A Shock to the System: Occasionally, We Are Reminded That Human Beings Have Created an Environment in Which, in Some Ways, We Have Less Control Than Ever Before

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Byline: Anna Quindlen

Whenever you run into a bear out here in the country, someone will invariably ask if it was big. I never really know how to answer. All bears appear large to me, even the cubs. Something about the slope of the forehead, the glint of the eyes, the teeth and the claws. I don't take the time to assess relative size because I am so agog at the sheer bearness of the thing. Unlike Harrison Ford, a bear is not a creature you peer at in passing, thinking, 'Is that really ... ?' It has a certain unmistakability.

The bears have become yet another species on the list of inconvenient animals in this part of America, right up there with the trash-picker possums and, of course, those loathsome shrubbery eaters, the deer. My favorite bear anecdote was the animal accused of getting physical after a man had proffered a bagel to get the bear to stick around for a photograph. The bear wanted more. What I want is an answer to this question: who gives a 250-pound wild animal baked goods?

The way in which modern people interact with their animal counterparts is one of those things that make us look as though our evolution took place on a bell curve and it's currently on the downside. Most of us now act toward native creatures the way our ancestors once acted toward Native Americans: we know that they were here first so we're willing to tolerate them as long as they don't demand to share when we build unattractive structures atop their former homes.

If they don't cooperate, we slaughter them.

Ultimately the deer abattoirs along the highway, or the pest-control experts pulling bats out of attics, are, as one town official in New Jersey said of the bears not long ago, signs of a 'people problem.' Beneath it all is a cosmic question: how do Americans plan to live over the long haul? This was reinforced last week when, all over the Northeast, the power went out and millions found themselves suddenly humbled by their sheer reliance on electricity. What was remarkable was that the reaction was much the same as it is, on a smaller scale, to the animals. No talk of changing behavior, of finding a balance. Once the biggest power outage in history had begun, the only concern was for getting the juice back as quickly as possible. There was a faint undercurrent of revoked privilege. Where was the air conditioning, the pizza delivery, the ballgame on TV, all the things once seen as gifts and now assumed as birthrights?

What you saw time and time again was hubris brought low, people accustomed to instant communication without phone service, people accustomed to flying anywhere and at any time grounded at the airport. …