The Return of the Moose

by Bill McKibben
Late Summer 2008

Q: What sign should alert the eastern outdoorsperson to the presence of moose?
A: Taillights.

One reason we Easterners don’t think of our place as especially wild is that we can barely see it. The deciduous forest is effective camouflage. If you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail, you’re in a tunnel maybe 80 feet wide – that’s the edge of your vision. What always amazes me about going to, say, Yellowstone is not the abundance of animals but that they’re right out there where you can see them. It’s like one of those ant farms with the glass sides – it’s almost immodest. There’s no denying the effect, however; if you see, even in calendar photos, bear and elk and big cat, then you know you’re in a wild place.

That’s why American necks swivel west when we think about nature. The pages of the calendar devoted to the East Coast, however, always show leaves: autumn leaves turning the mountainsides orange or red leaves collecting in the pools of small streams. Most of the year, of course, those leaves are the curtain that keeps you from seeing anything. We’re good at identifying droppings, tracks, rubs and scrapes, bedding grounds, claw marks on beech trees, because that’s what we see – you can spend every single day of an eastern year in the woods and count yourself lucky if you see a bear once. Coyote, fisher, fox, marten, even deer: Usually we get a fleeting glimpse, a blur.

Hence the importance of the moose, our only large mammal that
understands the importance of posing.

Drivers, of course, want to see moose so they don’t hit them. Alces
is perfectly designed for destroying cars, since the front bumper will break the spindly legs and let the massive body crash through the windshield – sometimes the airbags won’t even deploy. Maine’s highway agency for years put up signs tallying the year’s moose/car collisions, but then, like McDonalds, they gave up. Now the sign just says “Hundreds Killed.”

But there’s something deeper here. The moose has that most
important of wild qualities: It appears to care very little for our
presence. It will peer for a moment in your direction and then return to the business at hand, which usually has to do with standing in a marsh and eating catkins or water lily leaves or grasses. Of all charismas, fearlessness is the most impressive.

Which is why, I think, the slow but steady spread of the moose
down the spine of the Appalachians is one of the most important
conservation stories of our time. Not so much for the moose – for
us. They’re one of the few things regal enough to break through the
bubble of our deadened enchantment and let us realize that even in
our overbuilt, overcoddled, overheated region we’re still not the only things here. What I’m trying to say is that we didn’t do the moose any favors – it went the other way.

I got to watch this process in real time. Beginning in wild Canada
and northern Maine, the moose repopulated the northern reaches of
Vermont and New Hampshire in the course of the 20th century. But
in the last 15 years, they finally managed to swim Lake Champlain
and make their way into my Adirondacks – a great wilderness,
bigger than Grand Canyon and Yosemite and Glacier combined, but
because it’s within a day’s drive for 50 million people, it somehow
seems less wild.

In the years before the moose arrived, some New York conservationists proposed reintroducing them. The locals balked: car collisions, “We don’t live in a zoo,” all the usual arguments. They wanted it understood that they weren’t living in a wilderness, because they wanted to be normal; many of the conservationists, on the other hand, were Adirondack vacationers who had a psychic stake in their playground seeming as wild as possible.

But before things could come to their usual bloody head, the moose made the point moot by reappearing. And when they did, all argument stopped. Native Adirondackers were suddenly pleased to have them there. More than pleased: The phone would regularly ring, and one or another of the neighbors would say, “There’s a moose down to Peaceful Valley Road” or “I just saw one out along the power lines.”

The same thing happens in even more dramatic fashion when the
great animals make their way, as occasionally they do, right to the
edges of the big cities. Thoreau had mourned the fact that moose
were long gone from Concord by the time he settled at Walden; a
few years ago, though, conservation officials shot and killed a moose in the median strip of Route 128, the highway that runs right past the town. They gave the meat to a homeless shelter.

There’s something prehistoric about the moose – his size, his nearsighted manner, his lack of concern. The fact that he’s been able to roam back into this most relentlessly civilized of all North American regions makes us realize it’s not quite the place we’d thought. Its presence here can’t be taken for granted. Indeed, warming temperatures mean it’s unlikely to get much farther south, and there are already signs of its range starting to constrict as temperatures rise in the upper Midwest. But for the moment, the moose is a tonic symbol that the place we live in isn’t entirely civilized. That’s the idea that conservationists most need to get their work done, the sense that this is still a natural place, indeed more natural all the time. With a moose standing insouciantly in the nearest swamp, our constricted East Coast imaginations have precious freedom to roam.

About the Author

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about environment and culture, including the recent collection of magazine essays called The Bill McKibben Reader. A scholar in residence at Vermont’s Middlebury College, he’s spent the last year organizing more than 2,000 global warming demonstrations around the country.