Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Deep Desire to Live Somewhen Else


Many people are not happy with the place where they live. Maybe the neighborhood is bad. Maybe the climate does not agree with them. Maybe they are just restless. I have concluded that I would rather live in a different time. I have no desire to return to my childhood. This is not about a re-do on a personal level. We make the best of the cards we are dealt. This is about something bigger. This is about a longing for what was never allowed me because it was gone before I was born.

There is increasing evidence, if only anecdotal, of an "insect armageddon," which suggests the abundance and diversity of insects and related organisms are plummeting. We have already lost many once-populous species to the greed and ignorance of previous human generations. A planet devoid of even insects raises a specter that I am unwilling to contemplate, and a life I would not be able to endure, psychologically if not physically.

That is the thing about history. You will eventually learn about what you will never have the opportunity to experience.

You better believe I am angered that I have been deprived by my forefathers of the vast flocks of Passenger Pigeon, the antics of Carolina Parakeets, and the jaw-dropping icon that was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I can only see Bison on preserves and ranches, and on the ranches one suspects it is actually the hybrid "beefalo" that one is seeing. Meanwhile, I have a hard time looking at a salmon or trout without seeing a fish hatchery. There are still California Condors, but so few that each bird is fitted with huge, numbered tags, radio telemetry devices, and who knows what else. The bird's "recovery" is not a success story. Maybe it will be once they are no longer wearing the accessories of science, and are truly free to fly.

We have not just tamed the wild, we have diluted it beyond recognition in the name of risk assessment and public safety and public grazing, to name but a few agents of wilderness simplification. The national forests are national tree farms, and it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Forest Service is in the Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of the Interior where it ought to be.

Back to the past, the long ago that I long for. It would be wonderful to know the truth of the landscape that surrounds me today, to see what a riparian corridor looks like without Russian Olive everywhere. What is a foothills meadow without mullein? What is your eastern deciduous forest without an understory of Japanese Honeysuckle? Do I wish we could resurrect mastodons and mammoths? No. I draw the line at being a potential meal for a saber-toothed cat or a Dire Wolf. Furthermore, those were the days when our ancient ancestors were just surviving, without understanding of the ramifications of their actions.

Naturally, I would still want to bring my binoculars, digital camera, first aid kit, and waterproof jacket on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Perhaps I am guilty of romanticizing the age of the old growth hardwood bottomland forests with their gargantuan oaks and hickories before we started logging and draining the good kind of swamp. Old photographs and artwork paint pictures that are hard not to idealize when you are passionate about the natural heritage of this country. That is the thing about history. You will eventually learn about what you will never have the opportunity to experience.

Ah, but what would I give up in exchange for that bygone era? I do believe I would sacrifice the internet, television, maybe even electricity, especially because I would never know those innovations were on the horizon. Naturally, I would still want to bring my binoculars, digital camera, first aid kit, and waterproof jacket on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Sure, I would likely have a shorter lifespan, but at least I would enjoy that life more fully. Today, instead of California Condors gracing the skies, I am subjected almost daily to extremely loud military aircraft overhead. I would gladly trade noise and neon and traffic and the illusion of choice in the marketplace for something a lot simpler, with fewer losses of species.


We can reverse some of this, turn back the clock if you will. The grand experiment of reintroducing the Gray Wolf to Yellowstone National Park proves decisively that Mother Nature has a memory, and that when you bring back a piece of the puzzle, the whole thing fits together tighter and smoother. We need a historical spectrum of nature, from the initial stages of succession to the "finished" product, because we know there is no such thing as a permanent climax ecosystem. Even natural communities are ephemeral, but until now there have been multiple, continuous habitats that feed each other. They are now so isolated that there is no transfer of species and so invasives take command. We need to link the wild spaces with corridors to facilitate healing of the landscape.

It remains to be seen if I can continue to be as resilient as that landscape, how many times I can come back healthy, vibrant, committed to making the world a better place, acting on my vision of wholeness in every sense of the word. For now I am misplaced, a pioneer naturalist and writer in a domain that I had no conscious hand in architecting.


  1. From Michael Smith: "That’s what we do, right? Travel around searching for places as 'pre-Anthropocene' as possible. In the words of the band, October Project, “he’s got a funeral in his heart,” for beloved things he never knew and never will."

  2. It could be worse. Two hundred years from now, people will look back at the United States of 2018 as a relative wilderness.