked into the woods for camp outs, marshmallow roasts and ghost stories. Yet now they fear to leave their rooms and remain glued to text messages and game controllers. And therein lies the answer. People fear what they do not know. Folk have alienated themselves from their own natural world and so have come fear it. This is a great tragedy, for that very green world is the literal source of life and a very healing force. And it is being forgotten. What’s more, driven by the neurosis of paranoia, many people are actively invested in wiping out the creatures of the wild world.
Yet there is no reason to fear the things in the dark. They are a part of our world, a part of us. And to enter that world is to get to know and appreciate those very creatures. A turn around in how we think about the other beings that share this Earth with humans will be essential to creating a healthy world for us and all the life around us.