Monday, August 10, 2015

The Mortal Wild: Why We Can't Live Without It

“Beyond the wall of the unreal city … there is another world waiting for you. It is the old true world of the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the shores, the open plains. Go there. Be there. Walk gently and quietly deep within it." - Edward Abbey
"In wildness is the preservation of the world." - Henry David Thoreau

Coyotes at twilight near Boulder, CO. Grainy photo by author.
Last night after work I went for a walk in the suburban hills outside Denver. I was trudging along, my mind elsewhere, when a keening howl rose up from the valley below me. I looked down and spotted a coyote loping through a prairie dog town. The little rodent townsfolk yipped in alarm and dove into their holes, as the coyote vanished into the brush and joined its invisible compatriots for a chorus.

I grinned like a little kid, but the hairs lifted on the back of my neck, too. There aren't many sounds as eerie and primal as a coyote's howl. It's a sound from an older, wilder, more dangerous world--the "old true world" as Edward Abbey put it.

The coyote that made that sound still lives in that old, mortal world, and so does every other wild animal. Our civilization (such as it is) doesn't apply to it. That coyote is performing without a net--if it doesn't catch one of those prairie dogs it may starve to death. The prairie dogs live in the wilderness, too. They know what happens when they let their guard down, and the coyote sneaks up on one of them. They've seen it. We think it's cute when they bark, but for them it's deadly serious. Coyotes hunt them on the surface, hawks hunt them from the air, and rattlesnakes follow them into their burrows. If you walk across a prairie dog town, you'll find their little bones scattered around the mounds. Those cute little things are tough--tougher than we are. They live in the mortal wild, and they know it.

But we do to, even if we've tamed it enough to forget. The coyote's howl is a reminder that the old, dangerous, primal wilderness is still out there. It surrounds us, and even lives among us. We've built islands of relative tameness and security, but the wild is still there, even in the city. Just today I was walking through downtown Denver and saw a sparrow under a car, beating a katydid to pieces against the sidewalk. For that sparrow--and that katydid--the city is the mortal wild.

Of course, the fact that wilderness surrounds us doesn't mean we haven't dealt it a hard blow. When you fly over the great plains, you can almost think we've tamed the whole earth. We've imposed our own geometry across hundreds of miles of the landscape, cutting it into perfect squares that stretch off to the horizon. If you don't believe that humans are capable of wrecking the world--disrupting the climate, or even causing another of history's mass extinctions--I challenge you to fly over Kansas and contemplate the great checkerboard we've made from it. There were wolves down there once, and bison by the millions, and now there aren't, because we removed them. We're a species with unprecedented power, and we gain more all the time.

But the wilderness is still far more powerful than we are. Even in the giant factory we've made of the plains, there's wilderness. Tornadoes still dance across them like Shiva, flattening everything in their path. All we can do is get out of the way. But you don't have to see a tornado to know nature is still the boss out there. All you have to do is walk out into those Kansas wheat fields on a clear night and look up. There's the wilderness up there--the big cosmic wild, arching from horizon to horizon. People usually think of nature and wilderness only in earthly terms, but that's wrong. That's nature out there too, stretching across the light years.

The view of the Milky Way on a dark night is, or should be, a reminder that we're surrounded by wilderness as as much as any coyote or hawk. As Carl Sagan put it, "Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.” We're still huddled around a campfire, surrounded by wilderness.

And yet there are those among us who don't know about the old and mortal world, or don't see it for what it is because they've romanticized nature into a Disney-style caricature. Millions of Americans are so disconnected from nature that they have to be told that it's dangerous. In Rocky Mountain National Park, as you emerge from treeline onto the tundra, there are signs listing the ways you can get in trouble up there--getting lost in the fog and snow, falling off a thousand-foot cliff, or being struck by lightning in one of the daily summer storms. At the top of the signs, in all caps, it says, "MOUNTAINS DON'T CARE." In the National Forests nearby, there are signs that say, "Moose attacks are serious!" We've created a world where people have to be told that moose attacks are serious. That's how far removed we are--or think we are--from wilderness.

And that's deeply unhealthy. That's really my point here. I've been focusing on nature's darker and more violent side, but I don't mean we should emulate that part of it. Nature is amoral, and we are not--or don't have to be, anyway. I'm just saying we need to respect the wilderness. We need to preserve it; learn from it. It is, as Edward Abbey said, "the old true world". It's been around millions of times as long as our fleeting civilizations. It's had time to try more things; to learn what works and what doesn't. And what doesn't work, doesn't last--that's one of the great lessons of the fossil record. If don't want to become fossils ourselves, we need to understand and respect nature; its vastness, its age, and its wildness. Ignoring it isn't respecting it. Romanticizing it as a benevolent Eden isn't respecting it. Trying to tame every corner of it isn't respecting it.

What is respecting it, I think, is recognizing that it got along just fine without us for all but the last tiny fraction of its history. On the largest scales, the wilderness doesn't need us. But we need it. We can't survive without it, of course, but we don't need merely to survive. We also need it to thrive. When I heard that coyote yesterday, I had just escaped from sitting in a cubicle all day, staring at a computer screen. I was still numb; the walking dead. But how can you stay numb hearing a sound like that? As the hairs rose on my neck--an ancient instinct to raise hackles I no longer have--my body was remembering the wilderness that created it. I was back, just for a second, in the old and mortal wild. And then I was alive again.