There was a time in the not-too-distant past when a clear distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, and friend and foe was evident. In virtually every western movie a line was drawn between the ne'er-do-wells and the heroes. Sports legends were just that, legends. The likes of Mickey Mantle or Ty Cobb were treated as celebrities worthy of our admiration and praise. Even Walt Disney played a role with his fanciful narrated tales of charming furry critters a movie-goer would be hard-pressed to dislike.
In a way it was easier. There was no thinking involved. It was all spelled out for us by the movies, the popular press and television. Life, it seemed, was simpler.
Then I grew up and a sea of change occurred in our culture. Heroes - once placed high on mountains - are not what they seemed. The Mickey Mantles and the Ty Cobbs are no longer viewed as pedestal-occupying icons. They are tainted with stories of drunkenness, womanizing and assault. Today the sportsperson who assumes a model role in our lives is mostly gone. Drug scandals, weapons charges, even murders seem to be increasingly common among our once lauded athletes.
No longer do our cinematic luminaries stand up to scrutiny either, even the fictitious ones. Batman and Spiderman - both larger-than-life paladins of comic book fame - now appear on the silver screen with a much darker side, erasing all those clear, clean impressions of the past.
Then there is the world of the outdoors. The wildlife images Mr. Disney used to present to us in a sanitized way were in keeping with the rest of his fairy tale stories. Thanks to outlets such as the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, we are much more aware of the gritty, dog-eat-dog, daily struggles of nature. Indeed, the line between good and bad among the animals is not just blurred, it is obliterated.
I thought about this whole subject last week when I happened upon an Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) in a West Fargo park. Here was an animal from my youth which represented playful and cute. An animated version was popular in the form of Chip and Dale cartoons. Alvin and the Chipmunks - another set of make-believe critters - released popular music albums, even Christmas ones.
But like all those whitewashed notions we once held, even the lowly chipmunk has an unseemly habit. Oh sure it pleases us to watch this darting little fur ball as it romps among the woods collecting this or that seed in its cheeks. We indulge in its shy, playful habits as we feed it from the picnic table at our campsites. And we have to gently remind our kids no, we can't take one home for a pet.
Its diet consists of things like seeds, nuts, fruits, mushrooms, insects, and bird eggs. Bird eggs? Yup. Just when the robins and chickadees have successfully built a nest and laid their eggs, in steps the chipmunk to eat them.
Other examples of fantasy-busting behaviors abound in the wild. Fratricide (the killing of one's siblings) is rampant among many animals and birds. Abandonment of young for a variety of reasons, happens quite often. Insect-eating birds don't confine their intake to bugs it seems. I've read stories of hummingbirds being caught on the wing by flycatchers only to be beaten to death and consumed. And so on.
Of course there never really was a line separating bad from good in the wild. It was we who erroneously drew it in the first place. The shallow nature of anthropomorphism has been touched upon in this column before and it's no more evident than here. Even the notion of a "good" or a "bad" is misplaced. Nature knows no such labels, it knows one thing: Survival.
Human emotion cannot be turned off. But rest assured the animal world does just fine without us. It existed before we arrived and surely will after we've gone. We cannot fully grasp the vast intricacies of it all, perhaps we never will. We can fret and fuss and worry about what is happening to the critters outside our door. Yet the better idea is to let nature and nature's God handle it and savor the grand plan in all its glory.