The mission of John Davis is not entirely dissimilar to that of the biblical Noah. Davis is out to protect a broad platform of species in an unconventional way that faces both long odds and more than a few arched eyebrows.
The central idea is that up and down the lands that parallel the Eastern Seaboard there are insular swatches of wilderness large enough to serve as habitats for big predators, such as cougars and wolves. Davis, and conservationists like him, would see these parks and forests connected in a way that would sustain a population of wolves and allow cougars to safely migrate northward from their Florida home, while also providing a safe corridor for the multitude of smaller creatures that are hit by cars for the sin of trying to traverse their historical habitats.
Davis, who lives part of the time in a one-room cabin in the Adirondacks, outlines these ideas in Big Wild and Connected: Scouting an Eastern Wildway from the Everglades to Quebec, which is partly a travelogue and partly a blueprint for establishing an eastern wildway, a term Davis and friends coined to mean a broad, wilderness channel for the safe transit of mammals, amphibians, and insects.
Not asking a cougar to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, Davis, a serial wanderer, traveled ten months and nearly eight thousand miles under his own power on a south-to-north odyssey called TrekEast, sponsored by the Wildlands Network. The journey took him from Florida’s storied wetlands through the southern pine barrens to the Smokies to the Appalachians and on through the Adirondacks, Greens, and Whites to Maine, ending at a cold and lonely cape at the tip of eastern Quebec.
Connected is something of a fact-finding mission to inventory what’s left of the eastern wilderness and determine where and how these lands might be expanded and knitted together in a way that would encourage a return to historical animal migrations. But just as important, TrekEast became a way to raise awareness about big-predator rewilding initiatives, something to which it can be assumed the public at large has to date given little thought.
Connected further reveals that, even in the parkland we assume is safe habitat, wildlife habitat is too often bisected with roads that endanger animals and discourage their natural migratory patterns. “Many of us naturally assume that when we see big green blobs with the words ‘Natural Forest’ in the name, all the lands therein will be wild and open to public recreation,” Davis writes. But much of this land is privately owned and posted, to the point that Davis had to hike or bicycle for miles before finding a piece of public ground on which to camp.
Another issue is that the U.S. Forest Service often has an eye more toward production than protection by facilitating logging and grazing operations. It also has a different management style than the National Park Service. Davis notes that the Park Service has taken measures to safeguard massive hemlocks in the warmer climates from the invasive wooly adelgid, while the Forest Service has let nature, such as it is, take its course, leaving a trail of dead trees in its wake.
Connected makes a convincing case that big predators need to be allowed back into the forests to restore a natural balance to both flora and fauna, which has been thrown off kilter by an abundance of white-tailed deer. No longer seriously threatened by predators to kill them or at least keep them on the move, deer have ravaged eastern forests, endangering food sources for other species and gobbling up the seedlings of oak, hickory, and maple needed to stock the next generation of mature timber.
The ideas Davis puts forward in Connected will, as he readily acknowledges, strike many as impractical in today’s modern world. He would, for example, lower nighttime speed limits on the nation’s highways to protect nocturnal nomads. He would also like to see the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway closed to vehicular traffic and used solely for hiking and biking.
But it’s unlikely to happen, so he takes solace that tourists are at least driving slowly. Other ideas have a good chance of gaining traction, including wildlife passageways built beneath or over busy interstates.
Davis is also up front in suggesting that the barriers to an eastern wildway are more political than biological. Movements to create big new National Parks in West Virginia’s Appalachian Highlands and the Maine woods have run into stubborn opposition, often for no other reason than it is seen as another form of government overreach.
It can be argued that Connected glosses over another serious impediment to the rewilding of cougars and wolves, namely the inevitable attacks on domesticated animals and, perhaps, even people. Although Davis is correct that these attacks are exceedingly rare, farmers remain a strong lobby in the nation, and even one attack on a small child could set any wildway movement back a decade or more.
Connected treats these issues as bridges to be crossed, but long bridges they are. There is also little acknowledgment that many state wildlife bureaucracies themselves have yet to be convinced that the facilitation of wolves and big cats is a good idea.
Still, Connected is no head-in-the-clouds screed. It is a comprehensive look at eastern biology and, liberally peppered with suggestions for further reading, is a valuable resource for understanding a grossly underreported problem in these forests.
Beyond its practical application, Connected is also an ode to wanderlust. Davis, a confessed introvert who battles anxiety in public settings, lets just enough of himself show through to complete a compelling and human storyline. His battles between his longing for solitude and his feelings for loved ones (he was away from his family for the better part of a year and lost his mother, herself an acclaimed biologist, to cancer) is a familiar refrain to those who feel a calling to the wilderness.
Davis also lets us in on what it’s like to take in eight thousand calories a day in order to keep his motor running and the tedium of slogging through a cold rain on an overladen bicycle. He instructs us in the joys as well, perhaps most notably in a sparkling autumn canoe trip in Maine. There is humor as well. Davis missed out on Hurricane Irene’s path through the Adirondacks because he happened to be on a side trip to New York City where, in anticipation of the storm, public transport had been shut down. Wanting to experience the storm in the wild, he instead paces his hotel room like a caged cat, while his family blithely discusses restaurant options.
Long shot as it might seem at the moment, Davis has a proven track record in these matters, having worked on the Split Rock Wildway connecting Lake Champlain to the Adirondacks wilderness. Like Noah, it might be premature to count him out.