“It is not enough to know what you are fighting against: you must also know what you are fighting for.”
George Monbiot, Feral
“Well,” he replied to my question, “If I had lived back then I’d probably have died before I was ten.”
I thought a minute, then he pulled off his glasses. My father was quite near-sighted, which worked for accounting and the law, but would have been pretty dangerous in the prehistoric times.
“I probably would never have seen the saber-tooth coming before he had me,” he chuckled, “And, I also really like indoor toilets.”
We had that conversation years ago when I was a teen, talking about how cool some of the prehistoric animals were and how exciting it must have been back in those times. His comments got me to thinking about what we had now versus then, and it didn’t take me long to come up with a list of things that I wouldn’t want to give up: good food, good teeth, indoor toilets, bicycles, football, cheerleaders, Edgar Rice Burroughs books, hot showers, deodorant and toothbrushes. (Obviously my thinking was influenced to some degree by age … and hormones.)
Since then, when I contemplate nature or walk a trail, I think back to that concept of what it would be like to have lived back then. I cannot drive far in the west and see an open prairie, pine-covered mountain or canyon-strewn vista without envisioning what the early day trappers and explorers experienced. I’ve read much of their writing, and while adventurous, it seems they were quite ready to head back to the comforts of home when the time came.
We used to backpack into the mountains or canyons with our aluminum pack frames, well-fitted, light-weight boots, warm sleeping bags with pads, and nylon, easy-to-assemble tents. We could carry freeze-dried food that was often quite edible, and not have to hunt for our provisions. We carried tablets to disinfect our water and first-aid supplies for our cuts and blisters. We felt tough and adventurous, and at the end, usually ready to return to civilization with its soft beds, hamburgers, french fries and milk shakes.
We all need nature in our lives. Being outdoors calms and restores us, and helps to clear our minds of the daily clutter. I agree with others that we need more ‘wild’ in our lives. Some feed pigeons or squirrels, some hike or hunt, and some need to test the bounds of experience by climbing mountains, kayaking rivers or exploring the rain forest canopy.
As our civilization expands, we push nature into smaller and smaller spaces. The rarity of these spaces, and their popularity, makes them subject to overuse and abuse. We fight back by saving the whales or the pandas or the sage grouse without really understanding where we’re going with the effort.
What is it we really want? Can we frame the concept in a way that allows us to have our civilizing influences and for nature to have room to exist without constant management or interference from us?
While I support wilderness areas, nature refuges, conservation easements and such, those tools won’t get us to a point where we and nature coexist comfortably. Segregation is not a good long-term strategy, integration is required. We need to find out how we can successfully integrate into nature, and nature can successfully integrate into humanity.
It can happen naturally to some extent, most of the time, anyway. Vacant lands revert, mowed lawns sprout weeds, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and rabbits find their way into office parks and industrial sites, much less the suburbs. With a little thought and planning, we could enhance these natural tendencies and build upon them to make our habitat more nature-friendly.
Conversely, nature exists in all kinds of places that humans have given up on or not taken over yet. We can keep open spaces open, avoid using rough terrain for our purposes, and let unneeded areas go. Can we agree to just let those places be natural, free from human interference? Can we quit trying to manage wilderness and let it be wild?
Quite a few of our prized natural areas were former military bases or other places closed off to most access. Locally, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Rocky Flats Weapons Plant have become nature preserves with little human interference once their cleanup was complete. Never effectively excluded, nature has survived and rebounded, and offers an example for other kinds of places.
Most agree that climate change is going to wreak some havoc environmentally anyway, so maybe we need to stop trying to control all natural change. There’s plenty we can do to mitigate some human-induced impacts, but we seem to do so with little regard for where we want to end up. Remember, “I skate to where the puck will be.” attributed to Wayne Gretsky? So, where do we want to be?
We have plenty of opportunity to try on different futures in books, TV shows and movies. Zombies and space aliens aside, we have our choice of post-apocalyptic scenarios. Of course, those require an apocalypse, and I’m not sure we’re all doomed.
Maybe there are paths where our technology and science can lead us to a more balanced world, one where human and nature are not ‘us versus them’ but partners sharing our world. We know how to make our places more livable for us; now we need to figure out how to make them more livable for our natural denizens, and then go do it. Maybe if we get to know each other better, we’ll find that we have a lot in common, and maybe we can all just get along.
Of course, if the zombies do show up, I’m advocating for segregation.