For the past two years I’ve been living in what some people refer to as “the last of the real West”. That is, within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: a 22 million acre area encompassing nine rarely traveled National Forests and two highly attended National Parks. The GYE supports just under one thousand grizzly bears, more than a thousand black bears, an ever-changing number of wolf packs, an incalculable quantity of mountain lions, and the largest remaining herd of American bison. The takeaway here is that in this last vision of the American landscape there are things out there that can actually kill you!
In his 2012 essay False Idyll J.B. MacKinnon notices that “there is a serious problem with our idea of sacred nature, and that is that the idol is a false one. If we experience the natural world as a place of succor and comfort, it is in large part because we have made it so.” (MacKinnon, 2012). What MacKinnon means here is that our modern sense of a nature sanctity, while surely a loving reaction to the destruction of our Earth, is also a product of us designing nature to fit our every desire and avoid our every fear. In MacKinnon’s words, we have “rendered nature an easy God to worship.”
Only twenty percent of the Earth’s land is home to the same large mammals that inhabited it five hundred years ago. In the United States we have literally decimated every large carnivore from our vicinity, not to mention the plethora of large, scary herbivores we’ve annihilated as well. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Great Plains played host to 30 million American bison. Today, the largest intact herd, the Jackson Herd, is held by hunters to a mere 600 individuals. The wolves and elk whose ranges used to cover the entire Lower 48 have been reduced to obscure populations high in Rocky Mountains.
Like the Romans of times passed, we Americans today are experiencing rapid urbanization and like us, the Romans too had essentially conquered their landscape and beaten back all the sharped toothed beings of their world. Interestingly, they too illustrate their nature as an idyllic place of “succor and comfort”. In his poem to Fuscus, Epistle 10, Horace paints his nature as, “The country.../...my lovely rural/Rivers, and trees, and moss-grown rocks.” Where are the bears and mountain lions in Horace’s countryside? Where have the megafauna gone?
Disappointingly, Horace then states, “I live here, I rule here” and then quickly follows it up with the claim that “life in harmony with Nature is a primal law” (Horace, 1966). This seems contradictory. How can one both rule and be in harmony with Nature? Countless times in The Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu makes a contrast between ruling and leading. Notably, here in Techniques, he outlines that:
To give birth, to nourish,
to bear and not to own,
to act and not lay claim,
to lead and not to rule:
this is mysterious power. (Laozi, 1997)
I feel that Lao Tzu would take issue with Horace’s claim that in the countryside he rules. For although the Tao Te Ching is a valuable work within the context of human ecologies, I believe it is equally, if not more valuable in relearning how to lead in the context of our natural ecologies.
MacKinnon’s observation of our modern carnivore-denuded ecosystems and our subsequent vision of capital-N “Nature”, what the Chicago Manual of Style editors have defined it as, “a goddess dressed in a flowering garment and flinging fruit and flowers everywhere” is a man-made creation. Our modern “Nature” is a force of nomos, not physis. If we humans are to lay claim to sensing holiness in physis, in natura, in nature, if we are to again truly be leaders in this complex informal congress of species we need to be able to recognize the incredible holiness in a Grizzly bear killing and eating a backcountry hiker.
I can speak from experience in saying that walking alone at night in the woods in an intact carnivore-rich ecosystem is notably different than a stroll through The UW Arboretum. It is notably more intense and is more comfortable asking the hard questions. Questions like: Who are you? Why do you matter? and Why are you afraid of death? Questions that are hard to answer from the perspective of a modern Western individual, but questions that if we continue to ignore we will continue to drive our planet to ruins. We humans need real “Nature”, the one that is sometimes from certain perspectives ugly and sometimes unbelievably beautiful. The one that has wolves and snakes, butterflies and rabbits. Without it, I fear the dao will continue to seem obscure, nirvana elusive, and our ultimate reservoir of creativity, the living world, incomplete.