Primordial North America
Close your eyes, and imagine North America before European arrival.

Primordial forest. Endless prairies. Wetlands alive with birds. The sheer richness and abundance of life is mind-blowing, difficult to even comprehend.
All these things were ordinary parts of this land then:
More than 30 million bison roaming free.
Two hundred foot tall forests, thick with chestnut trees ten feet in diameter.
Five billion passenger pigeons darkening Midwestern skies.
Bays and sounds so full of fish, you could all but walk across them.

Native Americans were here, of course, because the emptiness of the “New” World is a fiction. While it’s now generally accepted that European contact set off a horrific era of epidemics that killed countless Native Americans, there’s far less consensus about how many people were here *before* contact. Regardless of the total population here then, it’s clear that they lived on the land in a far different way than we all do today. Towns and cities were far, far smaller: estimates are that Cahokia, the largest Native city in what became the United States, was only about 15,000 people at its peak. A lot of Americans would consider that a small town today.

Far more Native Americans lived in much smaller groups, and some of them moved around with the seasons, spreading their impact on the land out even further. Compare that with the ecological influence of where you live today, your house or apartment, the driveways and roads that serve you, the utility lines and pipes that make your comfortable modern life possible. There have been people here in this land for a long, long, long time, but “being here” then didn’t really mean what it means to “be here” now, in terms of population density, land development, or ecological impact.

Wild places and imagination
What would it be like to walk through the primordial North America we imagine? Being on the ground, wandering through a place not just of more trees, more animals, but of more legend and myth. We evolved in wild landscapes, and so did our stories and cultures. Wild places and creatures still hold a powerful sway over our imaginations. Everyone knows a folktale or two about the deep dark forest or the mysterious swamp, but we’re way past that in our own lives, right? We’re sophisticated and modern. We live in a digital age, far from superstitions about dark shapes flitting through the trees or worries about exactly where we are in the food chain.

But take a walk in the woods alone at dusk, listening to the mysterious noises around you and the gloom thickens. You might find that, deep down, you aren’t that sophisticated or modern, and that you *still* find yourself pondering that question about where you sit in the food chain at that moment, in that place. Stories about wild places and our place within them are deep in the cultural DNA of humanity the world over. We haven’t really left that behind. It’s closer than you think, and it gets much closer when you hear furtive footsteps behind you in the dusk.

These have always been places for imagination to break loose, from fairy tales to urban myths to your neighbor’s story about what he saw last night on his drive home. Folklore. Mystery. That eerie feeling prickling the back of your neck is essentially human, a connection to something long past. It’s right now, too, though, just outside your door. It’s why we can’t resist the fascination of a good story about the outdoors and what *might* be lurking there.

What stories do we tell ourselves about a rewilded world?
Who’s lurking in the deep dark reforested forest?
Is the Big Bad Wolf really gone?

Scary animal sightings
For a lot of us, noises in the dark conjure a scary animal, that bear or mountain lion you imagine slinking through the dark. You tell yourself that you live in the city, and nothing like that is going to jump out from behind the doghouse, but – how sure are you?

There’s plenty of reports around about wild animals close to home, some credible, some not. Some of these are easy to dismiss as urban myth or wishful thinking, but others have proof: pawprints, video, even DNA samples. A bison really *was* wandering around Chicago. A mountain lion really *was* killed on Interstate 95 in Connecticut. Bears really *have* been reported in backyards all over.

Are these animals closer than they used to be, or do we just think they are?
When someone sees a wolf in the suburbs, what does it mean?

During the pandemic, most of us spent a lot more time outside, and plenty of people took up hiking or biking or other outdoor pursuits. So maybe you’re reacquainted with the outdoors around you, and stories about wolves and bears feel closer to home than they used to. Wildlife safety and animal encounters might feel more relevant and be more on your mind. Maybe it’s climate change – and rewilding – that’s pushing and pulling wildlife toward where we live. Or maybe it’s the cell phones and the little cameras we have everywhere that make us *think* the wolf is at the door, or just on the driveway. Or…that technology is just making the reality visible to us, that those wolves have never really been that far away.

Perhaps it’s more than that, psychologically. A deep unease about the state of our relationship with nature could be telling us that Nature is bound to want to even the score, somehow, and that reckoning could have sharp claws and teeth. Our relentless climate doom and scary animal sightings might have something to do with each other.

We’re pushing farther into wild areas to build houses, To find solace from the stresses of daily life, and most recently, to escape the pandemic.
But we aren’t alone in the woods, and climate change might not be the only danger there.

“30% Wild” podcast episode summary

Introducing “30% Wild,” the podcast that explores the adventure of life in a rewilding world. We start with “Scary Animals in the Backyard,” asking what’s behind reports of predators close to where you live. Stay safe, and know who’s watching you in the woods – or just outside your door.

  • How this show is for you if climate doom is getting you down.
  • What’s “rewilding,” and what does it have to do with your neighborhood?
  • What does rewilding have to do with climate change?
  • How big predators and other scary animals live in our imaginations, as well as nearby wild places.
  • What’s the most dangerous animal in *your* backyard?
  • What does it mean to face your fears, of scary animal encounters but also of life in a climate-changed world?
  • How is nature creeping in around the edges of life in your neighborhood, and in the tales you tell yourself about where you live?
  • [time] “Night of the INSERT CREATURE HERE,” an original satirical story about a campfire gathering gone wrong and a mysterious uninvited guest with a terrifying growl.
  • [timecode] How to get your own fill-in-the-blank printable mad lib of “Night of the INSERT CREATURE HERE”

To learn more about “30% Wild: Scary Animals in the Backyard,” go to our website at thirtywildpod.com, where you can listen to all episodes and subscribe so you don’t miss anything 

White raven silhouette on a black square, with the podcast name "30% Wild" below it

Please scroll down to the bottom of the page for a full transcript of this podcast episode. 

Resources and Links

That Design by Deficit kind of rewilding, aka nature taking over when we aren’t paying attention:
“Weeds We Want” video: https://deftspacelab.com/video-weeds-we-want/
“Shrubbiness: When a Tree Isn’t a Tree:” https://deftspacelab.com/shrubbiness-when-a-tree-isnt-a-tree/
Design by Deficit: Neglect and the Accidental City: https://deftspacelab.com/design-by-deficit/

Biden’s 30 by 30 land preservation goal
Easy to read article about it: https://www.nrdc.org/bio/helen-oshea/biden-administration-lays-out-30×30-vision-conserve-nature
The administration’s actual plan: https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/report-conserving-and-restoring-america-the-beautiful-2021.pdf

Primordial forest of eastern North America:
https://www.hitchcockcenter.org/earth-matters/big-trees-of-the-eastern-forest-past-and-present/#:~:text=Giant%20sequoias%2C%20redwoods%20and%20trees,the%20abundance%20of%20immense%20trees.
http://www.nativetreesociety.org/
https://libraryexhibits.uvm.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/uvmtrees/american-elm-intro/american-elm-physical-descript

The vanished passenger pigeon:

https://www.si.edu/spotlight/passenger-pigeon#:~:text=It%20is%20estimated%20that%20there,passenger%20pigeons%20in%20their%20writings.

The vast wetlands of the lower 48, now largely erased:

https://www.fws.gov/wetlands/Documents%5CWetlands-Loss-Since-the-Revolution.pdf

Rewilding:

https://www.rewildingmag.com/what-is-rewilding/

Credits:

Theme music by Lost Harmonies
Raven audio recording by Tyler Hulett
Other sound effects by WeVideo.
Other music by Alitu.

Full transcription of podcast episode 1.1

[00:00] Susan: Tell me, does this sound familiar? The doom. You know, the doom. Your old friends with the doom. Every time you turn on the news or scroll through social media, ice caps are melting, temperatures are soaring, and everywhere you look, there’s always something apocalyptic going on. Day in, day out. The doom is getting to you. If this is you, I have got amazing news. Climate change is simple. We need to burn less fossil fuel, and we need to act to make the world livable for future generations. Naomi Klein says this changes everything. And she’s right. Everything will be different. Everything is already different. But this remaking of the world also brings possibilities. Just like every change, even unwelcome ones bring possibilities. A strategy that’s happening below all those doom provoking headlines is rewilding. That’s protecting more wild land and restoring nature to other land. A wilder world and how we live in it opens all sorts of possibilities. This podcast is about those possibilities and living in that wilder world. I’m Dr. Susan Dieterlen, and this is 30% wild. Scary animals in the backyard. Listen, subscribe, and support. 30% wild at 30 wildpod.com that’s thirty wildpod.com a wilder world is a cooler world. More carbon in the plants, less carbon in the atmosphere, more future. For you and me, a wilder world is a world that feels more like the planet where we belong, not just for us, but for every creature here. With us, there’s lots more to come about. Rewilding. But for right now, just know this. Big plans are afoot to rewild huge swaths of land. Tropical rainforest boil forest, grasslands, even wetlands. But rewilding can happen at a far smaller scale, too close to home. Even in your backyard, you could rewild a flower bed, a patch of lawn. There’s a place near you that’s just looking to be rewilded. It may have started without you, because land, left to its own devices, tends to do that. Sometimes we mean for that to happen, but other times we don’t. We just look away for a while. Nature takes advantage, and the next thing you know, there’s feral hogs moving in next door. Some of that kind of rewilding is happening out there, too. That design by deficit kind of rewilding throw said in wildness is the preservation of the world. That’s the idea. Environmental groups, climate action advocates, and governments across the world, including our own government here under President Biden, have adopted the 30 by 30 goal to conserve 30% of our lands and water by 2030. 30% wild explores the adventure of living in that changed world. As it happens, the town where I live is 30% green space, almost all of it florist. So I’ve learned firsthand how that shapes your life and pops up in surprising ways, like bobcats wandering by the window. What could your life be like in a world that’s 30% wild? Climate action isn’t just about the doom and sacrifice. It’s reimagining our lives and the places we live in, even as we fight to cool down the world that’s rife with possibilities. That’s what we’re doing here. Take a moment and imagine North America before european settlement. Close your eyes and see it. Primordial forest. Endless prairies, wetlands alive with birds. The sheer richness and abundance of life. It’s mind blowing. It’s difficult to even comprehend. All these things were ordinary parts of this land then. More than 30 million bison roaming free. 200 foot tall forests thick with chestnut trees 10ft in diameter. 5 billion passenger pigeons darkening the midwestern skies. Endless wetlands like shallow seas, bays and sounds so full of fish you could practically walk across them. Native Americans were here, of course, because the emptiness of the new world is a fiction. But back then, they lived on the land in a far different way than we all do today. Estimates are that cahokia, the largest native city in what became the United States, was only about 15,000 people at its peak. That’s a small town these days, by a lot of people’s standards. Far more people lived in much smaller groups, and some of them moved around with the seasons, spreading their impact out even further. There have been people here for a long, long time. But being here then didn’t really mean what it means to be here now. What would it be like to walk through primordial North America? What’s 30% of that experience? A place not just of more trees, more animals, but more legend and myth. Who are we in that place? We’re way past all of that, right? We’re sophisticated, we’re modern. We live in a digital age, far from superstitions about dark shapes flitting through the trees, or worries about exactly who is at the top of the food chain today. Go take a walk in the woods, alone, at dusk, and tell me what you really think about that deep down, when the darkness gathers and the mysterious noises of wild America surround you, stories about wild places and our place within them are deep in the cultural dna of humanity the world over. We haven’t really left any of that behind. It’s closer than you think. These have always been places for imagination. To break loose from fairy tales to urban myths to your neighbor’s story about what he saw last night on his drive home. Folklore mystery. A little bit eerie and a whole lot human. A connection to something long past, but also right now, just outside your door. 30% wild lives in that space. The feeling of walking in the twilight woods and wondering. It’s a future close to home that’s richer and more intriguing than you thought. It’s possibilities with a side of science as a guiding light through the dark woods. It’s about how we live in a wilder world in all its excitement and mystery and wonder. Let’s take a walk in the woods. You’re walking in that twilight woods. Or maybe you’re just bringing in the garbage cans and you hear a noise in the dark, a rustling in the trees. Just enough to tell you you’re not alone out there. What goes through your mind at that moment? For a lot of us, it’s a scary animal. That bear or mountain lion. You imagine slinking through the dark with teeth and claws. Sure, you live in the city. Nothing like that is going to jump out from behind the doghouse, but how sure are you? There’s so much on the Internet and in the news about scary animals close to home in big cities like Chicago right here in the east, where I am sometimes literally in the backyard. What is going on out there? This season, 30% wild is about scary creatures that live in your backyard, your neighborhood or your town. Are they closer than they used to be? Or do we just think they are? When someone sees a wolf in the suburbs, what does it mean? During the pandemic, most of us spent a lot more time outside, and plenty of people took up hiking or biking or something else. So maybe you’re reacquainted with the outdoors around you, and stories about wolves and bears feel closer to home than they used to. If that’s you, this show is for you. Maybe it’s climate change and rewilding that’s pushing and pulling wildlife toward where we live. Wildlife is under a ton of pressure from us in myriad ways, and many species are in decline. So why are we running into them more? Maybe it’s our technology, the cell phones and the little cameras we have everywhere. They just make us think the wolf is at the door. Or maybe they make it visible to us. The wolf has always been at the door or in the backyard. Maybe it’s just in our heads, a guilty conscience from the deep unease about the state of our relationship with nature. Maybe that climate doom and scary animal sightings are related. The relentless awareness we can’t control, the fires and floods we see around us, this gut feeling that all isn’t well out there. Maybe nature is looking to turn the tables. It could just be proximity. We’re pushing farther into wild areas to build houses, to find solace from the stresses of daily life, and recently, to escape the pandemic. But we’re not alone in the woods. More often than you’d think, we aren’t the only species in our neighborhoods, either. What’s the most dangerous animal in your backyard? What does it mean to face your fears of scary animal encounters, but also of life in a climate changed world? How is nature creeping in around the edges of life in your neighborhood? And in the tales you tell yourself about where you live? Do you really know what’s watching you in the woods? Join us at our website, 30 wildpod.com to get all the episodes. Join the 30% wild community to support the show and go more in depth with everything you hear here. Here on the podcast, we’ll have original and reimagined stories about scary animals, from first person encounters to fairy tales to ancient legends. Because animals live in our minds and culture, not just in the woods out back. The actual animals behind these stories, with updates about where they are on the move and how we’re encountering them and how the big changes happening in our world are affecting them too. Conversations with experts from scientists and advocates to people running into scary animals in their daily lives. Just enough of those big changes sweeping through the natural world, like rewilding climate change and people living in wilder areas. Fresh ideas about how we build places that work for both us and wildlife. And what you can do personally to get along with your scary animal neighbors, keep you both safe, and to rewild your corner of this overheated planet. So I said a minute ago that there will be stories. Now you might be thinking, wait, there was no story. Where is the story? So here it is, the very 1st 30% wild story. A little something I like to call night of the insert creature here. It was a night just like this 110 years ago tonight, in fact. We spent the day in the woods, in a place just like this fantastic day outside.

[12:13] Susan: Despite all those warnings about insert creature here attacks.

[12:18] Susan: Come on, nobody listens to those. We knew what we were doing and this was just the same old forest, the one we went to every year. Might as well have been in the backyard, right? As the sunset faded, we sat around the campfire swapping stories, making jokes about the old guy, Sebastian bought the firewood from beware, he said.

[12:38] Susan: Beware the insert creature here, then rambled.

[12:42] Susan: On about some legend attacks in 54, and the boys just drove away. It was hilarious. But maybe it was a little more hilarious during the daylight hours than it was now. As the shadows around us lengthened into gloom, Max told that story about the haunted bridge outside our hometown and the night he spent there on a dare. It was one of his favorites. I could practically recite it along with him. Here he was once again with the mysterious lights and whispers. Little did I know he’d never tell that story again. Max got to the part again about the scratches on his car door the next morning, and I noticed it. The crickets had stopped. The wind and the leaves was gone. An eerie silence descended beyond our firelit circle of faces, as though the wilderness held its breath while something listened. Then I heard it. The first rustle off to my right. And another one. And another one, almost like strange footsteps. Something was moving through the pitch black trees. Shh, I said, hushing Max. Everyone jumped a bit, then started to laugh, but I shushed them again, holding up my hand. What’s that sound? Silence. Silence around the campfire. An eerie silence in the woodland. There was no rustling, but no crickets either. Did I imagine it? That feeling of being watched? Something was out there, watching and listening in the dark. Max looked at me. Sure, break into my story. Just as I reach the best part, where goosebumps covered my arms, a shiver shot down my spine. Naomi’s eyes were round with fear as.

[15:08] Susan: She mouthed insert creature here.

[15:11] Susan: What was that? Clara whispered. Our only answer was silent, watching darkness. The moon broke through the clouds, its watery light casting weird shadows through the trees. Those shadows danced and capered, mocking our fear. Sebastian and Claire whipped around, eyes searching for what had made that terrifying noise. So no one was looking when the next footfalls came behind our backs on the other side of the campfire. The creature had circled us without a sound, stalking us as we huddled around the flickering fire. As one, we stared, frozen in horror as a shadow detached itself from the thicket, close and closing fast. Glowing eyes, then movement too fast to follow. But big. Something big was heading for Max. Faster than anyone could stand or move. The shadow sprang the firelight, revealing the.

[16:18] Susan: Insert creature here in all its fearful power.

[16:26] Susan: Suddenly everyone was running. Marshmallows, hot dogs flying. We raced down the trail, feet powered by panic. It felt like miles of forbidding gloom between us and the safety of a car. In the chaos. It was impossible to follow the trail. It was impossible to think there was only running and listening, just straining our.

[16:47] Susan: Ears to hear the insert creature here.

[16:50] Susan: Dreading to hear its footfalls behind us, yet dreading more what we couldn’t hear as it hunted us, a silent predator in the unbroken night. Naomi fell. First I heard the grunt of her impact, and then the scream. No one went back. No one even looked. We were mindless, adrenaline flight without fight, only prey scrambling to survive. I reached the cars alone, relieved by the welcome gleam of mirror and chrome piercing the gloom. Where were the others? No matter. Just find the keys. The keys tangle in my pocket. I fumble them in my terror, and then I drop them in panic, but with shaking hands. At last, I unlocked the car. I tore the door open a second from safety, and the moon broke through again. It was then that I saw it, silhouetted on the ridge, covered in something dark and dripping.

[17:50] Susan: The insert creature here stared back at me.

[17:55] Susan: Its glowing eyes looked straight into my very soul. My mind stopped. I was too addled with fear to do more than just cling to the car door. The moon hid behind the clouds as though it couldn’t bear to look. The forest plunged back into darkness as.

[18:17] Susan: The insert creature here threw back its.

[18:20] Susan: Head and howled, hey, you’ve made it to the end of the first episode of 30% wild. If you want to insert your own creature, or maybe yourself into this story, go to our website, 30 wildpod.com for a free, printable mad lib version of Night of the insert creature here, ready for you and yours to fill in the blanks and see what mayhem turns up in your backyard. You’ll find that printable Madlib and the rest of the episode notes on our website, 30 wildpod.com. That’s thirty wildpod.com. You can also find out all about 30% wild there, including where to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode. Thanks for listening. 30% wild Scary animals in the Backyard is created by me, Dr. Susan Diderlin, and is a product of Death Space Lab. All parts of this podcast are copyright protected and may not be duplicated or used without express written permission by the creator.