I look across a small field and notice a cat in a small tree. I suppose that cat enjoyed hunting in that field. I suppose that cat had been successful in that field before and was hoping to find success again. Cats are hunters, predators, carnivores. But on this day, at the base of the tree looking up at the cat was a red fox. This picture demonstrated where these two were on the food chain. Roy Bedichek suggests that “the body odor of his prey excites the predator so that his mouth waters and every fiber of his being becomes taut and every sense alerted.” I suspect that the cat felt as if he used one of his nine lives.
We are not exempt from this feeling. We may strut around as finely evolved creatures driving our fancy cars in our designer clothes or walking about with our expensive tools and toys. We may feel as if we are the top of the food chain, but, as Diane Ackerman points out, “our adrenaline still rushes when we encounter real or imaginary predators.” The fact is, sometimes we are the fox. But, other times we feel like the cat.
Most of us are intelligent enough to stay away from big predators. We do not swim with sharks. We do not challenge bears. We do not reach into the mouths of big cats. We can acquire a weapon to protect ourselves. Our houses are able to keep the obvious predators out. Most of us feel safe in our surroundings.
Most predators are of little concern to us. Lady bugs are carnivores. Diving beetles eat spring peepers. A praying mantis has been known to take a garter snake, mouse or hummingbird. But why do we talk about carnivorous insects when they have their own worries? We have a local plant called a sundew that eats the insects. The sundew is covered with a series of short hairs or tentacles that are covered in a sticky gel that makes it look as if it has morning dew on it all day long, especially when it glistens in the sun. Insects are attracted to this glistening nectar, become stuck, and the tentacles close around the victim.
How alert should we be? Is it safe to swim in a farm pond or the local lake? To dip our toe in water where largemouth bass and bullfrogs live? Fact is, the largemouth bass is a fierce predator. Small ducks have been known to become bass food. It is aggressive enough that if one grew big enough, it would consider you to be food. Same with a bullfrog. Of course, neither worry us while wading in their waters. But if either thinks it could fit you in its mouth, it will try to eat you. Some things are at the top where they sit or swim, as long as no one more fierce shows up.
Is it safe to come out of the water? Driving along the Susquehanna recently, I watched a big bird with deliberate wing beats fly gracefully over the river. It had a white head and white tail feathers that contrasted with its otherwise dark body. We are just beginning to see Bald Eagles around here and although I rather enjoy it, the residents of the river probably do not. Still, the fact is that raptors have been watching us for a long while. These birds with keen eyesight and strong beaks and great talons perch on fence posts and telephone poles and in trees along highways. Perhaps to watch for small mammals, perhaps to keep an eye on those of us driving by. The Great Horned Owl possesses talons that are capable of crushing the skull and severing the spine of its prey. They are covered with soft feathers that provide insulation but also permit them to fly gracefully yet silently while in pursuit. Like flying ninjas with built-in weapons. They sing their songs at night to announce that this is their territory.
Are things any safer indoors? Richard Louv tells us that the Environmental Protection Agency claims that indoor air pollution is the number one environmental threat to health. “A child indoors is more susceptible to spores of toxic molds growing under that plush carpet; or bacteria or allergens carried by household vermin; or carbon monoxide, radon, and lead dust.” He goes on to say that some link indoor play to obesity. “So, where is the greatest danger? Outdoors, in the woods and fields? Or on the couch in front of the TV?”
What most of us are probably unaware of is the invasion of endoparasites. Invaders from the inside. Gordon Grice says that parasitic worms attack humans as often as mosquitoes do. “At this moment, more than one billion human beings carry within their bodies a nematode worm called Ascaris lumbricoides. About one in every thirty humans is under attack from the fluke that causes schistosomiases; one in six hosts the hookworm. Even in the well-medicated United States, 40 million people are afflicted with pinworms. The results of these diverse infections will vary from no noticeable reaction to excruciating death.”
Of the parasites Annie Dillard asks “how can this be understood? Certainly we give our infants the wrong idea about their fellow creatures in the world. Teddy bears should come with tiny stuffed bear-lice; ten percent of all baby bibs and rattles sold should be adorned with colorful blowflies, maggots, and screw-worms. What kind of devil’s tithe do we pay?” She goes on to ask if “we live in a world in which half the creatures are running from – or limping from – the other half?” She later concludes, “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too.”
I think about the Copperhead hiding in the spring forest. The Black Bear that walked across the stream where I fished for Brook Trout. The long-legged heron that stalked the field along Conodoguinet Creek. That biting bug who was trapped between my clothes and skin in the garden. The mosquitoes that have nibbled on me all summer long. The ticks who feasted on my blood. The dust mites that hide in my pillow. The endoparasites that attack from inside our bodies. The bass that eats ducks for dinner. That diving beetle who was eating the spring peeper. The sundew plant that will lure the insects in for lunch. The Red Tailed Hawks that stand watch over fields and highways. The fox that chased the cat up a tree.
Is anything safe around here? Is anyone? What should we make of this backward food chain? One where plants eat insects. Insects eat amphibians. Amphibians eat fish. Fish eat birds. Birds eat mammals. And parasites eat us all?
I think of these creatures and wonder why we are not always looking over our shoulder. It is time to be attentive with every fiber of our being. Every sense on alert. Paying attention with every step. There are predators among us. It is safe to say that not all predators are monsters of cruelty. But sometimes, when humans share territory with creatures, the result is something bad. Of these creatures, Grice claims to “celebrate their beauty, even the dark side of it.”