The other day Kathy and I drove over to Ryder Beach Road and parked at the old railroad bed, planning to walk along it and up onto the hill that overlooks Bound Brook Marsh. Suddenly, our dog Sam went crazy in the back seat, yelling and barking, scratching at the windows. Kathy pointed and shouted, “Look – a fox!” And there it was, walking out of Cobb Farm Road and stopping for a moment, as if looking both ways before entering the empty street.
It was a picture of animal health: bright russet-red coat, white snout and chest, long bottle-brush tail tipped in white, dark yellowish-brown eyes, black-tipped ears, and black feet and ankles, as if it had just walked through a puddle of ink.
But what struck me most was how nonchalant the animal seemed. It was not unaware of us, but gave us only the most cursory of glances as it crossed the road. It was a glance that made me feel invisible, the way that old men seem invisible to young women. It was somehow worse than being totally ignored. The fox was minimally aware of us but indifferent to our existence, our presence, as if we did not matter. He crossed the road and at a leisurely pace and began to trot down the old railroad bed where we had intended to go.
In 2007, Alan Wiseman published a book called The World without Us: a disturbing, post-apocalyptic book that now seems remarkably prescient. It asks two questions: How would nature respond to the disappearance of humans, and, if we did disappear, what legacy would humans leave behind? Wiseman devotes several chapters to mega fauna or large animals, which he predicts would proliferate and reclaim their historic territories. One of the more darkly humorous statements is his prediction that without humans to provide food, rats and cockroaches would also die off.
As is common in dystopian novels and films, Wiseman uses New York City as the model to illustrate the fate of large cities. Most of its infrastructure, he asserts - roads, bridges, subways, etc. - would crumble in a matter of decades. Suburbs might last longer, perhaps a few centuries, before they, too, would revert totally to forest.
Wiseman speculates on what human artifacts would last the longest, and comes up with these four: radioactive materials, ceramic, bronze statues, and Mount Rushmore. (I found it immensely ironic to think of our iconic presidents looking out with unseeing eyes over the vast empty plains of the South Dakota Badlands.
One of the few comments that makes the book seem dated is Wiseman’s assertion that an event that would lead to the sudden, complete demise of humans without serious damage to the built and natural environments is, in his words, “extremely unlikely.” But what seemed extremely unlikely only a little over a decade ago now suddenly seems all too possible.
The population of grizzly bears in Yosemite National Park has reportedly quadrupled in the last several months.
Wild boars have recently been seen roaming the streets of Haifa in Israel.
In Albania, flamingos have been flocking to a large lagoon since a nearby salt works has shut down.
Other such incidents are increasingly common.
So I wonder: Does the fox know something we don’t? Is it pure coincidence that the coyotes in our neighborhood seem to be getting bolder, performing their crazed yowling closer and closer to the house each night? Has the emptiness of our roads and darkened houses already begun to register in the brains of our local wildlife? Does the fate of the earth still belong to us, the way we thought it did only a few months ago? Does it even include us?