Fearful fantasies about the natural world

These big cats turn out to be cunning devils who cover their traces, including footprints
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The Independent Online

Bird flu may be on the way. There is talk of bubonic plague in the rats of America. Some kind of global pandemic is overdue. The coastlines are being eroded. The weather is not looking too clever, either - hardly a month goes by without dire new warnings of gales, floods, or drought. Face it, we live in scary times.

Bird flu may be on the way. There is talk of bubonic plague in the rats of America. Some kind of global pandemic is overdue. The coastlines are being eroded. The weather is not looking too clever, either - hardly a month goes by without dire new warnings of gales, floods, or drought. Face it, we live in scary times.

Now, all over the country, a more immediate natural peril seems to be upon us. There are big cats - slavering, ferocious creatures that eat kittens for breakfast and sometimes loom up among the delphiniums to rake their vicious claws across the soft cheeks of suburbanites. Today pets are under threat; tomorrow it could be prams, sit-on mowers, family saloon cars. No wonder that car showrooms report a run on large quasi-military vehicles.

These big cats turn out to be cunning devils, who rarely allow themselves to be seen by humans and then cover their traces, including footprints. Last week, a disc-jockey from Sydenham was innocently going about his business when a mighty beast - a puma, it had to be - appeared in his back garden and gave him quite a nasty scratch on the side of his face. Recovering from his ordeal, the discmeister revealed that when the creature had reared up on its hind legs, it had been five-and-a-half-foot tall. An unkind sceptic might have concluded that the mark on his cheek could easily have been caused by blackberry bush, but Holder was adamant. He had seen the thing with his own eyes.

No prints were found, but that will not deter the growing number of people who are convinced that big cats are roaming the countryside. In 2002, there were about a thousand reported sightings. Over the following years, the number of incidents have doubled.

There are people who devote their lives to tracking these mysterious and elusive creatures whose presence is said to extend across the country. Within miles from where I am writing, there lurks the Beast of Bungay and, in the other direction, what the local press calls "the Thing from the Ling".

Something rather odd is going on here. The evidence supporting the big cat phenomenon is feeble and circumstantial. Interviewed after the Sydenham incident, Sarah Christie, who as carnivore programme manager at London Zoo presumably knows about such things, was briskly dismissive. "The whole issue is swamped in hysteria," she said. "You would think there would be one faecal sample, one set of prints, but we have none of these things."

When a large number of people start imagining, against all logic and evidence, that that they have seen a large and fierce animal, it is worth looking about for some kind of psychological reason. One answer might be that the Sydenham Puma, Beast of Bungay and the rest are crude visualisations of a contemporary fear of the natural world. Whereas nature was once seen as the glorious embodiment of the divine will, today it seems capricious, violent, as difficult and rebellious as a teenager gone to the bad. The more we discover about the world, the more fearful of it we have become.

Expressions of this fear are not always as harmless as the occasional puma fantasy. Elsewhere in suburbia, a new peril has just been discovered: trees. Ealing Borough Council is urgently considering a proposal to cut down no less than 4,500 mature lime trees, planted in the borough during Victorian and Edwardian times.

The rationale behind this mind-boggling act of vandalism have been utterly predictable. There is the question of taxpayers' money, of course: the trees cost £55,000 a year to maintain. There are "bad trees", allegedly, which cause subsidence and uneven pavements. The "compensation culture", inevitably, is brought into the argument. The sticky product of aphids, sometimes known as honeydew, is apparently distressing for car owners.

Adding a personal note, the council leader John Cudmore has complained that not only do the trees attract insects (true - the nectar is a favourite with bees) but that, because they need to be pollarded occasionally, they look like "cabbages on sticks". Tree enthusiasts need not despair, says the council. For every mature tree that is cut down, two saplings will be planted.

As usual, when those about to commit an act of arboricide promise that all will be well thanks to what Ealing council call "a new generation of trees", the argument is bogus. As the Tree Council revealed only last week, 93 per cent of all trees planted in an urban setting die from neglect within their first five years. More importantly, the destruction of magnificent mature trees, almost always for spurious reasons, breaks a connection of the present with the past, of towns with the countryside, is environmentally irresponsible and generally reduces the quality of life for most sane, sensitive human beings.

The natural world need not be quite so frightening. If we moved beyond a state of urbanised fretfulness and learnt to enjoy trees, bees and even honeydew-dropping aphids, then our everyday life would be that much less fearful, more pleasurable. Soon the various slavering beasts that are encountered by disc-jockeys in back gardens would return to the dreamland from whence they came.

terblacker@aol.com

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