|Wildlife: Look, don't touch, never approach. (Photo © Photodisc)|
Last year, a Washington Post article suggested that new and benign attitudes towards orcaskiller whalesmay ironically endanger them; the sheer quantity of pursuing boats, packed with eager killer whale-watchers, may disrupt the feeding, communication, and cohesion of the orca pods. Could increased wildlife tourism affect the survival of wolves, for example?
Thankfully, the backcountry of Greater Yellowstone offers wolves an enormous sanctuaryseven million acres, the vast majority of which is limited to those traveling by foot or horse. That said, I'm often amazed to see people approaching wildlifeelk, bison, even bearalong the roads of Yellowstone. Several years ago, I stumbled across a woman trying to place her six year-old son next to a bull elk for a photo. While elk can be hazardous at any time of year, this was during the fall rut, when bulls tend to be extremely aggressive. When I pointed this out she was incensed. "The Park Service wouldn't let these animals run around if they were dangerous," she snapped. If we truly care about these animals, we have to be willing to give them the space necessary to their wildness.
Wolves have been described as having a "bad rap-sheet." In another of your books, Shouting at the Sky, you take a look at a different misunderstood speciesthe troubled teen. Is the synergy between healing and nature your guiding light? Does this perspective stem from particular personal experiences?
If I can be said to have spent the first half of my writing career focusing on the tracks we've left in natureeulogies for lost placesthe latter half has been more about the tracks that nature leaves in us. Following a group of troubled teens through a compassionate, highly successful wilderness program for Shouting at the Sky left me with new thoughts about the value of wild places.
In talking about why this program worked so well for them, often when every other kind of intervention had failed, these kids mentioned repeatedly three benefits of being in the wild: community, beauty, and wonder (what mythologists often refer to as transcendent mystery; the relationship we build to that part of the world beyond our understanding). Unlike the bogus "wilderness" in programs like Survivor, meeting the challenges of living in nature prompted a sense of community by allowing every girl and boy to realize how important they were to the well-being of the group. ("It was the first place where what I did mattered," said almost every graduate of the program.) The second benefit, beauty, is beauty as the ancient Greeks understood it: a dynamic force, capable of pulling humans out of "stuck places" into the current of their particular calling. Finally, the kids spoke of the wilderness giving them a sense of connection to something "bigger than me"the transcendent mystery hinted at in so many of the world's myths.
My own experiences as a teen no doubt helped lay the groundwork for my interest in the healing aspects of nature. Nature is a place free of judgment or expectations; for a kid it can provide much-needed space from the pressure to perform. Even more intriguing, as you get to know the wild, it's easy to notice that it absolutely thrives on diversitythe strength of a natural system can be measured by the range of species that inhabit it. This observation has great metaphorical value to young people, many of whom are struggling to find a niche for their own unique strengths and perspectives.
What is your take on eco-tourism? Can it be both sustainable and part of a wider development in approaches to tourism and exploration?
Clearly, eco-tourism can be a wonderful part of a sustainable economy. My biggest worry is that we increasingly expect from the wilds the same level of control, comfort, and entertainment now so common to our daily lives. Even Freud, who was hardly a nature buff, recognized the value of wild places as similar to that of personal fantasy: losing either one could lead to neurosis. In truth, wild lands are not just beautiful and inspiring, they are also fearsome and dangerous. Unlike in Freud's time, today's visitor often goes into the wilderness armed with a cell phone, GPS, and a host of other technology that brings security in the knowledge that rescue is close at hand. In doing so, however, I believe he or she also loses much of the spark and fire of the experience.
Going back to The Yellowstone Wolves, you show enormous respect for the intelligence and instincts of the wolves, highlighting one in particular, Number 10, a streetwise individual who is eventually shot by a local out on a beer run. Do you get frustrated at how we mismanage our stewardship of the planet?
Frustrated is an understatement. Our ancestors connected to the natural world through story and, contrary to popular belief, these were not tales intended to explain the "why" of anything. People in West Africa, for example, weren't telling the story of the hare climbing a spider web to steal the sun, and thus lighting the world for the first time, as some kind of pathetic substitute for astronomy. They told that story because hare was a clever animal, and cleverness was a trait they valued. Like people in other cultures, they celebrated that connection by building a bridge, and the bridge was fabricated as part of a story.
We've turned our backs on such stories, lost touch with how to satisfy the hunger that drives us to the natural world. As one leader of the Pit River Indians put it early in the 20th century, without story you will have no sense of place. You will not know who you are.
What can we do on a day-to-day basis to make a contribution?
It's not enough to defend nature, you have to practice it: grow a tomato plant, press a flower, pick raspberries, take a walk by the creek. Lose yourself in the wilderness.
Support groups dedicated to the preservation of habitat.
Be wary of groups who seem more concerned with the prestige of a single victory than with building broad-based conservation goals, built on cooperation as well as sound biology. These are the achievements that will last for generations to come.
Get rained on, be cold, get scared by lightning. Fight like hell against a vision of nature that's anything less than all we can imagine.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
Best Hotels in Helena