It’s not entirely out of the question that Adirondack history will one day associate John Davis with wildlife in the same manner that it associates Bob Marshall with mountains. Through Herculean physical exploits, the formation of advocacy groups, and incessant PR, Marshall showed that the oft-exploited wilderness was deserving of our protection and respect, both for its sake and ours.
Davis, a resident of Essex in the Champlain Valley, blazes much the same trail as it pertains to animals, reptiles, birds, fish, amphibians and (most) insects. His cause célèbre is an American network of forested corridors that would restore ancestral stomping grounds to a host of creatures, most notably to top-of-the-food-chain predators whose absence has affected both the health of the wilderness and the health of mankind.
One such corridor, which Davis was instrumental in forming, is the Split Rock Wildway, which connects the Low Peaks of the Champlain Valley with the High Peaks by way of Split Rock Mountain and Coon Mountain, the Boquet River (under Interstate 87), and west to the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area. With this protective passage in place, Davis takes a moment in his book Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor to reflect on the creatures that inhabit the passage, from the mighty moose down to the most delicate salamander.
In terms of Davis’s message, Split Rock does not break any new ground. From his mentor Dave Foreman, Davis adopts the term wildeor, a Middle English word meaning free-willed beasts, to argue that animals have an almost noble and fundamental right to roam this earth as they please. “Ideally,” he writes, “ we will make the world safe for wildeors again, such that they can wander freely far and wide, as they always did until we started persecuting predators and perceived competitors, wrecking their homeland and precipitating an extinction crisis.”
In Split Rock, Davis pays homage to the missing animals—cougar, wolf, lynx, wolverine—but also focuses, with heartfelt admiration, on the species that remain. He weaves together the relationship of these species to each other and explains how they benefit mankind more than we might think. He also explores the effects of global warming, which for the most part (unless you happen to be a lizard) is not good.
For example, as moose have migrated south from Canada, a warming planet has encouraged the northward expansion of deer ticks and an overabundance of moose ticks. Researchers have counted tens of thousands of ticks on a weakened moose, and some moose even freeze after being denuded of their fur. Moose are more susceptible to parasites in Maine because the moose population has not been checked by their former predator, the wolf. This leads to overbrowsing and malnutrition, a condition ticks exploit. So too have deer herds expanded, bringing ticks and Lyme disease along for the ride.
Split Rock challenges us to think about creatures in ways we might not have before. Davis might be one of the few people willing to wax poetic about a rattlesnake, but he notes that the timber rattler (“the handsomest of our native snakes”) feasts on tick-carrying rodents.
Indeed, Davis is a voice for the creatures that have no constituencies or fan clubs: snakes, bats, snapping turtles, porcupines, weasels. He urges those irritated by beavers to reach for binoculars instead of a gun and take note of their extraordinary construction skills. He explains that every wildlife species has its role and becomes a nuisance only when the natural order is disturbed.
When discussing animal rights, some people have a tendency to sound shrill. Davis, while determinedly emphatic, maintains a low-key air of scientific pragmatism that lends gravitas to his work. He believes big cats have a chance of repatriation in the Adirondacks, but he is less optimistic about wolves and accepts that second best—the wolf-coyote-dog hybrid that now dwells in the Park—might be good enough.
Split Rock urges that an animal that is out of sight should not be out of mind. Many hikers will seldom, if ever, see the creatures whose habits Davis describes—bobcats, martens, fishers—but their presence is vital to the overall health of the forest. As are lowlier creatures like the humble salamander, whose populations, some biologists suggest, cumulatively outweigh in pounds all the other birds and beasts in the forest combined.
Split Rock might dwell a bit too much on the need for apex predators and frown at some of our bad habits (such as driving too fast at night) and their detrimental effect on the wildlife, but its overall sense is of the deep-seated love that Davis feels for all creatures great and small. It is with genuine heartbreak that he describes seeing a dead animal by the side of the road.
Davis asks us to share that love and appreciation, just as Bob Marshall did with the mountains. Marshall’s showed us that what has been lost can be restored. As it pertains to wildlife, Davis is following in his footstep