If not for Colvin

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Readers of my previous post might wonder why it was necessary to write protection of the Adirondack State Park into the New York constitution. Isn’t that a bit of overkill, and a frank admission that our public servants are not to be trusted? Well, perhaps so. But there’s nothing that the capitalist system hates more than unexploited resources, and quite often state foresters and politicians are only too ready to cooperate with the exploiters. Efforts to undo the “forever wild” provision got underway almost as soon as the ink dried on the new constitution, and they haven’t let up in the century since.

Wildness is like love: you can’t just suspend it for a little while in the interest of some other attachment, and expect it to return unharmed at your convenience. Once you violate it, it ain’t coming back — at least, not for a long time. But especially in an economic downturn, it’s easy to forget the long-term economic and ecological benefits of wildlands in the search for a quick fix.

What just happened in Pennsylvania is instructive, I think. Read this shocking summary of the Pennsylvania legislature’s assault on state parks, state forests, and the state environmental regulatory agency from the chair of the State Public Lands committee of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, Arthur Clark. It’s worth pointing out, too — for the benefit of my more partisan friends — that this all happened under a Democratic governor, with a state legislature narrowly controlled by the Democratic Party. (Pennsylvania’s last good governor for public lands issues was actually a Republican, Tom Ridge.) Though Gov. Rendell was happy to accept Sierra Club support in his reelection campaign, he can’t run again, and he appears to have some rather more important friends in the oil and gas industry.

The take-home message? While much of New York’s water supply is protected by its constitution, Pennsylvania’s groundwater, streams and rivers are about to be drawn down and probably contaminated on a massive scale by deep drilling for the Marcellus shale unnatural gas boom. New York had Verplanck Colvin; Pennsylvania had Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service and twice the governor of Pennsylvania, who defined forestry as “the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of man.” Their legacies couldn’t be more different.

UPDATE (10/13): Here’s the Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial on what they call (riffing on the new Ken Burns documentary) “The Conservation Compromise: Pennsylvania’s Worst Idea.” (Hat-tip: R. Martin, PA Forest Coalition email)

Keepers of the game

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Cabela'sLast Thursday, en route to south Jersey to visit family, we went a little out of our way to visit the new Cabela’s store in Hamburg, PA. Cabela’s is a retailer of outdoors gear, primarily for hunters and fishers. They call themselves an outfitter, but this is no back-of-beyond outfitters store; it’s a monstrosity. Pennsylvania had to outbid several of its neighbors to get it, offering the corporation all kinds of absurd tax breaks and subsidies. You can’t really call it a big box store, because it’s not boxy in shape. Instead, it’s built like an enormous lodge, rising to a point in order to make room for a two-storey-tall, artificial mountain at the center of the store that serves as a diorama for a collection of taxidermy mounts from all over North America. Trophies from other continents — mainly Africa — line the walls. There’s an entire elephant over against one wall, not far from the fish tanks.

The mountain in the store is a rocky crag bearing little resemblance to the long, low ridges we think of as mountains in Pennsylvania. In the photo you can see Kittatinny Ridge behind the bronze sculpture of a heroic frontiersman and an Indian in a canoe. Two hundred and fifty years ago, this mountain was indeed the frontier and the edge of Indian territory, where refugees from ethnic cleansing to the southeast and in surrounding states took temporary shelter. Today, however, Kittatinny Ridge is best known for the world-famous Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, which was started by an amateur ornithologist named Richard Pough who objected to the once-popular sport of shooting hawks and eagles on migration.

In 1929, Pennsylvania’s Game Commission placed a $5 price tag on the goshawk’s head–a grand sum in Depression years. Two years later, while Pough was a recent college graduate living in Philadelphia, he became one of a growing number of conservationists opposed to the widespread movement to eradicate wildlife predators, including predatory birds.

Pough heard of the place locals called “Hawk Mountain” and decided to visit. There he saw gunners stationed, shooting hundreds of passing hawks for sport. He returned to gather the carcasses lying on the forest floor and take photographs. Pough unsuccessfully tried to stop the shooting himself, but his photographs were eventually seen by a national conservation activist–New Yorker Rosalie Edge.

In 1934, Mrs. Edge came to Hawk Mountain and leased 1,400 acres. She installed a warden on the property, a New England bird enthusiast named Maurice Broun, and Maurice’s wife and bird conservation partner, Irma Broun. The shooting stopped immediately and the next year, Mrs. Edge opened the Sanctuary to the public as a place to see the beautiful but persecuted birds of prey. She purchased and deeded the 1,400 acres to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association, incorporated in 1938 as a non-profit organization in Pennsylvania.

The Cabela’s store is a huge tourist draw, as you can tell from the buses out front. There were at least as many schoolchildren there as we saw in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia the next day. Perhaps they were only stopping on the way to a field trip to Hawk Mountain. As you may have gathered by now, Cabela’s doesn’t just sell guns and boots (we were there for the boots), it sells a fantasy. A fantasy based on a romantic, even sentimental idea about nature that goes back close to a thousand years, I would argue, to when the word “forest” still meant “a hunting preserve for the king,” and “wild” was still indistinguishable from “willed” — as in “sovereign, opposed to one’s own will.” In the Middle Ages, the relationship between king and lion was more than symbolic; a ruler proved his kingliness by killing large predators, and substituting himself for them. We all know from Robin Hood the sorts of punishments that were meted out to mere mortals who killed the king’s deer. When Scots-Irish and other oppressed European tribesmen emigrated to places like Pennsylvania, they gloried in their new-found freedom to slaughter game. Every man could be a king! In practical terms, of course, the fur-traders depicted in the Cabela’s sculpture were lowly serfs to an international market, but we’re talking about fantasy, then and now.

bear and moose

I am far from opposed to hunting, as regular readers of this blog will know. I don’t hunt myself, mostly because I don’t think I’d have the patience, but I do like venison, and I love the whole idea of eating wild animals — except for those near the top of the food chain whose populations cannot support much hunting pressure, and which are generally not very good to eat in any case. Bears are kind of an in-between case — they can be carnivores, but in the main they’re scavengers, like us. Eating a bear, to me, would be almost like eating an ape or monkey: uncomfortably close to cannibalism. But I’d probably still try bear meat if someone offered it.

Does killing something inevitably objectify it? A lot of people would say yes, but most American Indians — and a lot of other indigenous peoples around the world — would probably disagree. From what I have seen, some Anglo-American hunters are also capable of killing without disrespecting an animal or treating it as some sort of walking target. And many of the hunters I know here in central Pennsylvania do express admiration for large predators — though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’d want to see the return of wolves and cougars and the competition for game that would ensue. Even coyotes are vilified in some quarters for their occasional predation on white-tailed deer fawns.

Which is not to romanticize indigenous hunters, either: their sacred stories often include something very similar to the Biblical story of the Fall, reflecting, I think, a nearly universal recognition of a tragic aspect to existence. And Indians no less than whites fantasized about a land somewhere over the horizon where all the game animals were plentiful and offered their bodies for food, again and again, with no adverse effect: the tragic vision’s comic, utopian twin. From an ecological perspective, both these visions contain elements of truth.

It is of course no longer legal to shoot hawks and eagles, and most of us have learned to refer to killer whales as orcas, but our culture retains a deep ambivalence toward predators. Animal rights advocates no less than trophy hunters strike me as being guilty of over-sentimentalizing nature. If it is wrong to eat other animals, where does that put the true carnivores? Should we pray for their reincarnation as human beings so they can become as enlightened as we are?

Tyger, tyger

Then there’s science. It may seem hard to believe now, but the “widespread movement to eradicate wildlife predators” mentioned in the quote from the Hawk Mountain website was instigated by professional wildlife managers in the name of science. It was once accepted wisdom that predators had to be eliminated for the betterment of nature. Mother Nature — the condescending term was as popular then as it is today — was like a little old lady, and wildlife managers and foresters were the boy scouts helping her across the street. And while it would be nice to think that we know better now, the ongoing aerial gunning of wolves in Alaska suggests that this mentality is far from extinct.

Can you tell which of the above two pictures was taken in the Academy of Natural Sciences and which was taken in Cabela’s? Does it matter? If a trophy is a kind of fetish, a repository of power and passport to an eternal frontier where the owner can be top predator, what about all those stuffed animals in a natural history museum? They’re there for educational purposes, we’re told, but what exactly can we learn from something we can’t even touch? They might as well be made out of wax or plastic — and why aren’t they?

I’m not saying that killing the odd bird or mammal for a scientific collection is going to push a species over the edge — except that, whoops, that is basically what happened with the ivory-billed woodpecker around the turn of the 20th century. What I’m concerned about here is the message we’re sending with all these lifelike dead animals, whether in a sporting goods megastore or in a museum. Is this how we want kids to think of nature: as a parade of attractive collectibles, with only fake mountains or painted backdrops for habitat? As long as breeding populations of these charismatic critters survive in zoos, or in small, scattered parcels of natural habitat — people might think — isn’t that enough?

waste not

There is another way, of course, and this photo illustrates one of them. Natural history museums may lure kids in with fossils, but I think they can really have an impact on their worldviews with great interactive exhibits like “The Scoop on Poop.” We had two seven-year-olds with us, and they loved it. Even us alleged grown-ups had fun testing our knowledge of poop-related trivia, or finding out how many hours it would take an elephant to eliminate our weight in dung. There were no stuffed elephants in evidence, either, just a pile of very realistic plastic poop.

It wasn’t only the interactive nature of the exhibit that pleased me; I thought the content was very appropriate, too. What better way to instill a sense of wonder in seven-year-olds then by letting them hold a 100 million-year-old fossilized dinosaur butt nugget? And if they manage to absorb the lesson that in nature there is no such thing as “waste” — if they begin to perceive even the seemingly most disgusting or threatening things as necessary and valuable — then in a few more years they might be able to teach all of us a thing or two.

Delaware Bay

Learning from the ivorybill

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


Drawing by Mark Bowers, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website
(link via The Daily Blatt)

1. Mr. Wile E.

A week ago, when I heard the news about the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, I was – as I mentioned – afflicted with a sudden and unaccustomed surge of joy and hopefulness about the state of the planet. After a couple hours of reading on-line articles and corresponding with my two birder-brothers about it (my parents being on vacation and out of e-mail reach), it occurred to me to send a message to the listserve of the Pennsylvania Biodiversity Partnership in my capacity as co-chair of the Public Lands Committee of the Pennsylvania Chapter of Sierra Club. After a link to the Cornell Lab and a few other remarks, I concluded, “The message for Pennsylvania is clear: Recover It (old-growth forest) And They Will Return.”

Yes, that’s right. Even in the midst of my jubilation, I couldn’t resist putting my own spin on things. And in fact, it bore satisfactory results: it sparked a good discussion of old-growth on the listserve, and my reaction against my own opportunism led to a half-decent poem two days later.

But Coyote wasn’t fooled. I neglected to mention this at the time, in part because I figured y’all might suspect me of making it up. But it’s true. It was about nine o’clock that evening, and I had been listening to some of my favorite country blues cassettes (remember cassette tapes?) while drinking three or four celebratory bottles of homebrew. (It was, unfortunately, too cold to sit outside.) Then I got hungry, and remembered some leftovers up at the other house, in my parents’ refrigerator. The night was dark. Just as I got to the top of the hill, a coyote let loose from the middle of the field – less than a hundred yards away. The hair stood straight up on the back of my neck. He or she howled a couple of times, then barked like a dog: Har! Har! Har! Har! Har! I scuttled inside, grabbed the highest-powered flashlight I could find, and shone it back and forth across the field, hoping to pick up the eye shine, but the animal had already slipped away.

Now, to appreciate this incident, especially if you’re from out west, you have to understand a couple of things. First, that eastern coyotes don’t vocalize nearly as often as their western counterparts. Second: the eastern coyote is, depending on which biologists you believe, either a brand-new animal here in the east, or a once-eradicated species that reintroduced itself in the latter half of the 20th century. The latter theory postulates that European settlers, being unfamiliar with the North American coyote, simply mis-identified it as the “brush wolf” – which they then proceeded to wipe out as quickly as they could. The problem with that theory is that coyotes are virtually impossible to eradicate. Since they have always played second fiddle to wolves, it makes sense that they would evolve an extremely flexible population ecology: the more you persecute them, the faster they reproduce. Gray wolves, having evolved (at least since the demise of the dire wolf) as top dogs, have no such resilience.

But canids speciate as much by culture as by genetics, which is to say that species boundaries are readily crossed, and only mutual hostility and fear of being eaten prevent interbreeding – 99 percent of the time. A DNA analysis of eastern coyotes did strongly suggest that interbreeding with timber wolves – the smaller subspecies of wolves inhabiting eastern Canada – had occurred in the recent past. But who knows? Perhaps there were a number of regional subspecies in 1600. Some biologists argue that the Pennsylvania “brush wolf” was neither gray nor timber wolf, but the red wolf of the southern Appalachians.

Does Coyote care about all this? I think not. This new/old wild canid has figured out that frequent howling in the densely populated east is not advantageous. Nearly every hunter in this state owns a powerful spotlight, and coyotes may be shot anytime as a varmit. The easiest way to do this, I’m told, is by playing tapes of their howls. Meanwhile – and very anecdotally – I hear from folks in Vermont and West Virginia that an even larger coyote is beginning to appear. It’s probably only a matter of time before wild canids in the northeast switch from opportunistic predation to direct reliance on our hugely over-abundant white-tailed deer herd. I hope.

Of more direct relevance to the ivorybill rediscovery is the fact that the presence of coyotes in the state was officially denied for years – decades, in fact. Even as sightings grew more frequent and the evidence more and more overwhelming, spokespeople for our state wildlife agency continued to deny the obvious. The name of this agency might tell you why: it’s the Pennsylvania Game Commission. It derives almost all its funding from the sale of hunting licenses, and all license increases must be approved by the state legislature. Game Commission folks knew that the interval between official acknowledgement of the coyote’s presence and demands for its eradication would be about two or three nanoseconds, so they stalled as long as they could. When it finally became impossible to deny the obvious – some fifteen years ago now – they announced it as a wonderful new addition to the state’s already impressive roster of legally trapable and shootable critters. They made it sound like such a good thing, in fact, that to this day they are regularly accused by more credulous members of the hunting fraternity of having deliberately introduced the animal, as part of vast and sinister conspiracy between anti-hunters, the Audubon Society, and the United Nations. These are, of course, the same anti-hunters who want to slaughter all the deer in the state. As Dave Berry would say, I swear I’m not making this up.

In fact, I know this guy who knows a guy who drives truck, and one time about fifteen years ago, after a couple beers, he says to my buddy, “You won’t believe what I got in the back of my truck…”

2. How much old-growth is enough?

One of the first two responses to my e-mail to the Biodiversity Partnership listserve raised some interesting questions:

I have been told the ivory-billed woodpecker has been seen by outdoorsmen in the Arkansas area for years. No one of any “authority” believed the people who saw them. Now that some upper-shelf person saw one, it is now for real. Great, but the same can be said for other animals in the eastern US: cougars, badgers, wolves, lynx, Allegheny wood rat etc. come to mind. It is time we get our heads out of the sand and put a little effort into documenting other animals in our midst.

The author, Gene Odato – chief of the Rural and Community Forestry section of the Pennnsylvania Bureau of Forestry – responded to my spin with some of his own. If some of these supposedly endangered or regionally extinct species are, in fact, present, then what do we have to worry about? If anything, we have too much old-growth – and not enough young forests.

I would like to know more about the nature of that forest in the Cache and White River bottoms: year last cut, degree/type of management, etc. That would be very instructive to us all.

I would also like to know more of the management details of the land the woodpecker inhabits. As for PA or any other state: How much old-growth is enough without damaging the lives of the people who depend on the wise use of the forest? The public land such as the national forest and in particular the state forest of PA already manage 30% to 50% of the forest as old-growth. How much more do we need without sacrificing the habitat needs of hundreds of wildlife and plant species that depend on early successional forest, poletimber-sized forest?

I asked my brother Mark to do some digging – something which, as a geographer, birder and conservationist, he didn’t have to be asked about twice. In fact, even before he headed over to Arkansas last Saturday, he fired off a preliminary e-mail in response to some of Gene’s concerns.

All I can say at this point is that Arkansas appears to be quite a bit more advanced than Pennsylvania – after all, its motto is “The Natural State” rather than the “Keystone State.” Arkansas parks are some of the most impressive I’ve seen. It takes some guts or gall to block a bridge across the Mississippi River from this county (Bolivar), the epicenter of cotton production in the US, across to Ark, but they did it years ago to avoid destroying the White River Refuge. Thanks to the White River National Wildlife Refuge, there is no unbroken road along the Mississippi River on the west side of the river through Arkansas. (Where this bird was rediscovered, however, is right off the Interstate, well north.)

I’m just not quite convinced that people up in the northeast can conceive of the size of some of the wildernesses down here, nor understand that the old-growth was logged as recently as the 1940s, and never really completely, at least in Arkansas and Louisiana (Mississippi is a different, sadder story, of course) – the Big Forest, like this side of the river, was mostly wilderness until the end of the 1800s, so analogous to the Big Thicket [in Texas]. There are still several million acres of flooded bottomland hardwood forest in the lower Mississippi River Valley, and probably the single highest biodiversity indices, as well as biomass production. The Mississippian civilizations arose here; Poverty Point mound civilization, living with and off the untold millions of waterfowl and fish and etc. and so forth.

The point is that the region has been all but forgotten by most conservationists – sort of like living in Brazil and forgetting the Pantanal or whatever. The Mississippi, White, Cache, Pearl and other rivers are still free-flowing and undammed. There are still virgin canebrakes (bamboo forests) on private land. I’m already getting a bit impatient at urbanites who pay attention to areas only when Audubon or the Conservancy make them into big destinations. I wrote about listening to local voices in my book on Honduras. Almost no one does that here.

3. Accomodating a “magnificent misanthrope”

The White River flows south, joining the Arkansas just above its junction with the Mississippi in the middle of a huge roadless area comprising some 125,000 acres, much of it still in private hands. The White River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) stretches north along the river from there, joining with the Cache River and its attendant NWR just south and for many miles north of Interstate 40. It was to the latter location that Mark and family headed last Saturday after motoring up the fabled Highway 61, unable to simply cross the river at Rosedale due to the State of Arkansas’ atavistic dislike for Progress.

As his e-mail indicated, the verified ivorybill sightings reported in Science were all along the Cache River, within a very short distance of the interstate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service folks at the Cache River NWR were very forthcoming and were able to answer all his questions, he said: he and his family were virtually the only visitors to arrive there all day. The wildlife refuge had designated special observation points beyond which it intends to restrict access – 5,000 of the refuge’s 60,000 acres have been closed. All the high officialdom were there, braced for an onslaught of crazed birders that never happened. It seems the word had gone out over birders’ listserves to stay home and leave the ivory-billed woodpecker in peace.

The only problem, Mark said, is that no one really knows what disturbs an ivory-billed woodpecker. Various theories are circulating about why the bird has proved so darned elusive for the last half-century. Perhaps, as my brother Steve suggested last week, it has learned and inculcated in its young an extreme wariness toward human beings – “a magnificent misanthrope,” he called it. Mark replied that this seemed plausible – at least based on his experience with some rare birds and mammals in Central America – but added that the White River area, which is now presumed to harbor a breeding population of ivorybills, is formidably remote and difficult of access. Ivory-billed woodpeckers don’t migrate, and the literature says that their breeding territories can be quite small for a bird of that size – no more than a couple square kilometers.

So presumably the male sighted up near I-40 is a dispersing juvenile looking for new territory. What makes this area attractive? It harbors the oldest known stand of bald cypresses in the United States, Mark said – trees over two thousand years old.

Mark went on to say that – contrary to the essay by John Fitzpatrick that I quoted here last week – the forests down there were never completely cut-over. According to the Cache River NWR managers, many patches of older forest remain, though none of them may be “virgin” – the oaks, pines and other valuable trees were, indeed, all taken at some point, but many stands of bald cypress and black gum were not. Thus, the ivorybill probably never ran out suitable nesting trees.

The limiting factor, then, back during the most severe bottleneck period following the end of the timber boom, would have been food. As a woodpecker, the ivorybill has a very high-protein diet (though it does eat lots of fruit, too). According to stomach-content analyses performed in the early 20th century, most of its protein was derived from one family of insects – longhorn beetles. The larvae of these beetles live in the wood of standing dead trees, including oaks and pines – the species that were high-graded out of the swamps some eighty years ago. There must have been some awfully lean years for an awfully small and secretive remnant population of ivory-billed woodpeckers.

Now these trees are recovering – and even better, they’re dying and being left to rot in place rather than being “salvaged,” as would probably happen if it were a Pennsylvania state park or forest. Mark noted that floods and beavers are part of the natural disturbance regime of Mississippi floodplain forests; high waters regularly kill pines and oaks without bothering the true swamp species – cypress and black gum. The NWR managers told him that they adopt a passive management approach to reforestation. The Cache River website lists “Protect and restore the bottomland hardwood resources of the basin” as one of the four, main Refuge Objectives. Management Tools include public hunting and “Water management for waterfowl, wading and shore birds.” In Dahomey NWR on the Mississippi side, Mark said, this includes the occasional dynamiting of beaver dams.

This area of Arkansas – the Big Woods – is wild. It’s home to a healthy population of black bear, and panthers are moving in. The human population is low and dropping at about ten percent a decade, Mark said. The Fish and Wildlife Service people told him that the local reaction to news of the ivorybill’s rediscovery seemed mostly positive, and this isn’t surprising – wildlife watching, hunting and fishing already make a substantial contribution to the local economy. It’s a myth that public opinion changes more slowly in rural areas than in supposedly more progressive urban and suburban areas, Mark said.

4. Disturbing conclusions

Lessons for conservation elsewhere may be more elusive than either Gene or I were originally willing to acknowledge. The fact is, every bioregion is unique; ecologists have learned the hard way that forest succession in the east, where most canopy replacement occurs as a result of single-tree or small stand mortality, is more the exception than the rule. The so-called edaphic climax model first developed in the northeast United States still seems to be a pretty good fit for our region. But in areas of complex physical geography like the Appalachians, natural disturbance regimes may change radically over very short distances – nothing like the broad, virtually flat and geologically uniform floodplain of the Mississippi. And while we do have a few possible old-growth obligate species, present or extirpated – northern flying squirrel, pine martin, sugar maple longhorn beetle – the list is much longer for species that simply do best in mature forests, or in forests with many old-growth characteristics. Features such as standing dead timber, downed woody debris, multiple age classes – including many 150-year-plus specimens – and a healthy humus layer provide optimal habitat for many of Penn’s Woods’ most treasured species, including: winter wren, Acadian flycatcher, black-throated green warbler, blackburnian warbler, magnolia warbler, Swainson’s thrush, brown creeper, blue-headed vireo, cerulean warbler, yellow-bellied flycatcher, brook trout, goshawk, barred owl, fisher and lynx; many slow-dispersing spring ephemeral wildflowers, such as painted trillium and dwarf ginseng; most lungless salamanders, which can take over a hundred years to re-colonize a clearcut; and unknown numbers of native ferns, mosses, liverworts, lichens, fungi and invertebrates.

Actually, this situation is not atypical of forest ecosystems anywhere in the world. At least among charismatic megafauna, the number of species completely intolerant to human disturbance is very small, but the number that depend on the continuation of something very like what they evolved in is – as one would expect – very large. Many advocates for the timber industry like to point to studies that show edge and early-succession species declining, but in some cases these are species native to the Midwest whose ranges have expanded only in recent times as the land was cleared. In other cases they are species that might have been naturally rare, dependent on natural clearings resulting from the occasional stand-clearing ice storm or tornado.

Concerns about balancing the needs of humans with those of other animals are very appropriate. By why should one species monopolize 90 percent of natural resources and dominate virtually every bioregion? There’s something awfully depressing about the idea that every species and natural community on the planet persists only because human beings have decided they can tolerate its presence. This is a far, far cry from the view of Creation expressed by the Voice out of the whirlwind in the Book of Job. To pretend that we can and should manage all of nature is sheer hubris. And a narrow, species-by-species approach to conservation not only misses the larger picture, it ignores the magnitude of what we have lost in terms of sheer plant and animal biomass. The forests of pre-Columbian North America – lightly managed by human beings for millennia, mostly through fire – teemed with wildlife. Seventeenth-century explorers and settlers were nearly unanimous in their astonishment at the great numbers and diversity of fish, foul and game, even though to some it seemed forbidding, a “waste and howling wilderness.” Somewhere along the line, the Biblical vision of wilderness as a place of testing and transformation had been replaced by a fear and hatred of the untamed that haunts us to this day.

Everyone likes nice, park-like woods with great big trees and very little messy understory. Pure stands of old-growth hemlock or spruce can certainly inspire reverence, but they don’t come close to satisfying the ecological definition of old-growth, which includes trees of all ages and conditions – and much more besides. Conservationists err in putting too much emphasis on protecting stands of big trees and not enough on the need to recover old-growth forested landscapes – the natural condition for at least ninety percent of Pennsylvania and most other eastern states.

How much old-growth does wildlife need? All it can get. We need to relearn humility and begin to heed that Voice out of the whirlwind. We need to welcome natural disturbances and recognize them as blessings in disguise rather than “natural disasters” ripe for “salvage.” Many more insect outbreaks and some wildfires on public land could be allowed to run their course. Public and private land managers could do a much better job at grouping and connecting stands of “legacy trees” within timbered areas. Herpetologists tell us that uncut buffers around wetlands of all kinds should be measured in the hundreds of yards rather than in the tens or hundreds of feet, as is currently the practice (if we’re lucky). Most forested headwater areas should never be cut to protect hydrology and downstream organisms, such as our increasingly beleaguered native mussels. And all this presumes success in controlling the biggest on-going scourges of Pennsylvania forests: white-tailed deer overbrowsing, air pollution (including acid rain), and fragmentation from roads and sprawl. I don’t think any of these problems are anywhere near as severe in the Big Woods of Arkansas. But unless and until we address them, biodiversity here will continue to decline.

One way or another, it’s almost a given that Coyote – patron of unforeseen consequences – will have the last laugh.
__________

UPDATE: Mark just e-mailed me with a couple corrections (which I have made), and added the following thought:

The geography of the lower Mississippi valley alluvial swamps (bottomland hardwood forests) is similar in character to the varzea of Amazonia, though of course with the leveeing of the Mississippi River and side rivers, flooding is not nearly as extreme as it once was. However, the geomorphology is very similar, and includes huge oxbow lakes – the largest in the Americas north of Amazonia are in the Delta.

My point is that humans have lived and farmed Amazonia, and seasonally the varzea forest, for millennia, using swidden rotation (slash and burn) which involves small clearcuts. This does not mean the Amazonia (or the Peten in Guatemala, for that matter) are “second-growth”; it means that human populations are low enough that human disturbance regimes are simply another form of forest modification. Indeed, swidden, the world’s oldest form of agriculture (or horticulture), is successful in that it mimics natural treefall dynamics, widely believed to be the disturbance regime that is most important in helping create the awesomely high biodiversity of the Amazon.

When human populations swell and elite/capitalist greed enter into the equation, forests are wiped out. It is all in the temporal and spatial scale at which the destruction is taking place, however: this can quite rapid, or over decades or even centuries. Essentially, does the local human population absolutely depend on a healthy ecosystem, or not? Economics and governance are at the heart of it.

A few words from the Original Nittany Lion™

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Meow, fuckers. That’s me-fucking-ow. I’m sure glad I can’t see my own reflection here in the glass. Talk about a ridiculous taxidermy job!

But I am the original Nittany Lion, and don’t you forget it. That’s Mount Nittany rising behind me in this cheesy fucking diorama. And here I am, believe it or not, crouching in the exact spot where Beaver Stadium will someday be built. Has been built. Whatever. I’ve been dead for like a hundred and twenty-five years, O.K.? My mind ain’t what it used to be.

Plus, I mean, this is bullshit. A lion at Beaver Stadium. Does that make sense to you? Me neither. Plus, I never set foot in the area. My ass got shot in, like, Pike County or some shit. 1880-something. You can feel up the buttons on the handy touch-screen interpretive thingy there to the left of the display case, if you’re real curious.

Hey, get your mouth away from the glass, kid! You’re scaring me!

Beavers? Yeah, we lions used to have ’em for breakfast. Not much to my taste – kind of oily, you know? Except for the tails. Those were choice! But here’s the thing: back when y’all still had mountain lions – or painters, as you inbred cow-bangers liked to call us – the beavers weren’t nearly the nuisance they are now. Not that there were any less of them – hell, there were more! It’s just that they kept to the water when they knew that there were lions and wolves in the neighborhood, just waiting to get all predacious on their ass. And more beavers packed in closer to the water – think about it, if that’s not too much to ask. More dammed creeks means more marshes and eventually more wet meadows, right?

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usCan you see where I’m going with this? No? What the hell do they teach you kids nowadays? I was like the plant cop, y’all! And all the birds and dragonflies and whatnot – I was their superhero protector, know what I’m saying? And it was that way everywhere, every habitat you can think of. Way up on the rocks, on just about every one of these ridges, you got – or had – a critter y’all call the Allegheny wood rat. Not too common anymore. Can’t find ’em on Nittany Mountain, the Seven Mountains – hell, they’re just about gone from this neck of the woods. Why? Too many mid-sized predators – especially those fucking raccoons. They go everywhere now, carrying their lousy roundworm with them. Act like they own the place. Ha!

And deer? Y’all are talking like it’s just a matter of over-population. As if the way y’all have fucked up Pennsylfuckingvania – more roads than any other state, houses and shopping malls out the wazoo – as if that has nothing to do with it. It has everything to do with it. That, and the fact that you wiped out all of us lions and wolves.

It’s just like with the beavers. It ain’t like we killed that many. But we kept ’em scared. They lay low all year round, not just during the couple months of the year when you send your pumpkin-colored Nimrods out to fire at anything that flashes a white ass. When deer are lying low, guess what? They’re not eating much. And guess what else? When they do go to eat, they do it very, very cautiously – no hanging out in forest openings and on riverbanks and whatnot. You think it’s a coincidence that your native streamside and forest plants are disappearing? Think again.

Yeah, so here I am at this fucking cow college on steroids, the Original Nittany Lion, stuck in a display case at the library. The real-deal mascot, he’s carved out of stone. Looks all heroic and shit, not a sad sack like me. Hell, that thing got so popular they completely forgot I existed. I spent half the last century on loan to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, stuck in a basement storeroom with the moths and the spiders. The only complete specimen of an Eastern Cougar, out of the hundreds of thousands that were killed for bounty, and I didn’t get any respect whatsoever.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usBut we’re comin’ back. Yeah, I know, there’s a lot of dumb-ass white folks who think there’s a cougar behind every tree – just like Elvis Lives and the space aliens abducted Aunt Minnie. But some of these mountain lion sightings in places like Maine and Missouri – they got it on video. Not to mention those inbred fuckers down in Florida. Plus, they found roadkilled cougar kittens in Kentucky three years ago, folks. They did a DNA analysis: one parent was from North America, one from South America. So the new Eastern Cougar will not be genetically pure, but who the hell cares? Long as we get the job done. Like that cat down there in suburban Chester County, Pennsylvania. A release or an escape, who knows? But the fact is, he survived in the not-so-wild for years till they finally drug him in.

See, we don’t need the Big Woods, we just need a prey base and a few good places to digest a meal in relative peace. The females like wilderness to raise their families in, but we’ll take what we can get. Including little Jimmy – yum! But I don’t think you need to worry too much about that. When’s the last time you saw a kid outdoors? Except for those fat fuckers on their ATVs.

I got two words for ATV riders: fast food. If you got housecats, you know what I’m talking about: there’s nothing a cat enjoys more than a nice, moving target!

But someday soon the oil runs low and it’s no more free lunch time, no more shipping food halfway around the fucking world, no more chemical fertilizer and all that. All you fuckers will come here to study farming – you know, like growing food? But there won’t be no more hunters ’cause the little fat kids never learned how, so you’ll be up to your ass in white-tailed deer and then you will thank Whomever for any free-roaming lions you can find. You’ll be so fucking grateful to us, you’ll probably even send out a virgin now and then just to keep us happy. That stone statue at the Nittany Lion shrine? They’ll start finding, like, blood on it and shit. Hell yeah.

Put that in your pot pipe and smoke it. Then you can sing about loving Mother Earth all you want, go hug your fertilizer-enhanced trees and play hacky-sack on Penn State’s world-famous, genetically engineered, poison-laden turf grass. Happy Earth Day, fuckers.

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Monsters of God

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I’m exhausted. I spent most of last night battling, or running and hiding from, Evil.

They weren’t full-fledged nightmares – I’m a lucid enough dreamer to nip those in the bud, usually by waking myself up and going to the bathroom, as I did around midnight. But it is a tribute to the hold of monsters and demons on the imagination that I returned to the same dream when I fell back asleep.

I can’t remember many of the details now, but the monsters were basically alien invaders of indeterminate form who had the power to assume human shape. You could recognize them only when they opened their mouths, literally and figuratively: their voices were strange and machine-like, and they had many rows of monstrous teeth. (This has precedent for me not only in the movie Coneheads, but also in the 14th century classic of English mysticism The Cloud of Unknowing, where we are told that the devil is anthropomorphic in every respect except that his mouth lacks a roof. Someone checking his upper jaw for cavities would see the fires of hell roaring away inside his skull – which vision would produce instant and irreversible insanity.)

And of course my dream monsters were very hard, if not impossible, to kill. I say “of course” because everyone reading this has had similar dreams, and has doubtless seen many of the same horror and sci-fi movies I have. It’s a truism to observe that the supposed Death of God has barely touched beliefs in monsters and demons; alien abduction stories fit the mold of the time-honored, nearly universal demon-possession motif. A widespread perception of wolves and big cats as vicious killers hampers well-meaning efforts to reintroduce top carnivores, despite statistics showing that attacks by domestic dogs are far more dangerous. (In terms of annual human fatalities, the deadliest animal by far is the mosquito. When was the last time you had nightmares about a mosquito?)

The very fine natural history writer David Quammen has a new book out called Monsters of God, which has been garnering very good reviews; I’ll be anxious to see what he makes of these issues. The book is billed as a report on the status of man-eating carnivores around the world, most of which are now endangered or seriously threatened by poaching and/or habitat destruction. This raises not only ethical dilemmas but epistemological issues, it seems to me. Aside from the keystone ecological roles played by top carnivores, might they be said to play a keystone role in the human imagination?

I believe it was Bruce Chatwin, in Songlines, who proposed a direct link between human evolutionary biology and mythology (I don’t have the book in front of me). He cited ample evidence that our hominid ancestors co-evolved with large, predatory cats, which became extinct (or were driven to extinction?) a scant million years ago or so. Thus, the terror of being stalked and killed is in some measure “hard-wired” into our genetic makeup, because a healthy fear of Things That Go Bump in the Night would’ve been a highly advantageous trait. Those among our potential ancestors who entertained a less fearful or more romantic view of Wild Nature would’ve achieved a mystical oneness with powers greater than themselves somewhere in the digestive track of a saber-toothed tiger.

I maintain that the continued existence of big critters than can eat us (and gladly will, given half a chance) is essential to the health of the human spirit. Large carnivores remind of us our place in the overall scheme of things; they serve as teachers and role models for the proper use of violence; and through our continued coexistence with them we learn to master fear and hatred, which otherwise can transform us into the very monsters we most hate. Let me outline each of these arguments in turn.

Knowing our place

Man-eating tigers, crocodiles, rhinos and the like help keep us humble. By humble, I don’t mean subservient to so-called higher powers. However much the dog-like dominance hierarchies of human social arrangements may suggest otherwise, in Nature, as Heraclitus first pointed out, there is no absolute high or low, no up or down. The Great Chain of Being is in fact a food web – a perfectly Deleuzian rhizomatic structure. Rather, as the Sufi thinker Idries Shah maintained, humility is a technical requirement for the advancement of understanding. At its most basic, it grows from a healthy awareness of the relative (in)significance of the individual ego and of humanity as a whole. It’s no accident that God’s “answer” to Job out of the whirlwind (itself a symbol of fearful, greater-than-human realities) culminates in lengthy descriptions of Behemoth and Leviathan. These are the archetypal Monsters of God.

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?
Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?
Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens? . . .
His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth . . .
The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold: the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon.
He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood . . .
(see Job, Chapter 41)

Note the language of covenant here. The author implies that by lording it over wild animals, man is playing God without any real sense of the responsibilities this entails. In the world of the Old Testament, excessive pride is seen as sinful because it implies the assumption of undeserved powers: see the Tower of Babel; Lucifer; Nebuchadnezzer; etc.

The scholar James Kugel, in his very accessible introduction to the Old Testament The Great Poems of the Bible (Free Press, 1999), stresses the ancient Hebrews’ quite different estimation of the importance of self from our own. “A human being just is very small, and God . . . is ‘very big.’ In other words, it is not (or not simply) that biblical man cannot conceive of the world without God for some mechanistic reason – because, for example, the world could not function without God. Rather it is first and foremost that he cannot conceive of himself without God, without, that is, some notion of how he and the rest of the little creatures down here fit into the much, much larger world. [H]is own capacities . . . extend only so far, and if he is to be able to understand anything of the world beyond them, he needs to fit himself into the world, he needs a source of reference beyond himself.”

Kugel quotes Psalm 104, that great hymn to the powers of Creation:

Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.
The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.
(Psalm 104:20-22)

This is a far cry from the modern worldview. Even those who call themselves fundamentalists are convinced of human mastery over the cosmos – in fact, they are often in the vanguard of those who call for the commercial exploitation of wilderness and the eradication of large carnivores from what they consider to be at most a semi-wild playground for human beings. Where the authors of the Bible envisioned a non-human realm filled and ordered by an essentially playful, often violent Creator and his creatures, we see frontiers, open space, resources.

Playing god, crying wolf

“But really,” a secularist reader might argue, “however you might decry it, there’s no turning back now. Humans have simply altered the biosphere too much not to play God. In fact, it would be irresponsible now to shirk our god-like responsibility to act as planetary managers. For without wise stewardship, without planning on a massive scale, there will be social and environmental chaos.”

There’s some appeal to this argument – and little doubt that the arguments of libertarians to the contrary are regularly used to downplay or excuse the crimes of the biggest despoilers of land and water and the most oppressive exploiters of human beings. But I tend to agree with the libertarians about the risks of assuming that we could ever possess the wisdom that would be required to impose a New World Order. And I wonder if true wisdom is even compatible with the kinds of judgements that are involved in running a state or managing a trans-state entity like a global corporation or the U.N.

Let’s return briefly to the Bible – although many other ancient texts and accounts from modern ethnography might serve just as well. Again and again the reader is told that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” This is, I’m afraid, one of those notions that keeps everyone but discipline-happy and obedience-prone fundamentalists from fully enjoying the Old Testament. Unless we cling to a narrow definition of wisdom as the internalization of a set of rules, how can fear possibly have any positive side effects? Isn’t God just a synonym for love writ large? How can divine love possibly inspire fear?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in God in Search of Man (Jewish Publication Society, 1959), says that the word usually translated as “fear” in this context – yirah – should actually be rendered as “awe.” Heschel defines awe as “the sense of wonder or humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery.” It is, he says, an essential prerequisite to faith. The person who simply fears punishment, in this life or the next, is “considered inferior in Jewish tradition.”

“In a sense, awe is the antithesis of fear,” Heschel continues. “To feel ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’ is to feel ‘Whom shall I fear?’ (Psalms 27:1).” I am a little skeptical that the distinction between awe and fear can be so neatly drawn. But I concur wholeheartedly with Heschel’s conclusion: “Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the universe becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the great block to insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom . . . ”

The disastrous consequences of reductionist thinking, of turning the world into a market place, are all around us. To cite just a few of the latest outrages, planned or on-going: drilling for oil in the fragile arctic tundra, home to one of the last fully intact ecosystems in the Northern hemisphere; developing gas fields all along the Rocky Mountain Front; draining aquifers of fossil water to pump coal slurry hundreds of miles through the desert of Arizona; clearcutting old-growth forests to make particle board and disposable chopsticks. These examples are obvious and can easily be multiplied.

A more insidious consequence of the loss of awe is the unthinking, society-wide acceptance of the proposition that humans can and should manage Nature for their own benefit. Questions of scale and time-frame are usually tossed aside. Discussions of the ethics of new technologies such as cloning and genetic engineering tend to devolve into narrow considerations of human self-interest, sometimes expanded to include questions about what might happen to ‘the environment’ if, say, genetically engineered traits escape into the wild. But the operative assumptions are baseless fantasies: that human self-interest is an obvious, measurable and culturally neutral thing; and that it can be separated from the interests of non-human species and of the biosphere at large.

With all due respect to George Orwell, it seems to me that we are closer to the antiseptic horror of Brave New World than the slave-state of 1984. Technologies that will allow parents to pre-determine the sex of their offspring, and possibly many other traits as well, are already coming into use. To accept such decision making as normal and rational is to forego far more access to freedom than we would lose through simple tyranny, for in this case it is the freedom of Nature itself that is being infringed upon. The same argument may be made against genetic engineering, nuclear power, and the production of chemicals that have no analogue in nature and no precedent in evolutionary history. In each case we are trying to fit Creation into a container of our own making, and in each case we our courting doom.

In the Bible, as we have seen, Wild Nature is Creation at its most elemental. We in the West derive much of our sense of wilderness from the Bible, of course. Wilderness is not merely the mirror-image of the pastoral realm; it is also a source of refuge – even salvation. Moses leads the Hebrews through the wilderness for forty years to acclimate them to their new-found relationship with Yahweh; Jesus fasts in the desert for forty days before he fully accepts his own role. Fields must be rested every seventh year – allowed to grow wild – to regain their vigor. Every seven-times-seventh year, during the jubilee, land must be not only rested but redistributed equally among the people. That’s because land is not ultimately owned by human beings, but held in trust for them by God: that is to say, it is ultimately free.

In the Hebrew Bible, major infractions of the covenantal relationship with God lead to droughts, crop-destroying hailstorms, plagues of locusts – what we would call environmental consequences. And when God reclaims land, it returns to its original state of wild (i.e. willful, self-willed) freedom. In the wilderness the wild donkey roams free of the halter; storms and whirlwinds wreak their fury; young lions and baby eagles scream for blood. What might be seen as disastrous in the human realm is an integral part of the awesome grandeur of Creation.

What we know of ecology bears out the intuitions of the ancient Hebrews, which are shared to a great degree by indigenous peoples around the world. Our attempts to manage land and water for economic ends usually involve the radical curtailing of natural processes that appear inconvenient and highly destructive. Streams and rivers that regularly flood their banks must be channelized, diverted, contained by levees, locks and dams. Wildfires must be prevented. Trees felled by natural disturbances must be “salvaged.” Insect and disease outbreaks must be battled through every means necessary. In all these cases, attempts to place limits on the violent power of Nature involves us in the perpetration of far greater violence against the health and integrity of ecosystem processes.

Not surprisingly, the professionals charged with managing our public lands strongly resist any implication that their efforts might be counter-productive. Never mind that some ecosystems must burn; that regular floods, tornadoes, icestorms, insect outbreaks, etc. are part of natural disturbance regimes. Never mind that essential processes such as pollination, plant-fungus interactions and nutrient and water cycles are endangered by the interruption or prevention of those processes. Never mind that effective land management in many cases is oxymoronic, predicated upon knowledge that is fragmentary or non-existent. The notion that some areas should simply be left alone (after some minimal restoration efforts) is anathema to the managerial ethos. Indeed, many higher-level bureaucrats in the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management appear to agree with their counterparts in industry: that self-willed land has been “locked up.” Freedom is Slavery!

Wilderness advocates and opponents alike say that the distinction between humans and Nature is artificial, and so it is. Perhaps in another century or two we will achieve the wisdom that many American Indian tribes once possessed, and “wise use” will no longer be a grotesque caricature of true, thoughtful stewardship. But what strikes me about the whole wilderness debate is the absence of any recognition that wilderness – broadly defined – is not so much a realm where human beings are absent, but where larger-than-human realities are present.

Chief among those realities, of course, are the Wild Things that can Eat You Up. Kids love monsters, as Maurice Sendak understood: it’s somehow fun to be scared. Campfire ghost stories and monsters under the bed are inescapable facts of childhood. And well into their adulthood, many people here in the East (for example) remain convinced that cougars are still out there, in the semi-mythical back-of-beyond – and many people are actually excited by the possibility! “The truth is out there,” as agent Mulder says about extraterrestrials. And maybe it is.

Keystone predators

This is more than an idle dream (or errant nightmare). Recent biological research is bearing out the intuition that predation is an essential part of the natural scheme. It is not simply a matter of populations of prey species becoming too large in the absence of natural predators. In fact, populations of many species are controlled by predation, but less directly than the way we suppose. Studies of large herbivores have shown that the healthy fear of predation is much more important than the actual number of killings, which would be too small in aggregate to constitute much of an effect. This fear is healthy not only for individuals of the prey species, whose chance of survival is thereby maximized, but also for many other species in the same ecosystem.

If predators are removed from an ecosystem, large herbivores like deer and elk quickly lose their fear of browsing in the open year-round. (Hunting seasons enforce only a temporary reversion to more natural behavior.) They tend to congregate in larger groups, during daytime hours, and simply spend a lot more time feeding – leading to higher reproduction rates and population explosions. Biologists refer to this as a switch from time-minimizing to energy-maximizing behavior. Sensitive environments such as streambanks and natural forest openings are suddenly much more vulnerable to over-browsing. As populations expand, whole suites of plant species can disappear along with everything that depends upon them for food or habitat.

When top carnivores are reintroduced, the ripple effects can be far-reaching. Mid-sized predators are forced to alter their behavior along with herbivores, and their numbers will drop in a similar manner. Populations of many species of birds, small mammals and other prey of these mid-sized predators will rebound. At the same time, brushy, edge and herbaceous habitats will begin to recover, with positive repercussions for many more species and for the recovery of other ecosystem functions. Streamside alders – essential food for beavers – may successfully sprout after a century of severely arrested development: this has been the case in Yellowstone following the reintroduction of wolves. Beavers play a keystone role in the creation of wetland habitats. Even though they are directly preyed upon by wolves – which places a severe restriction on how far they can go from water, hence limiting the size and shape of their disturbances – beavers benefit enormously from the presence of wolves in the ecosystem.

Biologists still have a lot to learn: for example, how do different species of “top” carnivores, such as wolves, cougars and grizzlies, interact within a single landscape, and what might be the ecological ramifications of those relationships? The state of scientific knowledge is limited in part because of the success of bounty programs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in removing carnivores from much of North America. These programs had the blessing of wildlife managers of the time, who were heirs to a Christian or Manichaean worldview that saw herbivores as good and predators as useless parasites whose removal, it was thought, would lead to the natural equivalent of utopia. This experiment failed as catastrophically as contemporaneous movements to create a socialist paradise (though doubtless for different reasons).

Unfortunately, however, we need specialized training – not just awe and humility – simply to perceive the damage wrought by this failed attempt to play God. Humans are adaptable animals; a short memory can be a distinct blessing in a world filled with terrors. And who really wants to be told that the pleasingly park-like forest where we go running and the nice, open lakeshore where we go for picnics are actually radically simplified, impoverished landscapes that fewer and fewer other species can call home? Who doesn’t thrill to the grace and beauty of a doe nuzzling her fawn, and shudder to think of the fangs and claws that honed such perfection through millions of years of co-evolution?

Beware more beasts

I still remember my first true encounter with existential terror. I think I must’ve been around 14. I was lying on my back in the field, looking up at the night sky, when all of a sudden I felt chilled to the core by the thought of all that “outer space” that was not and would never be human. I suppose the best way to express it would be to say that it was an encounter with supreme indifference. I realized in the most immediate and visceral way imaginable that everything humans think they knew about the universe is most likely, simply wrong. As I continued to stare upwards, I had the sensation that I was looking up into a gaping mouth with countess burning teeth, opening wider and wider.

Was this the kind of awe that leads to faith? I don’t know. But there’s no doubt it was a profoundly humbling experience. Heshel makes the important distinction that God is not the mystery itself but the revealer of mysteries; certainly I did not for a moment feel any impulse to worship the “outer space monster” that had intruded upon my imagination. But now that I think about it, I wonder if my immediate re-visioning of a cold indifference into a kind of fire-breathing monster wasn’t, in fact, an attempt to humanize the mystery? Isn’t this what the shaman does: stamp a human face on every part of the cosmos? Endow every sublime and mysterious thing with sentience, such that even the most terrible beings display a predator’s fond regard for its prey?

Presumably, anyone given to the kinds of thoughts and impressions I habitually entertained as a teen would have been prepared for shamanic initiation in a gatherer-hunter society. But while a shaman-to-be would often allow himself (or herself) to be symbolically eaten by a future power-animal, most if not all members of such societies would seek a relationship with a spirit guardian, often personified (yes, that’s the right word!) as an animal. The near-universality and apparent great antiquity of such practices led the eco-philosopher Paul Shepard (The Others) to speculate about “how the animals made us human.” Neanderthals, as far as we know, did not paint animals on cave walls; recent thinking depicts them without symbolic language, and hence without the cultural flexibility to adapt to the violent and abrupt climatic shifts of the Paleolithic.

Genocide against these competing hominids may have been our original sin. Be that as it may, there is mounting evidence that the megafauna of the Americas, which evolved in the absence of humans, was driven to rapid extinction by the Paleolithic invaders of 14,000 B.P. It is interesting that virtually every modern hunting people investigated by ethnographers in the last 150 years evinces a deep sense of angst about the necessity of killing. A sense of human fallenness seems a near-universality.

In indigenous worldviews, the prey animals must be implored in advance and propitiated after the fact for the gift (or loan) of their bodies. Often there are mythical Owners of the game who must also be propitiated. Strict rules (“taboos”) govern every aspect of the hunt and subsequent use of the animal. No part of a carcass may be tossed idly aside or otherwise treated with disrespect. Can we really say, with the spectres of Mad Cow Disease and regular e-coli outbreaks hovering over our antiseptic supermarket shelves, that these beliefs are so much superstition?

Christians would do well to remember that they are alone among the three Peoples of the Book in lacking a ritual analogue to these most ancient codes of reverential conduct toward our non-human brethren. From my perspective, as an outsider to all three religions, it does seem as if, in rejecting the minutely detailed halakhic superstructure of the “scribes and Pharisees,” Christianity deprived itself of a great source of complexity and nuance. The radically simplified mental landscape of the religion of St. Paul proved all to easy to subvert: with the conversion of Constantine, “love thine enemy” became “in hoc signo vinces.” A kind of schizophrenia crept in. The book of Revelation swarms with fevered nightmares of beasts, paranoid visions of cosmic evil and power-fantasies about a sacrificial lamb come back to life as a super-carnivore. And the Church became more Roman than the Romans in its fanatic determination to extract confessions and punish all thought-crimes with torture and execution.

Thankfully, the worst excesses of extreme dualism were kept at arm’s length. But there’s little doubt in my mind that our on-going war against the wild has deep roots in Christian tradition, whatever its ultimate origin (the Greeks, the Persians, the ideology of the Roman empire). Rebels against God included not simply heretics but wizards and witches (eventually meaning anyone with access to unofficial knowledge or power) and all the monsters of the bestiaries. The brutish, speech-deprived wild man was the archetypal enemy of the knight-errant in the mythology that grew out of the Crusades and formed the first truly popular literature after the introduction of the printing press. As most of us know only from reading Cervantes’ brilliant send-up of the genre, such romance novels were all the rage during the decades that saw the Conquest of the New World and the beginnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“Love thine enemy” may or may not be too idealistic a formulation. But common sense alone suggests that respect must be extended toward our opponents, our adversaries, toward everything with the power to harm us. The cumulative wisdom of the ages – based on reverence, which is respect taken to a higher power – teaches that whatever has the power to harm may also heal us. The figure of the monster is thus deeply ambiguous. Our natural discomfort with ambiguity leads us to try to capture and confine it in one of two mental cages: either as an all-malevolent demon, or as a cuddly stuffed animal (cf. Defenders of Wildlife’s ever-popular version of the Gray Wolf).

I greatly fear that without the continuing presence of wolves, bears, jaguars, tigers, crocodiles, sharks and the like, an irreplaceable treasure house of visions to counter human self-centeredness will be lost. Our descendents will forget that there ever was such a thing as a beast whose violence was not only not malevolent, but could even be seen as necessary and beautiful. Already our children’s impressions of Wild Nature are shaped largely by Walt Disney, even as we teach them to fear the all-too-real human monsters that actively wish them harm.* Already, we in the United States are reverting to a medieval view of righteousness beset by cosmic evil, of barbarians at the gates (when in fact the barbarians are in charge). A universal myopia threatens to leave us forever suspended between utopia and dystopia: Don Quixote’s impossible dream unable to hide the horror of the endlessly recapitulated Conquest. Genocide, ecocide: we become what we most fear. “Feed my lambs,” said the gentle voice on Rwandan public radio over and over on the morning when the state-sanctioned killing began. God help us all.
____________
*See The illusion of safety in Creek Running North for a valuable corrective to the society-wide perception of the risk of child-snatching.