I have always demanded vistas, not consciously but the other day driving back from Pocatello I realized that the fields of alfalfa ending at the edge of mountains was familiar. When I lived in Arizona the view was similar although instead of alfalfa it was cotton or desert with the mountains on the horizon, cool and beckoning.
It is a bit odd that a kid from the canyons of Manhattan has chosen the long view. Even at five I knew I loved the country, the more desolate the better. I would probably like Mongolia. Places without crowds of people. For the same reason I have always loved the ocean, which was the only more or less empty space available to a child of New York.
As soon as I was able to leave, I did. Out to Montauk for a six-week illegal camping trip. Illegal because I accidentally landed in a Bird Refuge in which it was not legal to camp and where I pitched my tent and stayed. I realize the irony and realized it then. The human was not allowed. The only sound was the birds and the ocean, and that trip changed everything. I realized at that point that I would leave the East, that there were simply too many people, and everything appeared to be divided into squares.
I have always seen people as the invading species. When I was a child there were plenty of elephants and even Northern White Rhinoceros. Now there aren’t. During one small life, a short span of time so far, the humans have raided nature, have pillaged tusks, killed off the last of many species. I remember how sad I felt when the last Northern White Rhinoceros, Sudan, died. A big male, he had become a pet of his keepers, who protected him in his dotage from the people who would kill him for his horn. He was unable to sire any young and he died without continuing his kind. We are poorer for it.
I also notice that when I write about what is happening to the environment, it seems fewer people read my words or comment. It is such a huge and sad subject that I think we reflectively shy away from the topic. But the time is coming, really, is already here, that we must face what we are doing to the world or we face our own extinction. Greta Thunberg is correct, this is the main event, the most important issue. Without reckoning with this, without change in what humans are doing, we will be the sixth extinction.
Although, I am not sure about the big picture, the long view is that this might not be so terrible, but it will entail a great deal of suffering. I do not wish this. I don’t hate humans, and I certainly do not love suffering, but we are predators and like the locusts on the fields, save little. As a species we will shoot the last elephant for money. For a reputedly intelligent species we are slow to learn and spare little compassion, overall, for what is different than us, whether it is human or animal. We don’t seem to understand the connections between all life.
Some of us do but too few. That steak that was a life is taken for granted, at least in the West. I suspect in sub Saharan Africa it would be a feast for a family. A feast if the stomachs that have been empty for too long could digest it. Here in rural Idaho, the cattle lounge around on fields of grass, unsuspecting that a feed lot to fatten them and cattle cars to transport them lay in wait. Some of my best friends are carnivores or ranchers, often the same, but these people wedded to the land and animals, do not take them for granted. Their livelihood is too labor intensive to take much for granted. Despite their respect for the lives that support them they will be swept into the same coming catastrophe as the one per cent that imagine their choice to not concern themselves with the earth will receive dispensation.
Yesterday, I heard one more person say, Mother Nature is out to get us. She may well be. The locusts have eaten too much and given too little back. It has been said that the latest plague started because humans have invaded too deeply and without awareness into the jungles of Asia. We capture rare animals for someone’s profit and think little about the imbalance we are creating. We have not been around that long, a mere two hundred thousand years to the earth’s four plus billion years. Our lives are short and unless we are well educated about what has come before, we have little reference about our actions other than our short and small lives. Many people in this time of world travel have never been much outside the boundaries of their state or town. So, people really don’t have much context about the bigger picture. The islands of the Pacific, for example the Marshall Islands, are being flooded and are no longer habitable. People who have lived along side and in the ocean for centuries are now living in Northwest Arkansas, which has no ocean. Imagine the grief of this.
A couple of years ago the Village of Kipnuk in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta had to be relocated, which cost millions. The people who lived in that village had been there or in that approximate area for centuries. They were hunter gatherers and moved with the animals and the seasons. Now they live in the new village, in wooden houses poorly constructed for the winters that once existed and do not now. In that part of Alaska, the winters are warmer, the permafrost is thawing. The scientists guess that in this thawing permafrost there will be new diseases. Diseases we have no immunity to.
I think that my friend who mentioned Mother Nature’s revenge is not far off. We have not treated our planet kindly as we have not treated one another kindly. We tear through our wants without much thought. We overlook the need for care, for thought, for how we move through the world and in so doing set ourselves up for disaster. On some level we can’t be blamed, our lives are too short to understand the long view. This is an explanation but not an excuse.
Every Sunday I go kayaking on a small lake. I am often the only human there. Sometimes the entire time I am on the water it is just me and a bird that looks like a loon but isn’t. Even I who love the world of quiet am too uneducated to know this bird’s name, but we are companionable. I try to not disturb her. She sometimes sleeps, her head tucked into her wing. Her sleeping, like her swimming is effortless. Sometimes, if I have worked late and slept poorly, I nap as well. Pandemic time is not a time for me of sound sleep. I am restless knowing that we, my species, and I are being given a message that few are receiving.
Many think that we will go back to living as we once did. I know better. Those days, pre-pandemic, of witless consumption and general cluelessness are over. Or at least I hope so. I don’t want to go back, I have never gone back, I am very much a child of my culture, I go forward. Because I can not see what living post pandemic will be like I can’t well imagine it. I hope that the experience of being limited, locked down, restrained from hopping on the next plane, going to the next big event, will create something vastly different. I hope that we will stop, all of us, and look at the view. Look at what our manic motion has created and slow down. Stop the endless crusade for the new, the shiny, the exotic. I am as guilty of this as anyone. I traveled so much in the year before the pandemic it prompted a friend to ask me if I was dying.
To my knowledge I am not dying but I was in a race, to live as much as I possibly could before the inevitable time this body ends. As wonderful as all the journeys were, I realize I need to slow down to a walk, or a paddle. Just me and the bird whose name I don’t know, floating in the lake, enjoying what is. It is time to give up the quest for the different, for diversion and figure out how I make peace with what is right beside me. To listen to the mother and see the long view and make decisions that are quiet, and more aware.