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It was dark now and Neanderdad’s offspring were slumbering.  With his mate out of the house running errands, Neanderdad had a rare moment of quiet to collect his thoughts.  Quiet, that is, save for the incessant jingling of the dog collar as the dog chewed nervously at his paws.  This was a habit that the beast had practiced with gusto since the arrival of the children, and it drove Neanderdad to distraction.  Neanderdad endeavored to ignore this irritant as he gazed out the window and down across the valley below his dwelling.

It was a crowded, industrious place, full of of the most modern of tool makers and artisans. Lights from their activity lit the whole valley, making it a dotted, orange-tinged grid at night.  So many people were coming and going, even at this late hour, that the lights of their conveyances formed illuminated ribbons of red and white light on the roadways below.  It was this industriousness that had made his tribe wealthy and powerful.  But it was, Neanderdad contemplated, not without its cost.  The mammoth of Neanderdad’s dreams, once the pinnacle of hunting prowess for his people, had been hunted to extinction long long ago.  So too were the sabertooth cats, giant sloths and other mega-fauna. Within just his father’s generation, gone in this valley too were most of the other large animals that filled the mythos of Neanderdad’s culture even now — bears, wolves, elk, moose.   So as Neanderdad stared out, he wondered what it all meant for his offspring.

Neanderdad enjoyed telling stories to the children before putting them to bed.  But during one such session, when he used the term ‘Wolf at the Door,’ the girl had stopped him.

“Daddy, will you tell me more about the wolf?,” she had asked.  She had needed more information.  And when he finished explaining that a wolf was a wild version of a dog, she had stopped him again, confused.

“I wouldn’t be scared if he was at the door.”   She had then giggled, pointing at the dog on the carpet nearby.

So Neanderdad had struggled to differentiate a scary, dangerous wolf from a nervous, paw-chewing, domesticated dog.  He then realized that the story could only exist for his daughter as an abstraction.  She would almost certainly never see a real, wild wolf in her lifetime.  And the pixelated videos on the computer screen could not do justice to the feeling of raw power and potential danger that a real wolf embodied.   But how then to use the wolf metaphor to explain the lurking dangers of life if there were no real wolves as reference — no real wolves to actualize the emotion?  Was something irrevocably lost?

It wasn’t just the lack of wolves that worried Neanderdad.  As recently as a few years before, salmon had teemed from the nearby bay into local rivers during their annual runs.  But this year, the salmon were almost entirely gone.  A migration of millions had been reduced to a few thousands and nobody was quite certain why.   It may have been his tribe’s fiendishly effective fisherman.  It may have been some unintended consequence of some unidentified byproduct.  Explanations were not forthcoming.  And though more wizened minds were investigating, the public response to this cataclysm was shockingly muted.  What was a world without fish in the rivers?   As a child, Neanderdad’s favorite pastime had been fishing.  Would he not be able to share this experience with his son?

And it wasn’t just fish either.  Nary a wildlife show failed to mention that the animal subject of that particular episode — big cats, elephants, apes, frogs, even bees! – were ‘endangered’ or ‘threatened.’  Nary a zoo placard failed to highlight the dwindling population of some caged beast’s wild brethren and the loss of their habitat.  Could it be that everything wild, everywhere, was going the same way as the mammoth?  The dog’s collar jingled again as the dog gnawed at his back paw, trying to get at something.

But Neanderdad also recognized that the very dwelling in which he lived, the food that he ate and  the clothes that he wore were the products of the same industriousness that was robbing his children of natural experiences.  His house sat on what was once wild, open land.  The mechanized transportation that reliably delivered the boy and girl to their school was also the machine that created the brown haze that could be clearly seen on the horizon during daylight hours.  The plastic containers that safely encased their microbe-free food might someday soon join a Texas-sized patch of plastic flotsam that swirled ominously off the nearby seacoast (and perhaps kill salmon).  And the very lights he was staring out at were, for all intents and purposes, tiny flares of burning carbon that were destined to float up into a dangerously warming atmosphere.  Neanderdad’s people, and Neanderdad himself, were the perpetrators.  The link were inescapable.

At some level, Neanderdad’s people knew something was up.   There was much talk of ‘going green’ and ‘protecting the environment.’  Many, Neanderdad’s family included, recycled the materials used in their lives as much as they could.  They tried to reduce the energy they used.  The contributed to conservation causes.   But these measures didn’t seem equal to the problem.  A major rethinking seemed to be in order.  What that might mean, and how it might be undertaken, Neanderdad was unable to grasp.  But something … big … needed to change.

Yet it was a difficult time for Neanderdad’s people to turn its full gaze on these problems.  There had been some manner of unraveling recently.  Nobody could quite explain what happened.  But things had taken a turn for the worse.   Industrious though they may be, Neanderdad’s people had seen their fortunes recede.  Any appetite there might have been for strong action in support of salmon and wolves and the like had wilted under the demands from Neanderdad’s people to more fully support industriousness.    So the elders had determined that the environment must wait until the economy recovered.  But Neanderdad was no longer certain that the two issues weren’t connected.  And to him it wasn’t just THE environment.  It was THEIR environment.  It was his children’s environment.

The dog’s collar jingled still more as the dog continued to gnaw fiercely at his feet.  Neanderdad, still looking out the window, rubbed absently at his thick brow, trying to suss out what action he could take.  Then the dog suddenly leapt to its feet and exploded into a fit of barking.  Startled, Neanderdad jumped and gasped.   And as the beast bayed loudly and clawed his way on the slick wood living room floor toward the front door, endangering the fitful sleep of the little ones, Neanderdad struggled to calm his racing heart.   Then Neanderdad’s ears, far less attuned than the dog’s, heard something scrape on the porch outside the front door.

As first published on Lisa Belkin’s NY Times Motherlode on Feb 24, 2011