Living on the Edge

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Published on: May. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

I don't think that many of us really understand how closely our lives are aligned with the wild things that surround us. Now and then we get a clue-sometimes even a jolt-that reminds us that almost every life form lives on the edge of some other creature's habitat.

I live in an old neighborhood in the middle of Columbia, which is a venerable college town in the center of Missouri. Although the town grows larger every year, the core of it remains much the same, a place of shady neighborhoods, ancient trees and old houses.

Thanks to some long-ago builder who admired a large yard and trees, I live with a big stretch of lawn, fenced in by grape vine, wisteria and honeysuckle and lined with beds of perennial flowers. This takes considerable mowing, and lawn mowing-a slow job-affords an opportunity to observe the ground a yard at a time, an intimacy usually only afforded to cows or sheep.

Each time I mow, I get to sit at a table in the shade to cool off and watch the results of man's urge to trim the landscape to please himself. The general slaughter I have created with my noisy blades might be invisible to my eye but not to the wild birds, who are just now raising young and whose shopping never ends.

The grackles are always first, in pairs or bunches, to take advantage of the crippled bugs and thousands of small creatures addled and carried to the surface of the grass by the vacuum of the thrashing blades. The robins come, too, hopping like leg-chained convicts among the grackles with their stately stride and yellow stare.

When I'm interested enough to get a magnifying glass and see what the birds are harvesting, my presence just makes them move a few scant yards-they figure there are enough bugs to go around and don't worry about the amount I'll eat.

My lawnmower is a side ejection model and throws a small windrow to the right. If I had one of those vacuum bags, I could go through the mess in a pile, but since I don't, I have to crawl down a windrow and sort through blades and clover tops.

It doesn't take long to find out what creatures are my fellow residents on this piece of turf. Leaf hoppers, thrips and ants seem to be the main survivors, too small and tough to be killed by the glancing blades, but as the size increases, so does my body count, moths leading, followed by small grasshoppers, box elder bugs and a dozen or so luckless butterflies.

A blue mud-dauber, a black June bug and a wolf spider are my largest kills, the latter probably whacked in midhunt. Since I have only looked at about 2 square feet of the lawn, I can only imagine what the casualty list must be over the 100- by 40-foot space I just mowed.

It is a minuscule carnage and easily replaced. Most insects are not on nature's endangered list, as yet, but still you wonder about such mass killings.

Every year since I came here to live, a crop of small garter snakes has lived and thrived in the shady places made by the overgrown fences that separate yards. A tiny meandering creek runs at the back-a drainage ditch really-so small that it seldom is more than a trickle, but it supplies a food and water source for lots of moist bank life that, in turn, supplies the little rusty-striped garters.

I always stomp my feet when mowing to alert these creatures who need the jarring approach to warn them. Still, I sometimes mow over one that forgot to slither or duck, a messy reminder of what an engine of destruction I control when I set out to alter things in accordance with my human idea of beauty.

This spring there was hardly a garter snake and, even though I knew it couldn't be my fault, it made me wonder again why so many of the wild creatures choose to live so near to man and so continually on the edge man has created. In the case of the snakes, this was the cutting edge, but the few heads I snipped couldn't affect the numbers I was used to seeing.

What did, was that the number of cats and dogs owned by neighbors has doubled since we moved here. The snakes have moved to higher grass, where they can go undetected and have probably added lawnmowers to their genetic codes, a new sound to be sensed by brains that once sensed the heavy feet of dinosaurs.

The ability animals have to live on the edge of man's rectangular world is usually surprising to us. For humans, who specialize in lines of division and recognize them, it is always odd to find a form of wildlife occupying the same space we have measured off for ourselves.

When I taught children about the world around them, I had to ease into the subject of microbiology. These were country kids already beset with chiggers, ticks and occasional bouts of head lice in an unfair world.

I wasn't about to tell them of the tiny mites that inhabited their eyelashes, or the millions of other life forms that they would be hosts to for a lifetime. Childhood is too early in life to find out that the human body is simply real estate to microbes, which parcel you out among themselves and probably argue over the territory, like humans.

Soon enough we find out that human boundaries are simply ignored by creatures who have come to find that living within those boundaries is more practical than remaining outside. Nature simply doesn't provide the food, cover and nesting facilities year-round that are available within the haunts of man. With so much hospitable acreage, even fox and gray squirrels share the neighborhood, something unlikely in the wild.

Having spent most of my life in and near the woods, I am amazed at the variety of animals that have chosen to live among humans. The woods and farm land bordering the city limits are home to the same red-tailed hawks, horned owls, foxes and coyotes, weasels and skunks and other predators that lived back home in the Ozarks.

Columbia abounds with other wildlife that stand out in strange contrast to their surroundings, their natural camouflage startlingly out of place. My friend's white house a block from the business district harbors a family of raccoons.

To see one climbing a drainpipe instead of a tree, against the white siding of a building, is ample reminder that adaptation was a skill of animals long before humans.

Although most city dwellers have seen an opossum from time to time in their late-night headlights, it is still weird to find one on your own porch or rifling the cat's food bowl. Last week we were sitting at a table in the yard visiting with friends when one of these sidled up to the edge of the garage roof and settled in, as if to listen. Opossums get comfortable with civilization easily.

Our former landlord, a retired horticulturist for the university, moved out to the western limits of Columbia in one of the newer subdivisions. He tries to continue his lifelong interest in flowers, but he has a problem, not with moles, weeds, insects, diseases or any of the other things that usually plague gardeners, but with deer, which chew the tops off choice items in his garden.

Every serious deer hunter has observed the way deer feed in the wild; a little of this, a bite of that, a bud here, a blade there. They also leave 150 pound hoofprints. A group of two or three deer with fawns, as I found when I decided to put out a strawberry patch down home, can lay waste to a garden simply by walking through it.

Deer are selective opportunists by nature. As an old man who had lived in his life among them told me, "A deer will nearly starve to keep from getting shot at, but if you don't molest him he'll live in your truck patch." That explains why, during a late night thunderstorm, I saw a doe standing at the intersection of my quiet street and a busy avenue, waiting to cross, like some town-wise dog. That was an unmolested deer if I ever saw one, living on the "truck patches" of urban landscapers.

It helps, when trying to figure out why all these wild things choose to live in proximity to humans, to remember that they were here first. It is us living in their habitat that creates the seeming oddity, but the edges of our environment match the edges of theirs so well that we can co-exist.

Evidence of a territorial imperative can be seen close to home. My next door neighbor has a giant dog named Skybear who, for an hour each evening, is allowed to roam the neighborhood. On returning from a weekend in the Ozarks, we found that Skybear had left us a coming-home present-a 25-pound groundhog he had caught and killed and left under the spirea bushes beside the porch.

We have lived in this house for six years, and you would think that in that time one of us would have seen a groundhog as big as a beaver or found evidence of his foraging. The fact that we didn't is ample proof that people and wildlife, as a general rule, work different shifts and inhabit only the edges of each other's territory.

One of my old deer hunting friends explained to me one time about the solitary nature of a black bear that someone had killed in a neighbor's hog lot back in the 1920s. It was his contention that only a drought that killed the berry crop made the bear an interloper on man.

"Why I must have lived neighbors to that bear for a year or two," he told me. "I'd see his track sometimes on the spring branch, but I never did see that bear. He was a regular old hermit . . . kept to himself. I figured no harm to let him tithe off my blackberries."

When you get right down to it, I suppose, all of us are "tithers" in our small pieces of the earth we occupy and even pretend to own, which for us is more a matter of record keeping than anything else. The Native Americans thought that owning squares of land was the ultimate nonsense.

And the wild geese too, are tithers, paying humaê at least with the soul-stirring sounds of their travels above us and at most with the hunting of them. These marvelous birds live in a world that more and more decides where they can light down, their future dependent upon the edge of man, and what places he can find it in his heart to spare.

What I wonder, especially when I mow my lawn, is just who lives on the edge of whose place.

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