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When Nature Whispers — or Screams

March 28, 2017

Nature whispers and sometimes screams.  Once in a while I listen.  These occasions have spurred me to think about the relationship between humans and the natural world.

The Beetle: As I returned to my car on a fall afternoon, I noticed a small black beetle walking across the parking lot. The beetle hurried along—seemingly with determination—on a steady course toward a wooded area at the edge of the lot. I noticed that the beetle strode directly into the wind, perhaps drawn by the airborne scent of the mosses and fallen leaves, something to eat? A love interest?

Mother Skunk: One evening my wife Claudia and I were driving home along a winding country road when we saw a car stopped ahead of us, warning lights flashing. The driver, out of her car, yelled to us while pointing to a scene visible in the headlights, a line of skunks, mother and four little ones crossing the road. However, a tiny fourth pup wouldn’t follow. The mother skunk, got her four pups safely to the side of the road turn. With awe, we watched her go back across the road to retrieve her frightened runt.

Mother skunk

The Gray Wolf: As a graduate student, I had the opportunity to spend six weeks on an expedition to Canada’s arctic tundra–part of my research on climate change. On many days, I hiked alone to observe the landscape, an undulating, treeless plain covered with black lichen, mosses, shrubs, rocks and shallow ponds. I carried a powerful shotgun—there were rumors of barren land grizzlies. As I walked, I noticed a dark object a few hundred yards away. The object seemed to move whenever I moved, and stopped when I stopped. Through my binoculars, I saw the wolf. It was looking at me. It had a very distinct appearance, gray, lean, ribs visible. I kept walking and so did the wolf, keeping his distance. I had the distinct feeling that there was between us a great deal of respect (based in part on fear). After a while, the wolf disappeared behind a rise.

Next day, I saw, Olsson (not his real name) our crew leader, run from his tent, shotgun in hand. Then I saw the wolf, the same wolf, gray, scrawny, running away. I heard a shot and saw Olsson firing at the wolf. Then high- pitched yelps and the wolf spun in tight circles, as if chasing its tail; the pain in his rear must have been excruciating. Olsson moved closer to the animal and fired once more. The wolf fell. Several days later, I saw Olsson skinning the animal. “I’ll get it stuffed,” he explained.

An Afterthought: I like to imagine that the beetle was driven by what George Bernard Shaw called “The Life Force” that intangible will to live, to strive, to find a mate, to write or paint, to discover, or invent. I would like to think that we humans could build societies with the kind of nurturing that mothers give to their babies. Tundra wolves kill caribous to feed their pups.

We humans kill to eat. Yet today’s political and economic drivers seem to have less to do with sustenance, care and sustainability that with the trophy-hunt, the lust for wealth and power. Can this change?

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