New Zealand has been in my thoughts lately. I’ve been working on a collection of essays about the thought-provoking weeks I spent in that island country last spring. I had just finished a draft of an essay entitled “Gentle Nature” when I came upon a nearby wolf kill. Bloody, mangled, disemboweled, the elk carcass lay in a death that might be called violent. Violent Nature?
“Gentle Nature” was a term that came to me from a young New Zealand Department of Conservation ranger, blond, ruddy-cheeked, with a pack of poison on her back. Those were her words as she set off to kill something.
The ranger crossed my path when I was hiking the Heaphy Trail, a seven night hut hike on New Zealand’s south island. She arrived on a four-wheeler at the hut where I was spending the night, and set about preparing her pack of herbicide. Curious, I asked, “What are you spraying for?”
“Gorse,” she replied, referring to the prickly invasive species native to Europe, but not New Zealand. “There’s a few patches we need to control.”
Shaking my head, I looked at her pack of herbicide. “It’s a never-ending battle here, isn’t it? Plants, possums, rats…”
“Yea… and we have such a gentle nature…” Her words drifted off into silence and a sigh.
“…and everything comes in and takes over,” I finished her thought for her, and watched her walk away from the hut.
Gentle Nature. It filled my mind the next day as I sat with the sunrise, and swirled through my thoughts as I walked through the tussocks and forest toward the next hut. Perhaps this term could be applied to the unique ecosystem of New Zealand, a land that evolved separately from the rest of the planet, developing into an other-worldly domain of distinctive creatures. On this handful of islands tucked away in the far South Pacific Ocean, birds came to rule, diverse and dominant, filling the niches held by mammals in other places. New Zealand’s only mammals were three species of bats – until humans arrived some 700-800 years ago.
“Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Mammals have teeth and claws, not birds. Violent Nature? The predator-prey cycle spins, teeth tearing flesh, meat-eaters killing herbivores, returning those grazers to the system through complex energy flows. Predators too will die or be killed, to be eaten or decompose into the earth to return as grass which is consumed by the grazer. The wheel spins, oiled by blood – and certainly does not seem gentle. Witness a bear carrying off an elk calf, the infant’s shrill screams shattering the air, tiny legs flailing helplessly, mama crying in her equal helplessness to stop this death – yes, something I witnessed. There is no gentleness in this, though there is life entwined with the death.
But. Couldn’t it just as easily be said, “Nature, red in beak and talon”? Giant eagles, hunting falcons, owls stalking in the night. New Zealand has (or had) its predators too.
Yet, the evolution of so many flightless birds in New Zealand suggests a lack of threat, birds from kiwi to kakapo (a flightless parrot) able to survive walking on two feet, no flight needed for fleeing. The mammalian threat arrived with humans, Māori first bringing dogs and rats, Europeans following with a menagerie of species, including possums and stoats. Māori and Europeans both hunted birds. Rats, possums, and stoats ate and still eat eggs and birds, wielding tooth and claw against the feathered creatures whose dominance had slipped.
Could New Zealand’s natural world be labeled “Gentle” because it was unprepared for the “violence” of mammals? But this would make my Montana homeland a place of Violent Nature, where bears eat fawns, wolves kill elk, and small weasels efficiently shred their prey. Many mammals, omnivores, carnivores: they hunt to survive. This is their nature. Just as it is the nature of eagle, falcon, and owl. Gentle? Violent? Such labels seem inappropriate in the natural world. This was my thought even as I stood next to that gutted, bloody wolf-kill I found a few days ago, a cow elk with mangled throat, brought down by tooth and claw.
For at the bottom of this musing lies a web, strung together over millennia, individual strands linked together, supporting each other, holding together even as they shift, connected even in their change. Co-evolution: a system evolving through time, where all things – rock to soil to plant to animal, fungi, bacteria, insect, frog, eagle, wolf, whoever inhabits that system – are bound by life and death. Wolves kill elk, but if the great canines are absent, starvation kills elk as their numbers burgeon beyond available resources. Elk, squirrel, mouse – all prey species in fact – develop defenses against predators. Birds do as well. The scent of European and American birds diminishes during breeding season so predators can’t find nesting birds through smell. New Zealand’s flying predators hunt by sight and so New Zealand’s nesting birds retain their odor for there was no evolutionary force causing them to lose it, making them easy prey for the sniffing rat, the snuffling possum, and the scent-seeking stoat.[i] The strands in the web develop habits and lifestyles for survival, connected, co-evolved.
Throw a rock in a pond, and the ripples circle out. Throw a creature with tooth and claw or arrow and bullet into an ancient ecosystem that has never known such things – evolved without such things – and the ripples become waves, splashing against life with deathly violence. When mammals arrived in New Zealand, it wasn’t Violent Nature thrown into Gentle Nature. It was a large rock thrown into a small pond. New Zealand’s native species disappeared, one by one. A quarter of the bird species, one out of every four, are now extinct.[ii]
[i] Handwerk, Brian. “BO Attracting Predators to Birds.” National Geographic News (2010). Web.
[ii] Russell, James C., et al. “Predator-Free New Zealand: Conservation Country.” BioScience 65.5 (2015): 520-30.