Friday, August 5, 2011

The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature by David Baron

... in which the author reconstructs an escalating series of cougar encounters with humans in Boulder, Colorado and discusses the unintended consequences of living with wildlife. The Beast in the Garden focuses on the reappearance of cougars in suburban Boulder in the late 1980's. Though it is nonfiction, the many separate sightings are cobbled together to form a narrative, and the book does have what could be called "main characters". The style reminded me very strongly of Jon Krakauer's writing in Under the Banner of Heaven.
In addition to his reconstructions of the cougar encounters, the author provides a brief history of wildlife management in the American West, and discussions of a few modern takes on wildlife management. During the period covered in this book, Boulder is shown as having taken a hands-off approach to wildlife management. The residents of the city didn't want animals being harassed, moved, or killed, so large numbers of deer began living in suburban areas. As the cougar population in Colorado recovered, the deer began to attract cougars into neighborhoods. Since the wildlife officials and the citizens did nothing to discourage the cougars, they habituated to humans. As the cougars became bolder and bolder, humans began having closer encounters with them, eventually leading up to actual attacks.
One thing that irritated me a little was the pervasiveness of the author’s attitude and opinions. I suppose I should’ve expected it given that the subtitle is “A Modern Parable of Man and Nature”. If it’s a parable, the author has a lesson that he intends to teach us. Throughout the book, the author is pounding the reader over the head with the points he wants to make. While I actually agree with the author’s conclusions, I don’t appreciate his nagging. It also seemed that he was quick to vilify wildlife officials in order to advance the story, more or less portraying them as willfully negligent. I think that their inaction did make a dangerous situation even worse, but I don’t see that the author had a right to paint them as ignorant blowhards. I honestly believe he did this just to heighten the drama. I also got sick of his “How can you morons not see this coming?” tone. There were plenty of warning signs ignored, but the author’s gloating makes the book harder to read. While I thought that the book was quite well written and organized, I wish the author had had less of a presence in it.

Despite my occasional frustrations with the tone of the book, reading about the various cougar sightings, encounters, and attacks was very interesting to me. I like cats, and big cats are particularly fascinating. I occasionally got impatient with following the narrative because the author provided very detailed descriptions of the settings and people involved. I just wanted to hear more about the cougars. In spite of my somewhat poor attention span, I would say that the book consistently kept my interest. The book moved back and forth between the series of encounters in the 80's and information about human interactions with cougars throughout history. The background information was very useful and well organized.
Overall, I’m finding this book pretty hard to rate. I thought it was well written and very interesting, but I kind of resent being sucked in by the author’s agenda. Though I’m tempted to rate it lower because the author sometimes got on my nerves, I think the fairest rating would be a 4 out of 5 stars. I would recommend this book, and I would love to know what other readers think about the author’s message.
4/5 stars

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