Russ Ringsak


September 5, 2007

An online article reveals the pronghorn antelopes we saw in Montana can run 60 miles an hour and can maintain speed over distance, unlike, for example, the cheetah, who burns out after that first thunderbolt. It also says it's not an antelope at all but is of a species all its own, unrelated to similar animals in Europe and Africa.

I had seen the fleetness some years ago when I was pulling our trailer eastbound across the Texas panhandle and a pronghorn appeared in the shallow grassy ditch on my left in full racing form, staying with the truck and causing me to marvel not only at the blazing velocity but at its incredible physique. Every muscle defined, flexing and releasing, launching it 20 feet at a bound, its body definition cut like an Olympic sprinter only three times faster. It occurred to me then that these guys and gals are athletes first and prairie ornaments second.

But of course they don't run like that just because they can, or because it's fun. They run for a living. They do it to stay alive. They're professional athletes in the keenest sense of the word. The wolves and coyotes and cougars wanting to run them down are also professional athletes, and pronghorns are fast because they're made of meat and they know it and they have no illusions about what that means out there among the big fangs.

A lot of necessary killing goes on in the woods and prairies and mountains, and in the lakes and rivers as well. One sits by a beautiful still pond and seldom ponders all the murder going on beneath that tranquil mirror to the clouds, or in the fine emerald green of the far shore. It's pretty much constant search and assassination out there. And with fish, they're both hunters and hunted. In the animal world, it's all professionals. Some more athletic than others; some actors, some makeup artists. Outside of the few who survive by being just too disgusting to eat, most make their living by some combination of cleverness, speed and quickness, strength, armor, and high-tuned sensory powers.

I never could take my kids to that Disney stuff; didn't want to be fooling 'em like that. Santa Claus, that was one thing, but animals in the forest being pals — I just couldn't do that. I won't publicly state that children raised on Disney grow up naive but I will say I still can't see the good of it. From what I see in the tabloids, it didn't do much to keep Britney out of trouble. Kids born into the realities of farms and ranches have always seemed to me more solid and independent than kids raised on television and correct cartoons. Although times change. Kids on farms have television and computers these days. And kids on farms are hard to keep on farms.

Anyway. The remarkable abilities of wild creatures. An Alaskan grizzly grabs a leaping king salmon out of midair; one food chain master to another, in a sudden dialogue as familiar and as ancient as the very existence of creatures at all. The bear isn't wearing a ranger hat and the fish isn't grinning. It's a business deal and it has a long history. Lions don't smile and deer aren't coy, and that friendly big green snake will swallow that stupid round-eared mouse in a heartbeat. Alive and kicking.

My computer tells me the first predators were likely worms that preyed on little shell critters on the seafloor, brachiopods and hyolithids. And trilobites preyed on worms about that same epoch, some 500 million years ago. Back there in Deep Time. They got an early start on it.

It also tells me that 48 years ago (Shallow Time) three American scientists came up with what they called the Green World Hypothesis, wherein they answered the question about why the earth is green at all by stating it's because of predators. It made sense but they couldn't prove it, because they couldn't find a natural environment without predators. Now a research team led by a professor from Duke University, John Terborgh, has found proof.

A large hydroelectric project flooded a Venezuelan valley 20 years ago, creating hundreds of islands. The team studied 14 of them, five with predators and the others without. Of the nine islands with herbivores only, mostly howler monkeys, iguanas and leaf-cutter ants, the report said, in a news release: "Mere numbers do not do justice to the bizarre condition of herbivore-impacted islets. The understory is almost free of foliage, so that a person standing in the interior sees light streaming in the from the edge around the entire perimeter." In 16 years 75% of the greenery was gone and the rest was in shambles. It speaks of "this scenario of destruction" while the islands with predators presented "a relatively normal appearance."

In their conclusion he and 10 other scientists wrote: "The take-home message is clear: the presence of a viable carnivore guild is fundamental in maintaining biodiversity." I think if I were on an island with howler monkeys, iguanas and leaf-cutter ants I'd be wanting some predators around, too. Some black widow spiders, harpy eagles and a few coyotes. Even a couple of domestic cats might help. They'd remember soon enough why they have those businesslike incisors.

One could make a case that all animals are predators, because the herbivores prey on living plants. Nobody cares if the plants like it or not. Maybe they don't. Maybe they'd like a world without animals at all. But if there'll be deer around, you can bet the plants will also be wanting to see some wolves or some hunters, because those herbivore types will clean 'em out right to the ground. The crack of a rifle doesn't bother a tree at all, nor does a howling wolf. I suppose one should not wax too enthusiastic here, lest some hot-eyed little do-gooders start a group called PETU; People for the Ethical Treatment of Underbrush.

But with venison in the freezer, I feel myself a contributing member of the viable carnivore guild, right in there with the bobcat and the redtail hawk. I may go to a strip mall and get a hamburger right now, just to make another small contribution to keeping the planet green.

* * * *

On any trip to Montana you will notice the cops, and how it is that from the western Minnesota border and all across the great plains to the other side of the Rockies you seldom see one. We put on 2500 miles out there without seeing a single radar gun waiting on the shoulder, and very few patrol cars anywhere at all. The exception was on Thursday night in Missoula where the college kids were filling the downtown bars and sidewalks and there was a patrol car every other block and you were glad of it. But out on the highways they were nearly absent. We twice saw a highway patrolman helping someone with a flat tire, and another on the westbound side of I-94 with a car pulled over, and that was about it.

Returning Sunday afternoon we crossed the Red River at Fargo North Dakota into Moorhead Minnesota. At milepost two, just leaving town, we were in some traffic and from the passing lane on the westbound side a Minnesota trooper made a sudden dustraising U-turn down into the median and popped dramatically up and into the left lane on our side, busting right into the line of cars and causing people to hit the brakes in front of us. The disco lights came on and he ran down a white Chevy sedan up ahead.

Two miles into the state, and here's the highway patrol. There were two of us on bikes and I hollered over to my wingman "Welcome to Minnesota!!" and he hollered back something I'd rather not repeat here.

We found out when we got home that the two women in the Jeep, who had driven straight through, had been tailed right after they made that same crossing at 1:30 AM the previous night. The speed limit drops to 70 in Minnesota and they were minding it and this jerk gets very close to the rear bumper and stays there. No lights on its roof. The Jeep driver gets more and more apprehensive and speeds up to 75. There is no other traffic. The jerk stays on the rear bumper. After a few more nervous miles the passenger says, "Let's try putting on the fourway flashers."

They do that. The car drops back a bit and after another mile suddenly disappears. The passenger turns in time to see the silhouette of the car bombing across the median and up onto the westbound lanes. A Ford Crown Vic, the standard unmarked car they use here. He had followed them ten miles. They breathe relief and say the same thing: "Welcome to Minnesota."

You may detect in this narrative a faint underlying negative sentiment on the part of the author, a current resident of this State Where Nothing Is Allowed, and you would be correct. I don't plan to spend my retirement here. They need to loosen the reins on their general law abiding citizenry and tighten them on the out of control criminals, of which they have an abundant supply. You'll hear this refrain in many parts of the country, of course, but you seldom experience it as dramatically as you do on a ground trip from Montana to Minnesota. I counted six more traffic cops on the way home.

The heavy presence of radar lurking along the highway is not reassuring. I see it as a misplaced use of law enforcement. I see it as the highway police being used as tax collectors. I see the state as being the predator here. Not that we our fleshy selves are about to be devoured, but close enough. To the state, our checkbooks are the meat.

* * * *

I can't end the piece on that sour note, and my old college roommate Jon has just now, unknowingly, come to my rescue here with an emailed Tom Swifty:

"It's only too easy to get lost in Paris," Tom said ruefully.

© R.Ringsak 2007

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