Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Elephants, Wolves, Pine trees, and Humans

Yes, still busy as HELL trying to finish the new novel. Also, busy as HELL doing the last bit of packing for Yellowstone/Grand Tetons. So I thought, in light of recent news of ecological destruction and the continuing mass extinctions of our fellow creatures, to re-post this essay. Alas.

Human beings and elephants--it’s hard to find two more disparate creatures among the order Mammalia, yes. We’re both among the animals we consider “mega fauna”, but that’s about where the relationship ends. Humans are allowed to kill and slaughter and eat every other creature on Earth, but no other creature is allowed to kill and slaughter and/or eat a human. It’s a very goddamned selfish attitude.

Due to the Internet, I’ve had the good fortune to communicate with people all over the Earth. From actual honest-to-Moses Samaritans in Palestine, to Russians, to German mountain climbers, to Israeli naturalists, to…well, the list is rather extensive.

A couple of years ago I was curious about one of my ancestral homelands—Scotland. My dad’s folk hailed from there. Clan Smith and all that. I would look at photographs of Scotland and not see any trees. I would look at maps of Scotland and figure that it was far enough south so that it should be loaded with trees. But you rarely see trees in Scotland save for very, very ancient forest plots and newer monoculture forests that are fenced in and look like dark squares and rectangles from a distance. Why was this?

Research led me to discover that there are no extensive plots of medium-aged forests in Scotland because the trees were mainly all cut down long ago. And new trees found it impossible to establish themselves for several reasons. One reason is that sheep graze the new growth before it can gain a foothold. And, historically, there are a lot of freaking sheep in Scotland. In addition, there are no large predators left in Scotland. The last wolves were slaughtered off in the mid-1700s. What the hell has this to do with trees?

A mild lesson in ecology:

The wolves in Scotland kept the red deer populations in check. The humans, not wishing to share the land with another tribal species, killed off every damned wolf in the nation. Not one remains. The biggest predators left in Scotland are badgers and Scottish wildcats. And even those are on the ropes. Again…what has this to do with the forests?

Red deer are pretty big critters. As herbivores that supply venison to the humans, they are not unwanted on the landscape. But they eat the hell out of any new green shoot that shows its leafy head. With no wolves left to cull the herds of red deer, their populations increased rapidly to the point that they were (and are) capable of eating every single new broadleaf and evergreen tree that makes so much as a pathetic attempt to break the surface of the earth. Places that should be forest are now meadow and glen. Given time and the appetite of vast numbers of red deer, there will, eventually, be no forests left in Scotland. Not any that aren’t fenced off, you see.

There are old-growth forests that pre-date the demise of the wolf. But these woods are many hundreds of years old and are reaching the ends of their lifespan. When they go, there will be only meadows in their places.

I had looked at some official informational websites in Scotland concerning the reintroduction of extirpated species. The beaver has been reintroduced in some places (although I don’t know what a beaver can do in the absence of forests). And the otter has been reintroduced in some places. So I emailed a Scottish government naturalist and asked why they didn’t reintroduce the wolf.

“Are you daft?” That was his response.

You see…people don’t like sharing Mother Earth with anything they look upon as a competitor. And wolves are so very much like humans. They have families. They have a social order. They have rules. They eat meat. They live in tribal groups. They used to compete with our species, but the idea of a few thousands competing against several billions is laughable.

Let them return home. The forests would appreciate it. They, too, could return to grace the land. I think even the red deer would appreciate it. Let their hearts race again when the long-absent call of the wild rings the night air.

Share the place, damn it!

I’ve heard that there’s a very rich man who owns vast expanses of property in Texas. I’ve gotten this second-hand, so I have no way of confirming it. Apparently this very wealthy fellow feels that North America should once again be home to many of the species that were wiped out in the wake of the Native Americans and the Europeans who later invaded. Rumor has it that he wanted the Wooly mammoth to make a comeback. Of course, as they are extinct (and cloning is currently a pipe dream), how could this be accomplished?

The closest living relative of the Wooly mammoth is the Indian elephant. So—again, based on Internet hearsay—this billionaire wants to release herds of Indian elephants to roam freely in North America.

I like the idea of not being the biggest badass in the forest. We already share what remains of our wildernesses with grizzly bears and cougars. Let the pachyderms return, in whatever form.

Share the place, damn it!

I like elephants.

Scots should like wolves. Bring ‘em back. Restore the forests. Cut our companions some goddamned slack.

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