Thursday, July 30, 2009

remembrance of things past in the Yellowstone ecosystem

After the high plains in the great basin, and the trap of consumer culture that is Jackson Hole, the plains finally turned into a valley which was edged on one side by the Grand Teton mountains. This range was named by French fur trappers; in French, teton means, um, boob. Oh, French people. To be fair, the mountains do have that general shape, but I assume the name came more from being alone in the woods with other men for months on end. The men could dream.

Whatever the case may be, the mountains were just the sideshow. The main draw, by our standards at least, was the wildlife. This area is the largest intact temperate ecosystem in the world, and is unofficially known as the American Serengeti. Being here in this enormous valley, with the thunderheads in the sky gaining momentum, and the smell of coming rain hanging in the dry air, I looked out and saw hundreds of brown specks of animals feasting on the summer bounty. At that moment, I could almost imagine what the world was like before. Home, home on the range.

Now, I don't harbor any illusions about the perfection of times past. I recognize that there was no utopian antecedent to our current world. As our species has grown in complexity, we have grown in destructiveness. Before agriculture, life was short, brutal, unsafe; but people then have been shown to be much healthier than we are today - taller, faster, stronger teeth, and with slightly larger brains. With the growth of specialization and civilization came longer lives, but less healthy ones.

This comes to mind only because I am standing in landscape that is fairly similar to one our early ancestors might have encountered, and because we evolved on savannas for millions of years, there is something in this landscape that feels like home to me. Something freeing, exhilarating, sweet and wild. So I stand and watch the bison roll around in the dust and the antelope springing through the tall grass, the elk's majestic antlers lifted while scanning for predators, and the black bear wading into the stream to cool itself in the hot summer sun, and I yearn for remembrance.

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