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Monday, March 14, 2011

Wildlands and Wilderness

I want to start this post by saying my heart and thoughts go out to the people in Japan who continue to be affected by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor disasters. I will post more about some of those things at a later time but for now, I send my best wishes to the other side of the planet tonight and move on to the post I had intended to write last week.

I've been living along the east coast of the USA now for a little over a year. I started off in New Jersey, near Parsippany, not too far from the Big Apple, then moved to Maine in June of 2010. Prior to that I'd been living in the western US since 1992 - mostly Colorado, but with stints in Washington (state) and Montana. While I lived in the western states I traveled extensively in the Rocky Mountains. Over time, my favorite places became the wildlands and wilderness areas - places like Indian Peaks Wilderness, the remote areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, the North Cascades, the Rockies in Montana, Banff and Jasper Parks in Canada, and of course, the wilderness of Yellowstone and Teton National Parks. 

The western US is changing, but it still has vast areas of wildland, if not wilderness. Of course Alaska undeniably has the most wilderness of any state. While beautiful and truly wild, it's fairly inaccessible to most folks in the Lower 48. And that's probably a good thing for the Alaskan wilderness!

I guess I'd grown used to being near wild areas or wilderness, perhaps even taken them for granted in some respects. Whenever I wanted to get away, I just picked a wild area and I was there within an hour or two, my spirit once again quiet and restored. But now that I live on the eastern seaboard I realize just what it is that I, and everyone else here, is missing by living in a part of the country that has been well and thoroughly tamed.

We're missing our visceral connection to our roots as humans - our tie to Nature at it deepest level. Being in the wilderness can be meditative, it restores some part of our spirit that we didn't know we had, or had forgotten long ago. And it has a magic that just can't be put into words.

I have watched city kids go from being utterly bored by the concept of Yellowstone to the most avid animal of enthusiasts in the space of about an hour. Show them a bison calf being born, or a wolf taking meat to a den full of cubs, or an elk baby learning to walk, and their attitudes are transformed almost instantly to excitement and awe. Many an adult biologist I know was turned on to the profession as a child - and many while visiting a place such as Yellowstone.

Unfortunately there is nothing like Yellowstone anymore on the east coast.

Locals tell me that the northern areas of Maine are really the only "wild" areas left here. Perhaps. But how wild can they be when all of the large animals have been exterminated? Yes, there may be many acres where not a home is to be seen, but the woods are quiet. Where is the bugling of the male elk in rut? The howl of wolves? And now, even the sound of deer hooves on the forest floor may be a thing of the past in the Pine Tree State. Most people in Maine are surprised to learn that not so long ago, herds of elk and caribou roamed the forests here. They've been completely wiped out in the last several decades due to hunting and development. Gone too are the wolves, sea mink, cougar, timber rattlesnake, Labrador duck, great auk, passenger pigeon, Eskimo curlew, and common murre. And now the white-tailed deer population is being heavily impacted.

Maine has been tamed. Many of the wild animals are gone. Wilderness and human development are mutually exclusive.

What I've come to realize is that for me, the animals really define and personify the wildlands and wilderness. If they are gone, so too is that sense of wilderness. More than simply a gauge to the health of the ecosystem, to me they are much of the life, the energy that makes up a place. What would Yellowstone be without its bison, elk, moose, bear, and wolves? Or Glacier without its mountain goats? Or Rocky Mountain National Park without its bighorns? In my mind, they would just be big, pretty, but empty spaces devoid of their most vibrant living energy.

Many people who have lived in the eastern states for most of their lives, or only in major cities in the west, don't even have a concept of what wilderness is, what it means, and how important it is to us as humans. More than just a vacation spot, for me wilderness reminds me there is more to this planet than just me and my fellow humans. I come to understand that animals (including humans), ecosystems, and even the planet itself are all living, breathing entities just by being in the wilderness and observing. Like us, wild animals are born, they play with their friends, they feel physical and emotional pain, they try to raise their families as best as they can, they sometimes suffer, and eventually, also like us, they die.

We are more like the wild animals than most of us humans care to admit. But being like wild animals makes sense, because we are also a product of Nature...except that we choose to ignore that fact most of the time.

It's scary to realize we're part of the same web of life on Earth that we seem to be intent on dismantling.

It's easier just to ignore our roots in Nature when we're chopping down a forest to get to the tar sands below it, to feed our petroleum addiction for a few more months. It's easier just to ignore our connection to the sea when we're taking krill out of the mouths of whales in order to feed our health food addiction with one more unproven "miracle cure."

We would do ourselves a huge favor if we as a species made decisions by thinking as the Iroquois Confederacy did - considering the impact of the decision for seven generations to come. And I would add: not just human generations, but also the wilderness and its animal generations as well.

Wilderness should be our benchmark - the standard we measure ourselves against. The standard we keep in mind when we make decisions as a species. Its presence or absence tells us how much we value, and acknowledge, our connection to our roots - our connection to the other life on this planet. If we ignore that connection to Nature, we take a huge risk in my opinion.

It's likely too late to re-create wilderness in the eastern US, but I would love it if, as a country, we make it a priority to preserve the wildlands, wilderness, and wild animals we still have in the west and in Alaska. Our children, grandchildren, and 5 more generations will thank us for allowing them a chance to experience a little bit of Nature as it was when humans were just learning how to make fire from stone.

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