by Martin Murie
(Swans - June 15, 2009) When President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, did he realize its radical nature? Probably not, but this Act by our now thoroughly-discredited Congress was an act of sharing the land with other species. It has been hammered again and again and finally illegally gutted by the Bush II Administration.
There is a huge chasm between American citizens who feel good about living with other species and those who don't give a damn. Why?
Increased urbanization plays a part, but urbanization creates, among other traits, extreme individualism. I'll digress, for an example, to Teton County where I grew up. Animals and their habitats were integral to our lives. Elk, mule deer, mountain sheep, toads, frogs, coyotes, snakes, hawks, and all other forms of life we discovered year by year; lives and ways of life different from our own, but embedded with ours. It could not have been otherwise. C'est la vie, that's all.
Federal land -- Elk Refuge, National Forests, National Parks -- kept the mountains and valleys relatively uninhabited by our species. That's still the case, but the attitudes are changed because the town, Jackson, is a typical, crowded tourist trap with all the trimmings, and here and there in the outlands rich weasel mansions have sprung up. Class differences recognized? Oh my, yes. There is a restaurant in the north end of town known as "where the working class has breakfast." Some workers travel over Teton Pass from Idaho each morning, or from the trailer village on the Snake River to their work places in Jackson. Affordable housing? Always a euphemism but doubly so in this valley town.
Enough of that, you get the picture. Even in the days when the town was invaded by animal habitats here and there, we kids drove pickups to hunt ground squirrels (Chiselers) with our twenty-twos and walked down Flat Creek looking for muskrats to shoot. When hunting season came around all residents were in the mountains "getting their elk" for a winter's supply of canned meat. Canning kettles were freely borrowed from one household to another. It was okay to shoot rabbits, bears, geese, ducks, but whenever a fox or crow or strange duck ventured into the valley it was noticed. Mountain lions were rare in those times, but when a set of lion tracks was found it was time to look for a biologist to confirm the find.
"Cuteness" of animals had not yet reached our valley in its full blast version, but it was out there, along with bone-bred imperial attitudes that managed to reach over or through the mountains. However, a sense of honor lurked in nearly all males. That included tipping of Stetsons to adult females. It was a brief moment in time when men and women harbored God Bless America from Sea to Shining Sea, but in that rural place where people helped each other in practical ways, that temper was diluted and laughter helped bridge real differences.
That's all Gone With The Wind now.
What was it that "got away"? (A phrase in the poem by William Stafford, "The Daily Shoot-Out for Tourists on the Square in Jackson, Wyoming," in Wyoming, Chapbook, 1985.)
Whatever it was, it was deeply, perhaps unconsciously, felt -- simply a big part of life and living: attentiveness to the earth and the myriad species that live out there in the rivers, lakes, swamps, oceans, what's left of prairies and bottomlands. Not sentimentality -- I'm not talking about sentimentality. I'm trying to talk about life, the way large segments of people on earth still live on and in and of the earth and what it brings, bad, terrible, good. That's not like kissing a killer porpoise or cuddling up to a misguided parent's present of a cute penguin or a cute wolf or a cute reindeer.
Once I turned my back on a young, tame, deer. It reared up and struck my shoulders with two very sharp hooves. It hurt, but I had learned something. Don't turn your back on an animal; it might think you want to play its way. Once I put my left foot down about 12 inches from a rattlesnake. It coiled, but didn't waste venom in a strike. I got my camera, took a photo, and moved on. These are teachings. I was too friendly with a cornered skunk, showing off to some kids. The skunk bit my hand hard and that hand was swollen for over a week. Live and learn, like our co-editor learning to live with rattlesnakes.
Across the great chasm we hear cries:
"Don't be so sentimental!"
"Don't be nostalgic!"
"Mosquitoes and ticks are enemies."
"The natural world is loaded with diseases; we have to fight to stay alive."
"Tigers can kill people. So can grizzlies and mountain lions."
You weren't listening. I said that living with other animals and their habitats is absolutely integrated into lives for a large part of the world's peoples -- good, bad, terrible, fatal.
Spiritual enlightenment? I said nothing about that, but I will claim that on a nice day in a nice wild place one can get hooked on wildness. That's an individual enlightenment and not all bad. But I am talking about community, how people in rural areas help each other, laugh together, appreciate music and dance and when midnight or one A.M. strikes, go home bundled up in a bob-sleigh drawn by a well-matched pair of sturdy horses and listen to the runners' noise and notice deer tracks in the snow, maybe see the glow of eyes, hear the hoots of a horned owl.
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