What Good are Grizzlies and Gryphons?

Gryphon 3

 

“Everybody knows that the autumn landscape in the northwoods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffled grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet, subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.

Aldo Leopold:  A Sand County Almanac

 

Fortunately, there are still ruffed grouse around, but doesn’t the fact that there are no more passenger pigeons mean that the autumn sky over Ohio is dead – or at least deader than it used to be?  Does the absence of those awe-inspiring flocks of birds darkening the skies matter, now that they remain only in our imaginations?  What does it mean when a natural phenomenon which has the capacity to impress and inspire disappears?

 

Monarch butterflies are under the gun across North America.  If that species winks out one of these years our lives will be just a little bit more drab and uninteresting.  And suppose the unthinkable happened. Suppose all butterflies disappeared – not entirely impossible given the widespread use of pesticides and, now, manufactured plants with built-in caterpillar poisons. Of course, with butterflies gone, those flowers which depend on butterflies for pollination would disappear as well.  A generation or two after that happened would butterflies and their pollination-dependent flowers continue to inspire the decorators of children’s pajamas and the animators of the idyllic countrysides of Disney films?  Would those creative souls turn to images of corn fields and combines?  Or would the non-existence of two symbols  of carefree, natural gentleness gradually cause the feeling we get from a warm summer day to atrophy?  Not entirely, of course, but a little bit?

 

And what about bats?  If white nose syndrome has its way, these creatures of the night could be gone one day as well.  Won’t Halloween lose a little bit of its scariness?  Won’t our mind’s eye’s stereotypic image of a dark threatening place be a bit impoverished?  And even though bats apparently weren’t the inspiration for the widespread vampire myths of ancient cultures they do inhabit Graham Stoker’s Dracula, and the discovery of true vampire bats in the Americas certainly lends a degree of tangibility to those stories and their effect on us.

 

Butterflies, bats and a few flowers gone – no big deal, really.  But what if we had succeeded in eradicating whales by 1850 – the year Herman Melville wrote what many consider to be the greatest American novel?   Would Melville have been inspired to write Moby Dick?   Would our individual and/or collective sense of good and evil, of mankind’s place in the universe, of our conflict with fate be quite as rich without a literary canon which included that monomaniacal sea captain and his enigmatic archenemy?   One can argue, I think, that the existence of whales has played a non-trivial role in what it means to be a 21st century American human and that without Moby Dick ever having been written and read by so many, our spirit and intellect would be just a bit less than it is.

 

Fortunately, we didn’t drive most species of whales to extinction, and there still are butterflies and some bats.  But consider wooly mammoths.  There’s a good bit of evidence suggesting that Homo sapiens and those huge hairy behemoths overlapped for some time after humans arrived in the Americas, though the exact role the latter played in the extinction of the former is still being worked on.  Nonetheless, the woolies are gone.   Wouldn’t we – even those of us working in urban cubicles – wouldn’t we be just a bit more alive if somewhere in the very backs of our minds we knew those hairy beasts with their enormous recurved tusks were still thundering around somewhere on the tundra?

 

Once you start thinking this way, other things come to mind, like those mountaintops in West Virginia being relocated into the valleys to expose coal.  When that state is finally bulldozed as flat as Kansas will stories of the Hatfield’s and McCoys in their respective “hollers” still resonate?   Will sipping Maker’s Mark bourbon still taste the same if we picture those moonshine stills where it was developed exposed for all to see on a prairie?  And then there’s the disappearing Colorado River.  Will our grasp of our place in the universe when we look at the work it’s done sculpting the Grand Canyon over eons remain as secure if we realize that now the Colorado fails to make it all the way to the Sea of Cortez because of those thousands of trickles we’ve tapped off along the way to keep our lettuce growing?

 

Some years ago, my son and I did some wilderness camping in grizzly bear habitat.  During time in the backcountry we did see one grizzly, at a respectful distance, but the knowledge that we might confront one around every bend kept us hyperalert and lent the whole trip an experiential dimension which is difficult to express but, in the retelling at least, was distinctly pleasurable. Of course, I’d be thinking differently if my son and I had startled a grizzly up close.  Very differently, in fact, if he’d been maimed, or worse.  But in the grand scheme the evil of such a rare human tragedy is offset by the spiritual enrichment of all those fortunate hikers who thought hard about but never actually confronted a grizzly.   Experiencing the possibility is enlivening.

 

Like the Eloi of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, do our spirit and awareness atrophy if we come to consider our environment totally tamed and our place in it entirely secure?  Don’t potential predators like the grizzly enhance our personal selves and enrich our collective being – AKA our culture?

 

And then there are the unicorns, Loch Ness monsters, dragons, harpies, sea serpents, yeti, gryphons and the rest of the menagerie of imaginary beasts.  Why have we invented these non-existent creatures?  What makes them such universal characters in stories – especially the formative stories we read as we transition from childhood to adulthood?  Often threatening and  bearing exaggerated combinations of features of creatures we know – fangs, hooked beaks, talons, excessive strength – these iconic creations of our collective imagination have populated our stories from pre-literary oral myths to the science fiction of today.  What accounts for the archetypal universality and longevity of these creations of our minds? Just as our most gripping stories usually involve deep yearning – romanticized love, sudden good fortune, heroism, “happily ever after” etc. – isn’t it likely that the monsters of our imagination owe their origins to some biophilic longing such that our minds create creatures at least the idea of which we need in order to be fully alive?

 

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his book Mortal Questions begins his examination of what it means to be dead by making the deceptively simplistic observation that – setting aside considerations of some sort of afterlife – death can be thought of as the end of the constitutive elements of human life namely “perception, desire, activity, and thought.”   Later he concludes, “If death is an evil at all, it cannot be because of its positive features, but only because of what it deprives us of.”   To the extent that the natural world, with its intricate tapestry of species and its seascapes and landscapes, leads us to think, to the extent that we may actively seek out elements of nature just to experience them, to the extent that they stimulate our imaginations as we read a book or they play a role in our deciding which pair of pajamas might appeal to our children are we not more alive?  

 

So I would say that Leopold was only half right.  His acre of northwood autumn landscape is indeed dead if the grouse is subtracted.  But there’s more to it.  Take away the passenger pigeon, the whale we may never even see but know is there, the bat flitting across our backyard at dusk, the grizzly, the tiger, the raging river, the glacier, the rolling Appalachian landscape,  –  and a part of you and a part of me dies as well.  

 

 

Leaf Litter and Rubber Duckies

Imagine two big bins.  One is filled with rubber duckies, pottery shards, space shuttles, DVD’s, playbills, books, skyscrapers, electronic gadgets – stuff like that. It also has an annex full of intangibles like symphonies and TV shows and stories and ideas like democracy, altruism, truth etc. The other bin brims with feathers, pebbles, some pond muck, twigs, clam shells, stars, leaf litter and the like. Its annex of intangibles contains things we don’t really have words for – undiscovered natural laws, the arrival of a thunderstorm,  Dylan Thomas’s “force that drives the green fuse through the flower”, etc.  Now put those bins inside your head.  Sometimes I think that’s the way our minds are divided.

 

Popular brain science has long told us that our right and left brains work differently – one side more devoted to things like perceiving emotion, appreciating art, recognizing faces; the other side more devoted to reading text, speaking, math and logic.  Predictably, this is being proven a gross oversimplification.  No matter.  In the thought experiment I’m proposing I’m using mind as opposed to brain.  Think of brain as your computer and mind as its program.  Hardware vs software.  iPhone off the shelf vs apps.  Brain is where stuff is stored, sensations are processed and body parts are made to do their thing.  Mind is – well, nobody really knows for sure.  Its where we experience things like meaning, identity, attention, memories, associations, ideas, emotions.  And maybe even conceptualizing it as a place is off the mark.

 

So back to our bins.  They’re in the mind, not the brain.  And it has probably already occurred to you that bin one contains only man-made things; bin two contains everything else.   The man-made stuff has all cycled through at least one mind – sometimes many – before it became what it is.  It started out as an idea.  Then it was mulled over, reconceived, perhaps talked or written about – then eventually became transformed from the idea to a “realer” reality.  The stuff in bin two – well it’s there with no help from us.  And we often dig into bin two for the raw materials to make the stuff in bin one.

 

I imagine everyone’s bins being different – different in what they contain and how big they are.  And I imagine the two bins get different amounts of people’s time and attention.  Take Aldo Leopold.

 

Back in the early twentieth century, Leopold was a bureaucrat working for the US Forest Service who later became one of the founders of the modern conservation ethic and author of the ecologic masterpiece Sand County Almanac.  I imagine Leopold had a huge bin two – full of  hills and partridge, sandhill crane tracks in the mud, carcasses of white tailed deer brought down by winter starvation, the smell of March.  Of course, like the rest of us, he had plenty of stuff in bin one as well; firearms and fishing poles, typewriters and directives from his boss in the forest service. But his bin two was the really big one – about the same size as Rachel Carson’s.

 

Now for the questions.  Are the bin sizes of each of us fixed or expandable?  Is the way we divide our time between the two something we’re born with or does it evolve?  If it changes, what causes the change?

 

My mind wanders. In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond rigorously documents thriving civilizations which imploded in response to abuse and neglect of natural resources:  think Maya, Easter Islanders, the Norse Greenland Community.  I imagine that many of those citizens, as things were falling apart, spent more time rummaging around their bin two – trying to figure out what was happening and doing their best to cope as their world collapsed around them.  And I can imagine an inner city youth – one whose experience of nature in the commonplace sense has been limited to grass growing between the sidewalk cracks and pigeons cooing on his tenement window – discovering on a school field trip to a nature preserve that he has a big but almost empty bin two.  But it seems that usually – by the time we reach our productive years, we’ve pretty well established the ways we look at things and what kind of stuff gets our attention.  For some, the best way to relax is an afternoon reading a book or watching football.  For others, it’s a hike in the woods or an afternoon in a duck blind.  And for many, of course, it’s something of a toss up.

 

So what?  People differ.  In matters of taste, there can be no disputes.  Problems crop up, though, when one kind of taste overpowers; when the taste for bigger houses or ivory jewelry or snowmobile access to National Parks  means disappearing forests or the loss of a chance of anyone ever seeing an elephant in the wild or disturbing the experience of silent wilderness snowshoeing.  That’s one reason it becomes useful to know if the bin sizes can be changed – and if so, how to do it.  But there are others.

 

Consider that rubber duck bobbing in a bathtub.  When 15 month old Julie points to the air-filled yellow blob and utters for the first time something that sounds vaguely like “duck” her parents cheer.  How could anyone be troubled by that?  Well, what if Julie never has the opportunity to get up close and personal with a family of precocial anseriforme hatchlings chasing emerging mosquitoes over the surface of a woodland pond? What if if her idea of “duck” remains for the most part in bin one even if, as she grows older, it is enriched to include the idea of a delicious piece of protein covered in orange sauce.  If things go like that there’ll be some pretty important voids.   There’ll be no wondering how that newly hatched ball of fuzz can emerge from its shell already knowing how to chase mosquitoes, no appreciation of the fact that those webbed feet – so effective at motoring the hatchling through the water – collapse with each forward movement to minimize resistance,  no sense of the timescale involved in accumulating and sorting through all the DNA changes that led to the feet doing that.  In short Julie’s view of the real world will be greatly impoverished and, if one is prone to exaggeration, potentially dangerously so.

 

And one more thing, though it’s difficult to articulate.  Since everything in bin one has already cycled through someone’s mind, it’s meaning – what it has to teach us about the reality outside ourselves – is already framed, simplified, reduced and focused for clarity of human understanding or singularity of purpose.  The stuff in bin two?  That’s the last frontier.  And it happens to have been the first one too.

 

But this thought experiment has run way amok.  Just about every Julie will soon enough realize that there’s a lot more to “duck” than the thing in her bathtub.  She’ll come to distinguish between artifice and the reality it is meant to represent.   Nonetheless, I’ll wager there are orders of magnitude more people today that have held a yellow rubber duckie than have held a warm, feather-light squirming fuzzball while its mother, naturally, quacked hysterically nearby and maybe even risked her life to retrieve it.  And it’s hard to imagine that doesn’t have important implications.