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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.

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.

Map illustration: Jeremy Collins