We are sick and Nature is in charge. Is her wildness also our preservation?
It is not quite five in the morning and a rose colored light is starting to fill the room. I’m in Cooke City, Montana in early June 2013 with Torrey House Press publisher Kirsten Johanna Allen in bed beside me and THP author Susan Imhoff Bird asleep in the other room. The cabin is ancient and in poor repair, the bed is lumpy. We are in Yellowstone to start research on Susan’s book Howl, of Woman and Wolf and I am wide awake. I have a question on my mind. What the hell did Thoreau mean, exactly, when he said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world?”
Next door to the cabin is a coffee shop that makes its own baked goods. The proprietor opens the door at 5:00 because she is there with her ovens preparing for the day and I know they have internet. I get dressed, grab coat, hat and iPad and head over. There is still snow in the crevices of the craggy peaks surrounding the town, just visible in first light. Wispy clouds are pink and orange. The warm smells of hot coffee and bear claws great me along with the proprietor at the cafe. She’s my age with blonde hair pulled up loosely on top of her head, busy with her baking trays. A steaming cup next to the iPad and I log on, type in my question to the oracle that is Google Search. To connect to that question, in this place, with such comfort and beauty around me and a day of wolf watching ahead is vaguely thrilling.
The first search item that pops up is by Utah writer Brooke Williams, a friend of mine. He and I have discussed this very thing earlier in the year. I shake my head and frown. Apparently we are the only people who wonder what Thoreau meant? Is it so self-evident in the statement itself? How would wildness save civilization? Aren’t they opposites? Isn’t wild civilization an oxymoron? I would get some hints later that day.
Now it is April 2020 and a once a century pandemic is sweeping the globe. Advanced civilization in the U.S. is woefully unprepared, by conservatives’ political design. The president, doing the only thing he knows, tries to bullshit the virus, the country and the world. Conservatives’ success at trying to drown the government in the bathtub has left the country too vulnerable. Yet it is the blue states on the coasts and the cities there are being hit the hardest by growing waves of death. Of course, cities are crowded and the coasts are the gateways to the rest of the world where a virus would first enter. But the cities are also most out front and on top of social distancing, testing, and tracing. The cities are embracing science, facts, and cooperating as community while the conservatives in the White House, the U.S. Republican Senate and Fox News declare a liberal media hoax, cast fear and hate, and worry about stock prices. So why are the smart folks in the cities taking most of the hit? Are they a little less healthy there in all the pavement and high rises? Do they need more, a lot more, of what we got that day in Yellowstone?
The Lamar Valley of northeast Yellowstone is nowhere near as crowded as the rest of the Park. The valley is sometimes called the American Serengeti with thousands of acres of grassy meadows braided by streams and cradled by still snow-capped peaks. Full of coffee and baked goods, Kirsten, Susan and I head out early for a full day of observation. Wolf watchers from around the planet gather here, many with expensive Swarovski spotting scopes to watch the early morning extravaganza. The watchers are immensely enthused and generous. At road side pullouts when there are a dozen cars or more pulled over and the scopes and binoculars out, we know there is something to see and pull over. Susan has her writing pad. A couple invites her to look through their scope at a bison calf wolf kill. I can hear the slender woman in her 60’s with the scope answer Susan’s questions. I can’t hear the words but I see her gesture to the land and then place both hands on her chest, over her heart, and then drop her hands to her side, look down, and slowly shake her head.
As Susan later recounts beautifully in Howl, the woman was speaking of an alpha-female wolf known as 06, who had been shot and killed outside the Park the previous December by a wolf hater, of which there are plenty. Future Trump voters. But this woman is a lover and as I am invited to step up and take a look through the scope I see tears in her eyes. By her grim expression it is evident the tears were not from the wind. Her voice vibrates as she stands close by and describes the background to the scene I am viewing. The affection for this land emanating from the woman, the scene brought intimately close by the excellent optics, the bison gathered around their lost one, coyotes standing off, the chill breeze and the slanting colors of morning light, all cast a spell. I quickly pull my head back and step aside, surprised to be swept by a rush of my own emotion. I wish my brother, lost to suicide two years earlier, could have this experience. Right here. Right now. In this light, in this kind of love. He might think there was reason to live.
Now in 2020, my son and his fiance have purchased 10 acres of undeveloped, forested land on the eastern slope of the Cascades about 90 miles southeast of Seattle, where they now work and live. They managed to close their purchase just as Seattle itself was closing down for the pandemic. My son had already been furloughed from his counseling job in the shutdown. Their place was only a few miles from a now infamous nursing home where multiple dozens died. They intend to bootstrap a new home on the raw land, homestead style. My daughter has moved back to the West from Pennsylvania to join them, renting a place close by before she moves a temporary shelter to her brother’s land. They are looking for a more nature connected lifestyle, one with a kind of purity and congruent integrity, and they want to develop an income stream by sharing that connection with others. With folks stacked too close and deep in the cities who are smart and engaged but still somehow sick and who need it. I expect the kids are on to something.
At the end of the day in the Lamar Valley, we pull the car over in an empty pullout to watch a heard of bison grazing a hundred yards away or so while the sun sets. We get out camp chairs and lean back, breathing deep the spring air. It has been a good day and I get up to get my camera. I impose on the girls to stand out in the scene for me to snap a few shots. They sigh, and smile, and go out a few steps. Susan finds a rock and strikes a yoga tree pose. We turn back to the bison and realize they have flowed like a silent tide much closer to us than we meant to be and are yet getting even closer. We have time to quickly grab the chairs, hop in the car, and close doors to get out of their way. Mother Nature is moving through and she is not asking us for permission.
Now the pandemic is moving through. Nature is in charge. My wise, adult kids are moving out of the way, back to the land, feeling their way with thoughtful design that lets the land call the shots. They are asking it for permission. They seek connection. A healing connection they want to share.
They already know in wildness lies our preservation.