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.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

ghosts at the county fair


I don't know exactly how to approach this county fair thing. I mean, when I was a kid there were no opportunities to show off my prize livestock or vegetables. City kids don't know about these things. At our yearly block party, I gorged myself on candies and barbeque and baked goods. Ohhh, my stomach was full of peanut butter cookies and hot dogs and smarties. Then I'd slip off my shoes and bounce around in the jumping jack until my regurgitating reflex made itself known, at which point I'd roll out of the huge balloon, chug a coke and go find the kids playing ghost in the graveyard.

All of the same elements are here at the Tuolumne County Fair. There is the gorging and the rides, the kids playing games, but the things that are different - the prize cows raised by middle schoolers, the gigantic vegetables, a product of many months of careful watering and turning - are significant. These people here are country people, or they used to be. This was a venue for them to show off their season's treasures, the let loose and paint the town red. We have adopted this in the city, except we just do the celebrating, not the working in the fields part.

Although this fair has come along way since its inception (now the major events show the grotesque strength of machines in the form of truck pulls and demolition derbys), the ghost of its past enthralls me. There was a time in America when most people outside of cities worked on the land. They came once a year to show off their labor, to mingle with their neighbors and to let their bellies hang out after gorging themselves on their neighbor's meat. I hope this ghost doesn't disappear for good.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

magnificence in sequoia and king's canyon


Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks are in the southern part of California's Sierra mountain range. We drove the four plus hours from Alex's house in Sonora through the hideous, smoggy and stinking hot central valley and up into the mountains. As we climbed up to seven thousand feet, the air got cooler and clearer, a crisp and fresh break from the pollution and the endless chain stores below.

In the late afternoon, we arrived at King's Canyon, a sort of mini-Yosemite. A deep chasm (the deepest canyon in the US), it is a wilderness gem of white granite and deep pine forests set against the deepest blue of the summer mountain sky. We hiked through the varying terrain of an alpine setting - from deep and soggy coniferous forests to the moss and fern-covered banks of a raging glacial river to the harsh and surrounding desert of sun and hard granite, with gnarly, stubby shrubs and tiny lizards displaying the only signs of life.

After King's Canyon, we headed over to Sequoia National Park, home to one of the densest groves of sequoia trees in the world. Sequoia's are only found in the western Sierra's, and are incredibly unique trees as they are the largest trees in the world. Now, this is an amazing feat all in itself, but there's more. They are not only the largest plant, but they are the largest of all living things on this planet (yes, they're larger than a blue whale, I thought you'd ask that). Not only this, but they are also the largest living creature that has ever existed in the history of the earth! Amazing, is it not?

As it turns out, evolution is trending toward more and more complexity (well, that is, until homo sapiens showed up and spread all around the world, extinguishing any species larger than itself as they went along). In any case, this tree is the present point on a tremendously long series of adaptations and failures which trended increasingly toward more and more diversification of species. This tree is an outgrowth of that millions of years long process, and here we are able to witness it.

I watched a documentary recently (Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog) about Antarctica, and in it one of the interviewees said something like, 'We are the creatures by which the Earth becomes aware of itself. We are the ones through which the universe can witness the magnificence of its own creation,' and I thought that was especially poignant at this moment. There were millions of years of bacteria and plants and fish and lizards and amphibians and mammals, and now, through the eyes of this strange hairless monkey, the world's growth and change and wonders are available to finally be beheld.

And in its presence, strangely, I didn't feel like an all powerful cognizant being. As can be imagined, I felt tiny, insignificant, meaningless. Knowing that this thing existed through countless human lifetimes, through wars, famines, empires, collapses. Yes, we are the creatures that can be aware of the real beauty and meaning of creation, but with this enhanced mental capacity we are also the ones who can destroy it, and have. I am just incredibly grateful that this one beautiful creature is still here, and I hope that it will remain.

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