Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A review of The Beast in the Garden

The Beast in the Garden: The True Story of a Predator's Deadly Return to Suburban America The Beast in the Garden: The True Story of a Predator's Deadly Return to Suburban America by David Baron

rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I moved to Boulder I had two great semi-rational fears: ticks and lightning. Mountain lions have now joined the list. I started reading David Baron's* The Beast in the Garden -- an account of a fatal mountain lion attack in Boulder County in 1991 and the events leading up to it -- to assuage my fears and feed my morbid fascination. The book succeed at the later but utterly failed at the former.

The Beast in the Garden isn't quite Anna Karenina, but it's a sign of great writing if you can reveal the climax in the first chapter and still make the rest of the book compelling. Baron does just that, and focuses the rest of the book on how something as shocking as a mid-day mauling in the suburbs could occur.

Baron stipulates that humans have fundamentally changed the definition of wilderness. Or rather, the reality we've created doesn't fit the definition we maintain in our heads. Our refusal to let go of romantic notions of the frontier and the natural order that exists beyond that invisible edge has, well, come back to bite us.

The wilderness hasn't disappeared, but it has evolved. As we've urbanized the landscape, we've also urbanized its inhabitants -- human and animal. Much focus (and faith) is mankind's adaptability, but animals are equally adaptable. In the case of the mountain lion, they've been adapting to the urban and suburban landscape. In places like Colorado's rapidly urbanizing Front Range and Los Angeles County, that means that they have taken up residence in suburbs, watched humans to learn their patterns of behavior, determined that humans are not a threat, and begun to size humans up as prey. This didn't happen overnight. In Boulder County, the process was well documented by a city employee and University of Colorado professor.

The book has plenty of cougar lore (as well as natural history, blood and gore, government intrigue, you name it). But what it doesn't have is a happy ending wrapped nicely in a bow. The future, as Baron sees it, is one where human-lion encounters will grow more frequent, and possibly more deadly. He contrasts, rather darkly, the number of cougars killed by humans and the number of humans killed by cougars, suggesting that the handful of human deaths could be a form of penance. Whether your level of antropocentric thinking allows you to believe this, the conclusion remains that humans have shaken the "natural order" -- whatever the heck that is or was.

The subtext, which Baron never says outright, is that the "beast" is one that humans have created through their patterns of expansion and development. This puts him somewhere between Jeff Goldblum's beat-mathematician in Jurassic Park ("nature will find a way") and the man who goes swimming in toxic sludge ponds in Robert Sullivan's The Meadowlands. It's a fascinating -- though unsettling -- place to be. And Baron presents his perspective in a way that is appropriately tantalizing and frightening.

And what about me? Will I resort to carrying a hunting knife and a rifle when I'm running and hiking alone? I could always move back to Portland, land without ticks, lighting, or lions. For now, at least, I'll stay in Colorado and coexist with that which (semi-rationally) frightens me most.

*David Baron was one of the first people I met in Boulder, before I knew that the Front Range was prime lion habitat. I didn't realize that he was the author of "The Beast in the Garden" until I had less than 40 pages left. (That bumped my GoodReads rating up from 4 stars -- loved it -- to 5 stars -- I recommend it to everyone I meet.) I liked him right away, and not just because, like me, he splits his alliances between Boston and Boulder. He's on the board of the Scripps Fellows program at CU, and works with WBUR in Boston on programs like The World. Cool!

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