Years ago, I savored every page of Barbara Kingsolver’s “Prodigal Summer” because it challenged my prejudices. A major theme in the book was the complexity - and necessity - of balance in the natural world. Predators and prey were an important part of that balance.
Although I have an intellectual understanding of what that means, my heart still resists.
Some would call me a victim of “childhood brainwash.” From an early age, I had no sympathy for wolves and other predators because they were nearly always villains in children’s stories and movies. I also refused to watch animal “nature shows” since so many included scenes of predators chasing down their prey.
Today, I still always root for the prey, apparently not caring if the predator starves. Clearly, my heart plays favorites.
I live in a neighborhood with many trees and streams. I chose my home because its big windows allow me to enjoy each seasonal change and the constant spectacle of rabbits, squirrels, birds, chipmunks and other animals living their lives.
Over the years, however, there has been a change. Foxes and coyotes, which were formerly rarely seen in my yard, began to appear more regularly. Hawks learned to perch in one of the tall trees at the edge of my yard so they could swoop down to grab a hapless bird leaving one of my bird feeders. (I stopped filling the feeders unless there was a heavy snow.)
Each spring, I frequently see a fox hunting for food in my yard, and I’m fairly sure it has come from a den in a nearby park. I once saw a fox grab a squirrel on my fence before landing in my backyard. Suddenly spotting my son and dog in the yard, it quickly dropped the squirrel and jumped back over the fence. I cheered when the squirrel leaped up after a few seconds and scampered up a tree.
I have evolved into a vigilante. I work, eat and relax with an eye on my backyard, ready at any moment to pound on the window should a fox or other marauder appear. I have also, on occasion, loudly banged on a pot with a spoon to make sure a predator runs as far away as possible.
So how do I reconcile my actions with the knowledge that predators hunt to survive and to feed their young? Hawks and foxes are actually quite beautiful. The world would be a poorer place without their presence.
Like so much that is important in life, caring for the natural world is messy and complex. We protect some parts of it while ignoring injury to others. We make choices, not always for the right reasons.
Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, reminded us that St. Francis “was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”
I know that my faith calls me to live in harmony with nature. But I struggle with how to respond to that demand in an authentic fashion. I don’t live a life of total simplicity, and I choose to protect some parts of the natural world at the expense of others.
At any given moment, I comfort myself with the thought that I am doing the best that I can. And I pray that God will guide me to do better.
Stephanie Niedringhaus recently retired after working for 20 years for NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby in Washington DC. She now works as an Ignatian Volunteer for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.