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The True Nature of Nature

Look!!!” The exclamation nearly startled me out of my seatbelt. Andres pulled to the side of the road in a fit of where-is-the-camera exasperation. A male elk relaxed in a field, obviously ignoring us. Our time in Rocky Mountain National Park revealed many other folks lost in the same clicking frenzy. They sure are magnificent, right? But between all the oh’s and ah’s is a stark reality: these elk need to die.

Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park.

They need to die so that our natural world as a whole system can thrive. Too many elk leads to overgrazing, which leads to degradation of the entire ecosystem. The missing link to a healthy habitat is often the predator who keeps everything in check. We tend to romanticize outdoor experiences by posing in front of mountains for that perfect shot which we then post on Instagram to woo the hearts of people who post almost the exact same photo. I’m not criticizing this – we do it all the time – but these photos shouldn’t paint a false image.

That beautiful mountain is a tough place where things are born and things are killed. It’s full of blood and pain and guts, and yes, beauty too. But only if things are killed.

Yellow-bellied marmot on Sundance Mountain, peeking out after a long winter hibernation.
Yellow-bellied marmot on Sundance Mountain, peeking out after a long winter hibernation.
Andres on Sundance Mountain.
Andres on Sundance Mountain.
Winds on Sundance Mountain.
Winds on Sundance Mountain.

The true nature of mountains is this: they can only survive if the habitats within them are balanced. They are harsh places where only the fittest survive, thanks to the fittest of other species. I thought about this while enduring freezing winds atop Sundance Mountain, realizing there were no bunnies and rainbows to idealize in that setting. Our Instagram shots don’t show my face, probably because it was covered with a layer of snot from the cold. I just wanted to get the hell OFF that mountain. The honest truth is that I sighed with relief when Oscar the Outback came back into sight. I was humbled.

What is our relationship with wildlife?

As we head into Yellowstone and wolf territory, I can’t help but think of our relationship to these animals. It’s easy to forget that it’s a wild world out there in our cloud of Starbucks and Whole Foods. Since the beginning of civilization humans have tried to conquer the wild, fearing it, killing it, and caging it. Then some smart people realized we should preserve the wild. So we built fences in the Rocky Mountains to protect plants from elk rather than reintroduce wolves. Remember, we killed the wolves in the first place. We created green zones so animals have room to migrate without getting hit by our cars. For other “non-wild” animals we built fenced zones so we could pack them in like sardines and then eat them from packaging covered with happy cow faces.

I digress.

Recent events in the news describe story after story of some bizarre or tragic encounter with an animal that led either to the demise of the human or animal in question. It seems we are having a hard time balancing with the wild nature of nature. We want elk selfies without getting charged by them. We want to save bison calves, not realizing they don’t need saving. And most of us want to feel safe on mountain trails.

Over the years we destroyed predators, eradicated grizzlies and wolves so we could build homes and “raise” cattle. Society blossomed with the false illusion that we’re invincible controllers of nature. So much so that we turned bears into cute stuffed animals and named them after Teddy Roosevelt, who apparently saved a bear from dying. Ironically, we tuck children in with these cuddly toys without thinking twice that the real deal would kill them.

Aldo Leopold wrote about the taming of wildness in one of my favorite essays on this earth, Thinking Like a Mountain. He wrote of his trigger-itch, his youthful desire to kill every wolf in sight. Then he wrote about the result of that hunting mania. That by destroying all the wolves we took out a key player in an environment of interconnected pieces. Nothing illustrates this better than a recent short film I watched called How Wolves Change Rivers.

Photo credit: National Park Service, wolf introduction in Yellowstone National Park
Photo credit: National Park Service, wolf introduction in Yellowstone National Park.

As we sit safely in our cars shooting wildlife with our cameras, I can’t help but question my own tendency to romanticize these beings. I put my own emotions into them. Yes, I would probably cry if I watched an elk calf get torn up by a pack of wolves. Considering I cried the first time I hooked a freaking worm on a hook.

But then I think of Leopold’s conclusion, which will hopefully inspire you to read the entire essay:

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

And that’s how I realized: The true nature of nature is balance.

It’s respecting the rights of other animals. It’s respecting boundaries in parks. It’s respecting the fact that nature is cruel, while beautiful. It’s respecting the balance of elk and wolves. It’s respecting the idea that too many people on this earth isn’t a good thing. That our cities are crowding out the habitats sustaining our cities. And that we need greater education to realize our balance with other species.

In my perfect almost-vegan world we would live in balance with the wild. The truth is that we – lovers of our natural world – are living a life out of balance, and the signs of this are all around. We cannot see ourselves as conquerers of nature. There is nothing sustainable about that. As I’ve written about before, we are part of nature, not above it.

So the true challenge we face is this: how do we live a life of balance?

More importantly, how do we convince the unconvinced?

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