Environmental Quandary

I am struck again by the apparently incompatible concept of man and nature. When we intrude into nature, do we decrease its nature-ness?

But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.”

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

It may be that wilderness represents all that is good in nature. Edward O. Wilson’s Half Earth approach calls for complete separation of man and wilderness. I can relate to the incompatibility of some human activities to natural settings, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea that man’s very existence represents a negative force in the universe.

Camping in the Zirkel Wilderness Area near Steamboat Springs, we were disturbed by the arrival of a rancher on an ATV, scoping out areas for his commercial hunting business in the fall. It was intrusive, illegal and rude. The noise disturbed a much larger area than the physical presence. It took a while for us to calm down after he left, and I imagine that the other animals in the area had the same reaction.

However, I’ve also hiked a busy park above Denver where the lone doe was comfortable enough with my passing by ten feet away to merely watch that I stayed on the trail. It was still exhilarating to see the animal and to be that close to it, not in a zoo or on video, but in person. If the deer is attuned to human behavior and not that uncomfortable with us, does that make it less of a deer? Is it less of a wilderness experience if other humans were non-obtrusively present? Can I not be as comfortable with human presence as the deer was?

In some quarters, we seem to relish the idea that once touched by human hands, nature is forever tainted. My experience, professionally in cleaning up contaminated sites and personally in finding traces of past human activity in remote and seemingly natural areas, tells me that nature can recover from much human impact. It is now thought that the vast natural untouched Amazon forests were once cultivated on small islands in the Amazon floodplain. Many of the trees were planted and groomed to provide sustenance to the native inhabitants. No doubt this kind of recovery is a matter of degree and specific actions, but in my mind, it counters the ‘evil humanity’ concept as much as history has disproved the ‘noble savage’ ideal.

I wholly believe that humans and nature do not need to be treated as separate systems, but should be able to work in unison. Maybe it’s a matter of degree, a question of successful integration.

For all our technological achievements, our very lives tremble upon the delicate scales of nature. We are as ultimately dependent upon the ancient verities of land and sky as were the prehistoric cliff dwellers.”

Frank Waters

We know that exposure to nature is not only healthy to humans, but likely a requirement. Whether it’s exposure to Vitamin D, healthy microbes and essential oils, stress reduction, or just the physical exercise we receive, nature, by all accounts, is necessary in our lives. It’s also something visceral, innate, that makes us happy; grateful to be alive.

Integration can occur at different scales and scope — at world or continental levels or as intimate as our personal space. We can clean up the oceans and save the whales, and at the same time we can pick up trash and plant bee-friendly flowers. Indeed, I believe our greatest challenge is to remember to do both, to keep up the momentum on the greater issues without losing sight of the earth beneath our feet.

I think the hardest part of this integration effort is in-between these two extremes, the middle ground where we experience the art of living, working and surviving. As a society, we make decisions all the time that have a huge impact on nature and on the quality of our lives. Battles are fought over regional and local issues both monumental and trivial, and our disagreements over both the content and importance of each issue creates seemingly unresolvable conflict. Decisions are thus left to elected officials and bureaucrats (in the U.S.) and are likely to satisfy neither extreme view.

But we can influence those decisions and help to shape our local world to be a better place for us humans and for nature. We need to advocate for ourselves, and for those without a voice, whether they be human or not.

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