Editor’s note: one of the worst environmental disasters that nearly no-one has heard of is “habitat fragmentation.” Many ecologists believe that habitat fragmentation is the single most serious threat to biological diversity and is the primary cause of the present extinction crisis.
Fences, roads, utility corridors, and other linear human disturbances increasingly shatter habitats into smaller and smaller pieces, with drastic consequences. This crisis is not being addressed, and it gets worse every day. This article explores one part of this problem: the effects of fencing on Pronghorn.
By Tara Lohan
With the arrival of spring each year, pronghorn that winter in the Upper Green River Valley of Wyoming begin a journey of more than 100 miles to their summer habitat near Grand Teton National Park.
It’s one of the longest migrations of large mammals remaining in North America. But their trek — and a similar one made by mule deer — is made more difficult by human developments along the way, particularly fences.
“The total length of fencing around the world may now exceed that of roads by an order of magnitude, and continues to grow due to a global trend towards land partition and privatization,” wrote researchers of new U.C. Berkeley-led study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
Wyoming is no exception. There the researchers found nearly 3,800 miles of fences in their study area alone — twice the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Their research tracked GPS-collared pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) during two years of their migrations to better understand how fences affect the animals’ movements and which kinds of fences may be most difficult.
Fences aren’t always bad for wildlife — some can keep animals off roads, for instance — but they can also pose threats. [Editor’s note: to use precise language, these fences aren’t “good” for wildlife; they partially mitigate some of the harms of roads]
For animals like pronghorn and mule deer, fences can halt or change migration routes. Animals that attempt to go over or under also risk becoming entangled and perishing. Juveniles are particularly at risk. A 2005 Utah State University study of ungulate migration across Colorado and Utah found the youngsters died in fences 8 times more often than adults. Many others died of starvation or predation when they weren’t able to cross fences and were separated from their mothers.
Most of the fences the animals encounter run along the edges of livestock pastures, private property lines or roads, and are composed of four or five strands of barbed wire. Some have woven wire at the bottom, the most common type of fence for corralling sheep but also the most lethal to wildlife.
“A better understanding of wildlife responses to fencing is … critical to conservation,” the researchers of the U.C. Berkeley study wrote.
But here’s what we do know: The study found that both pronghorn and mule deer “were extensively affected by fences.”
Each year an average mule deer encountered fences 119 times and pronghorn 248 times. In about 40% of those encounters, the fence changed the animal’s behavior. And that behavior, they found, was more complex than simply crossing or not crossing the fence.
Often the animals “bounced,” or rapidly moved away from the fence when they couldn’t quickly cross. “Such avoidance of fences can drive animals away from high‐quality resources and reduce habitat use effectiveness,” they wrote.
Other times the animals paced back and forth along the fence line, a behavior that could strain energy resources. And occasionally they became trapped in areas with a high concentration of fences, like livestock pastures.
This can create other problems.
“Constraining animal movements for prolonged periods within limited areas may trigger human–wildlife conflicts,” the researchers found. Pronghorn, for example, have been seen in new developments in Colorado Springs, where they’ve been hit by cars and shown up at the airport.
Mule deer and pronghorn also behave differently when encountering fences. Mule deer are more likely to jump a fence, and pronghorn to crawl under.
“The reluctance to jump means that pronghorn movements can be completely blocked by woven‐wire sheep or barbed‐wire fences with low bottom wires — the two most common types of fences across their home range in North America,” the researchers found.
Considering that the American West may have upwards of 620,000 miles of roadside and pasture fences, “fence modifications for conservation might be more urgent than currently recognized,” they wrote.
Efforts are underway to encourage or require more “wildlife-friendly” fences that “are very visible and allow wild animals to easily jump over or slip under the wires or rails,” according to recommendations from Colorado’s Parks and Wildlife agency.
Further guidance from Sustainable Development Code, an organization that works on sustainability issues with local governments, recommends using smooth, instead of barbed wires; limiting the height of fences 42 inches; allowing 16 inches of clearance at the bottom; and including wide spacing between wires.
“There are other forms of wildlife-friendly fencing, including ‘lay-down’ or temporary fences that permit wildlife crossing during critical migratory seasons,” the group reports.
Making fence lines more visible is also helpful to other animals, including birds. Low-flying birds, like grouse, also die in fences across the West’s rangelands.
That’s why wildlife managers are beginning to push for removing or modifying fences, but the effort can be costly. To address this concern, the researchers developed a software package, available to wildlife managers and other researchers, that highlights fences posing the biggest threats to animal movement. They hope it will help make the best use of limited conservation funds and help protect critical migration pathways.
“We demonstrate that when summed and mapped, these behaviors can aid in identifying problematic fence segments,” they wrote. And that could help save a lot of pronghorn, mule deer and other animals.
Ths story first appeared at The Revelator. Banner image: Pronghorn encounter a fence line in New Mexico. Photo: Johnida Dockens (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
“Once our authoritarian technics consolidates its powers, with the aid of its new forms of mass control, its panoply of tranquilizers and sedatives and aphrodisiacs, could democracy in any form survive? That question is absurd: Life itself will not survive, except what is funneled through the mechanical collective.”1 LEWIS MUMFORD
There is so little time and even less hope here, in the midst of ruin, at the end of the world. Every biome is in shreds. The green flesh of forests has been stripped to grim sand. The word water has been drained of meaning; the Athabascan River is essentially a planned toxic spill now, oozing from the open wound of the Alberta tar sands. When birds fly over it, they drop dead from the poison. No one believes us when we say that, but it’s true. The Appalachian Mountains are being blown to bits, their dense life of deciduous forests, including their human communities, reduced to a disposal problem called “overburden,” a word that should be considered hate speech: Living creatures—mountain laurels, wood thrush fledglings, somebody’s grandchildren—are not objects to be tossed into gullies. If there is no poetry after Auschwitz, there is no grammar after mountaintop removal. As above, so below. Coral reefs are crumbling under the acid assault of carbon. And the world’s grasslands have been sliced to ribbons, literally, with steel blades fed by fossil fuel. The hunger of those blades would be endless but for the fact that the planet is a bounded sphere: There are no continents left to eat. Every year the average American farm uses the energy equivalent of three to four tons of TNT per acre. And oil burns so easily, once every possibility for self-sustaining cultures has been destroyed. Even the memory of nature is gone, metaphrastic now, something between prehistory and a fairy tale. All that’s left is carbon, accruing into a nightmare from which dawn will not save us. Climate change slipped into climate chaos, which has become a whispered climate holocaust. At least the humans whisper. And the animals? During the 2011 Texas drought, deer abandoned their fawns for lack of milk. That is not a grief that whispers. For living beings like Labrador ducks, Javan rhinos, and Xerces blue butterflies, there is the long silence of extinction.
We have a lot of numbers. They keep us sane, providing a kind of gallows’ comfort against the intransigent sadism of power: We know the world is being murdered, despite the mass denial. The numbers are real. The numbers don’t lie. The species shrink, their extinctions swell, and all their names are other words for kin: bison, wolves, black-footed ferrets. Before me (Lierre) is the text of a talk I’ve given. The original version contains this sentence: “Another 120 species went extinct today.” The 120 is crossed clean through, with 150 written above it. But the 150 is also struck out, with 180 written above. The 180 in its turn has given way to 200. I stare at this progression with a sick sort of awe. How does my small, neat handwriting hold this horror? The numbers keep stacking up, I’m out of space in the margin, and life is running out of time.
Twelve thousand years ago, the war against the earth began. In nine places,2 people started to destroy the world by taking up agriculture. Understand what agriculture is: In blunt terms, you take a piece of land, clear every living thing off it—ultimately, down to the bacteria—and then plant it for human use. Make no mistake: Agriculture is biotic cleansing. That’s not agriculture on a bad day, or agriculture done poorly. That’s what agriculture actually is: the extirpation of living communities for a monocrop for and of humans. There were perhaps five million humans living on earth on the day this started—from this day to the ending of the world, indeed—and there are now well over seven billion. The end is written into the beginning. As earth and space sciences scholar David R. Montgomery points out, agricultural societies “last 800 to 2,000 years … until the soil gives out.”3 Fossil fuel has been a vast accelerant to both the extirpation and the monocrop—the human population has quadrupled under the swell of surplus created by the Green Revolution—but it can only be temporary. Finite quantities have a nasty habit of running out. The name for this diminishment is drawdown, and agriculture is in essence a slow bleed-out of soil, species, biomes, and ultimately the process of life itself. Vertebrate evolution has come to a halt for lack of habitat, with habitat taken by force and kept by force: Iowa alone uses the energy equivalent of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year. Agriculture is the original scorched-earth policy, which is why both author and permaculturist Toby Hemenway and environmental writer Richard Manning have written the same sentence: “Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron.” To quote Manning at length: “No biologist, or anyone else for that matter, could design a system of regulations that would make agriculture sustainable. Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron. It mostly relies on an unnatural system of annual grasses grown in a mono- culture, a system that nature does not sustain or even recognize as a natural system. We sustain it with plows, petrochemicals, fences, and subsidies, because there is no other way to sustain it.”4
Agriculture is what creates the human pattern called civilization. Civilization is not the same as culture—all humans create culture, which can be defined as the customs, beliefs, arts, cuisine, social organization, and ways of knowing and relating to each other, the land, and the divine within a specific group of people. Civilization is a specific way of life: people living in cities, with cities defined as people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. What that means is that they need more than the land can give. Food, water, and energy have to come from somewhere else. From that point forward, it doesn’t matter what lovely, peaceful values people hold in their hearts. The society is dependent on imperialism and genocide because no one willingly gives up their land, their water, their trees. But since the city has used up its own, it has to go out and get those from somewhere else. That’s the last 10,000 years in a few sentences. Over and over and over, the pattern is the same. There’s a bloated power center surrounded by conquered colonies, from which the center extracts what it wants, until eventually it collapses. The conjoined horrors of militarism and slavery begin with agriculture.
Agricultural societies end up militarized—and they always do—for three reasons. First, agriculture creates a surplus, and if it can be stored, it can be stolen, so, the surplus needs to be protected. The people who do that are called soldiers. Second, the drawdown inherent in this activity means that agriculturalists will always need more land, more soil, and more resources. They need an entire class of people whose job is war, whose job is taking land and resources by force—agriculture makes that possible as well as inevitable. Third, agriculture is backbreaking labor. For anyone to have leisure, they need slaves. By the year 1800, when the fossil fuel age began, three-quarters of the people on this planet were living in conditions of slavery, indenture, or serfdom.5 Force is the only way to get and keep that many people enslaved. We’ve largely forgotten this is because we’ve been using machines—which in turn use fossil fuel—to do that work for us instead of slaves. The symbiosis of technology and culture is what historian, sociologist, and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) called a technic. A social milieu creates specific technologies which in turn shape the culture. Mumford writes, “[A] new configuration of technical invention, scientific observation, and centralized political control … gave rise to the peculiar mode of life we may now identify, without eulogy, as civilization… The new authoritarian technology was not limited by village custom or human sentiment: its herculean feats of mechanical organization rested on ruthless physical coercion, forced labor and slavery, which brought into existence machines that were capable of exerting thousands of horsepower centuries before horses were harnessed or wheels invented. This centralized technics … created complex human machines composed of specialized, standardized, replaceable, interdependent parts—the work army, the military army, the bureaucracy. These work armies and military armies raised the ceiling of human achievement: the first in mass construction, the second in mass destruction, both on a scale hitherto inconceivable.”6
Technology is anything but neutral or passive in its effects: Ploughshares require armies of slaves to operate them and soldiers to protect them. The technic that is civilization has required weapons of conquest from the beginning. “Farming spread by genocide,” Richard Manning writes.7 The destruction of Cro-Magnon Europe—the culture that bequeathed us Lascaux, a collection of cave paintings in southwestern France—took farmer-soldiers from the Near East perhaps 300 years to accomplish. The only thing exchanged between the two cultures was violence. “All these artifacts are weapons,” writes archaeologist T. Douglas Price, with his colleagues, “and there is no reason to believe that they were exchanged in a nonviolent manner.”8
Weapons are tools that civilizations will make because civilization itself is a war. Its most basic material activity is a war against the living world, and as life is destroyed, the war must spread. The spread is not just geographic, though that is both inevitable and catastrophic, turning biotic communities into gutted colonies and sovereign people into slaves. Civilization penetrates the culture as well, because the weapons are not just a technology: no tool ever is. Technologies contain the transmutational force of a technic, creating a seamless suite of social institutions and corresponding ideologies. Those ideologies will either be authoritarian or democratic, hierarchical or egalitarian. Technics are never neutral. Or, as ecopsychology pioneer Chellis Glendinning writes with spare eloquence, “All technologies are political.”9
There exists some debate as to how many places developed agriculture and civilizations. The best current guess seems to be nine: the Fertile Crescent; the Indian sub- continent; the Yangtze and Yellow River basins; the New Guinea Highlands; Central Mexico; Northern South America; sub-Saharan Africa; and eastern North America.
T. Douglas Price, Anne Birgitte Gebauer, and Lawrence H. Keeley, “The Spread of Farming into Europe North of the Alps,” in Douglas T. Price and Anne Brigitte Gebauer, Last Hunters, First Farmers (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1995).
Godwin Vasanth Bosco reports on extreme precipitation that has fallen on the Nilgiri plateau of southern India the last few years. These extreme and unprecedented rain events have led to massive landslides and other ecological damage. Little has been done to address the crisis. Featured image: A massive landslide in one of the largest sholas in the Avalanche region of the Nilgiris, with hundreds of native trees and the stream ecology washed away.
Thousands of trees lay dead and strewn around the western parts of the Nilgiri Plateau in southern India.
Deep gashes scar ancient mountains slopes, standing a stark contrast to the lush green vegetation that they otherwise support. As conservationists, activists, and concerned people in various parts of India are fighting to protect forests and wilderness areas from being deforested, mined, and diverted to `developmental’ projects, there is another level of destruction that is happening to our last remaining wild spaces. Climate change is causing the widespread collapse of ecosystems.
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have just hit record-breaking levels of 417 ppm in May 2020. It has never been so high in the last 3 million years. Along with global warming caused sea-level rise and the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, the steep increase in greenhouse gas concentrations has led to a surge in the frequency of extreme climate events. A region of the earth where climate change caused weather extremities are exceedingly apparent are the coastal plains and the Western Ghats regions of southern India. In the last four years, this region has been affected by eight tropical cyclones and consecutive extreme rainfall events during the southwest monsoon periods of the last two years.
These bouts of intense storms have been interspersed with periods of severe droughts, heatwaves, deficient, and failed monsoons.
On August 8, 2019, the Avalanche and Emerald valley regions, which are part of the Kundha watershed, received an unprecedented amount of over 900 mm [2.9 feet] of rainfall in 24 hours.
It broke the record for the highest rainfall ever recorded in Tamil Nadu, by nearly twice the amount. Over four days, this region experienced close to 2500 mm [8.2 feet] of rainfall. To put this in perspective, the nearest city (100 km east) in the plains of Tamil Nadu, Coimbatore, receives around 600 mm of rain annually. The Kundha watershed bore a deluge that was four times the annual rainfall amount, over just four days.
The upper watershed of the Kundha River is a complex of several peaks above 2400 meters and broad deep valleys. The Kundha River, which is a primary tributary to the Bhavani that feeds into the Cauvery, is fed by numerous streams and rivulets at the headwater sections.
With the barraging downpour, nearly every stream and rivulet burst its course. Vast tracts of precious soil and shola ecology slipped away on either side of the watercourses. Gone are the rich black soil layers topped with spongy humus that line the streams; washed away are dark moss and wild balsam covered rocks that shaped the flow of every stream; lost are the thousands of shola trees, dwarf bamboo and forest kurinji that guarded the streams, saplings, ferns and orchids of the forest floor. In place of these are deep cuts of gauged out the earth, revealing the red underlying lateritic soil layers, and lightly shaded freshly exposed rocks.
Numerous large landslides have occurred on intact grassland slopes too.
Uprooted and washed away trees, and dead Rhododendron arboreum ssp nilagiricum trees in a broad valley near the Avalanche region.
Native shola trees and stream ecology completely washed away on either side of tributaries of the Kundha River
Shola-grassland mosaic in danger
The cloud forest ecology, known as sholas, is specialized in growing along the folds and valleys of these mountains. They are old-growth vegetation and harbour several endemic and rare species of flora and fauna. These naturally confined forests are already some of the most endangered forest types, because of habitat loss and destruction.
The recent episode of extreme precipitation caused landslides, have dealt a telling blow on these last remaining forest tracts. What is even more shocking is that montane grassland stretches have also experienced large landslides.
The montane grasslands occur over larger portions of the mountains here, covering all the other areas that sholas do not grow in. Together, the shola-grassland mosaic is the most adept at absorbing high rainfall amounts and releasing it slowly throughout the year, giving rise to perennial streams. Over a year they can experience an upwards of 2500 to 5500 mm of rainfall, which is intricately sequestered by complex hydrological anatomy that carefully lets down most of this water, using what is needed to support the ecology upstream.
The native tussock grasses especially are highly adapted to hold the soil strongly together on steep slopes. However, even this ecology is now giving way under pressure from extreme weather events. The shola-grassland mosaic ecology cannot withstand the tremendously high amounts of rainfall (over 2400 mm) that occur in significantly short periods (over 4 days). Worsening climate change is driving the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, resulting in a level of ecosystem collapse, never witnessed before.
An example of intact shola-grassland mosaic in the hills of the Nilgiri plateau, with the sholas growing in valleys and grasslands covering the slopes.
In the southwest monsoon season of 2018, similar events of unusually high rainfall occurred over the highland districts of Idukki, Wayanad, and Coorg, causing hundreds of landslides. A predominant view was that this was primarily because of the indiscriminate construction of roads and proliferating concretization of the hills.
However, even within the highly stable shola-grassland ecology, a large number of landslides have occurred in spots with no apparent forms of disturbance such as roads and pathways cut through them. This signifies that climate-change has reached a level that is beyond the capacity of the ecosystem and land resilience.
What is causing the collapse of the last remaining wild spaces is the culmination of every action that has contributed to the climate crisis.
These actions invariably stem from places that have long lost their plant ecological cover—urban-industrial-agricultural complex. There is fatally no time to keep ignoring this primary cause. Even if we ignore this and look to safeguard the last remain wilderness areas from being deforested or `developed’, they are vulnerable to climate change-related destruction.
Threats closer to the last remaining ecological spaces must be also curtailed. For instance, despite the consecutive years of extreme precipitation over short periods, in the Nilgiri Biosphere region, there are hardly any steps being taken to address ecological security. Building regulations stand to get eased and road expansion works continue in full swing.
However, worryingly similar to what happened in the last two years when much of the annual rainfall was concentrated over a few days later in the monsoon period, this year too, 2020 has be no different. The onset of the monsoon was delayed, and large parts of peninsula experienced a significant deficiency well into the monsoon period. This year’s monsoon has brought intense, short bursts of extreme rainfall, not only in the Western Ghats regions and southern India, but all across the Indian subcontinent.
Destruction by dams and tunnels
Neela-Kurinji or Strobilanthes kunthiana flowering in the grassland habitats of the Nilgiris. This spectacle takes place only once in 12 years
The Kundha watershed region can be broadly divided into two sections – the higher slopes and the descending valleys. Hundreds of landslides occurred in both these sections, with shola-grassland ecology dominating in the higher slopes, and various types of land-uses such as tea cultivation, vegetable farming, villages and non-native tree plantations dominating the descending valleys. The descending valleys are also studded with several dams and hydroelectric structures.
The Kundha Hydro-Electric Power Scheme is one of the largest hydropower generating installations in Tamil Nadu-with 10 dams, several kilometers of underground tunnels, and a capacity of 585 MW. In addition to this, this system is now getting two more dams and a series of tunnels, to set up large pumped storage hydropower facilities. The claim is to generate 1500 MW, of electricity during peak demand hours, but while using almost 1800 MW in the process.
With the level of destruction that extreme precipitation events are bringing to the Kundha watershed, it is disastrous to add more large dams and tunnels. The intensity of floods has turned so strong that even the largest dam complexes in the world, face threats of being breached.
An Aerides ringens orchid growing on a shola tree.
Safeguarding the last remaining zones of ecology and biodiversity from threats of direct destruction is crucial. Concurrently, the larger world-wide urban-industrial-agricultural complex, from where the climate crisis stems from needs drastic change. The constant incursions into more and more ecological spaces in the form of new dams, roads, and buildings, are also connected to this complex.
Whether it is the landslides in the grasslands of the high elevation plateaus in southern India; the melting glaciers of the Himalayas in northern India; the dying coral and rising sea levels elsewhere in the planet; the global coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic that has brought about unimaginable changes – we have to understand the interconnectedness of these dire effects and learn from nature.
Godwin Vasanth Bosco is an ecologist working to restore shola and grassland ecology in the Nilgiri Biosphere. He is the author of the book Voice of a Sentient Highlandon the Nilgiri Biosphere.
This piece was first published on Down to Earth. All the photographs were taken by the author himself.
“If you kill off the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for rain.”
— Traditional Navajo warning
One former prairie dog town stretched 25,000 square miles with its burrows sheltering 400 million animals. When 20th century industry encountered such prodigious lives, it exterminated 98 per cent of them.
However, the rains disappeared along with the prairie dogs, as both Navajo and Hopi individuals observed, looking out over the startling barrenness of lands from which prairie dogs were gone.
Permaculture creator Bill Mollison proposed this explanation: prairie dog tunnels join those of other earth borers to create “alveoli on the lungs” of the soil that discharge moisture when underground aquifers expand and contract with twice daily earth tides. Thus prairie dog burrows helped conduct water into the air from underground water sources, instigating cycles of rain.
If we view our actions according to the results they solicit, we might well say that the prairie dogs cry for rain. Perhaps we might also see the extermination of the prairie dogs as crying for drought in the results that action solicited—though the exterminators apparently did not think in terms of the relationships perceived by the Hopi and the Navajo.
The latter cultures featured sophisticated use of metaphor to expose and elaborate the connections between one thing and another. Notably, like the prairie dog burrows, Navajo and Hopi also built their homes on a sense of interconnection. Traditional Navajo hogans reflect the relational dimensions of the cosmos.
Hopi kivas embrace their dwellers in the umbilical relationship with Mother Earth from which all humans emerge.
Industrialized western society has a very different conception of its houses—expressed in the story of the Three Little Pigs who build houses of straw, sticks, and brick respectively. The moral of this story emerges when the wolf (depicting nature as predator), blows down all the houses but that with the most solid walls—the one made of brick.
The worldview exhibited in this tale impels humans to build walls between themselves and the natural world. Indeed, those who hold this worldview not only build stout walls, but fences and borders and dams—and develop pesticides and antibiotics– as they also separate individual humans, individual backyards—and individual nations– from one another.
In the division between insider and outsider in this scheme, the outsider is readily devalued—and if inconvenient, can be moved out of the way without a second thought, as was the case of the prairie dogs. Those with this worldview, as indigenous Chehalis elder Henry Cultee from Washington State put it, would rather “chew through a mountain than go around.”
However, walls do not make their builders as secure in safety or privilege as those same builders might think. In fact, a society’s emphasis on building walls has characteristically coincided with its imminent demise, as observed in a recent National Geographic article discussing the walls the Roman Empire built in Britain and Germany. These walls not only stood at the geographical terminus of the empire, but at its historical terminus as disintegration of the Empire took hold within and without.
All told, those who would split the world into insiders and outsiders face an impossible task — since the world is inevitably interdependent.
Pesticides placed on lawns enter water tables and from there the amniotic fluid of pregnant women throughout the US. Thusly underscoring the interdependence of the natural world, poisons used against outside creatures enter the most intimate of chambers in the human body.
In fact, walls cannot keep us safe– they only blind us to what is on the other side of them, delaying our knowledge of and responsibility for the effects of our actions beyond those walls. If a single hungry wolf cannot blow down a brick house, there are stronger winds in climate change-instigated tornados. It is a deadly irony that self-enclosed climate-controlled cars emit carbon dioxide eroding the stability of the earth’s own climate.
The wall-obsessed ancient Romans are hardly unique in human history. The impulse to control things by segregating them is one of those “instincts of self-destruction”, as Nigerian Nobel Laureate Chinua Achebe put it, that successful human societies must find ways to discourage.
In a pointed warning tale from ancient India, the protagonist destroys inconvenient nature spirits by drinking up the water in which these spirits live–which also happens to be all the water in the world, since the waters of life are interconnected. He thus instigates a drought that dries up all of life.
Early fur traders in the Pacific Northwest might have used such a warning story as they instigated their own planned drought.
They set out to trap the beaver to extinction, thereby establishing a “fur desert” to discourage other trappers from moving into the area and creating economic competition. What resulted was an ecological desert where river courses narrowed and river estuaries dried up with the removal of the beaver from these habitats.
Today conservation agencies are making attempts to re-introduce beavers in Eastern Oregon to help restore these lands, but a proactive understanding of interdependence would have saved both humans and beaver considerable woe.
Like the actions of prairie dogs, the actions of the indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest facilitated natural connections. Indigenous actions supported extensive biodiversity. The Willamette Valley was so flush with life that fur traders went there to stock up when their supplies ran low, terming it the “Gourmand’s Paradise” for the ease of their obtaining food there.
Attunement to the larger world is the enduring basis of human security.
Such attunement is, after all, how living systems operate– as the lives within them attune themselves to one another over time. There is no more profound security than assuming essential belonging in such a well-tuned system– as the stability of indigenous Northwestern societies attests.
By contrast, the strategy of wall building is a lonely as well as an ineffectual one in its attempt to set humans apart from (and above) other lives. If we wish to establish ourselves in long term security, the lessons of history would have us relinquish the impulse to divide and control the natural world, just as they would discourage choices serving simple convenience and individual rewards for some over others.
Instead, such lessons would have us create stories in which those with whom we share the living world act as our teachers–as might the prairie dogs model the way to build a true home on this earth:
Perhaps you have felt the prairie dogs digging under us, opening the beating heart of the earth, shaping their burrows into the living cells of earth’s bloodstream that urge the rains to come.
Suppose our homes did the same. Suppose what we built to shelter ourselves quenched the thirst of the grass, swelled water into the vine. Suppose we too acted as the pulsing cells moving with the tide of the earth, praying for rain that stirs all things to life with our thoughts and our actions.
Suppose the beauty we made in our skin no matter what our age or shape or color was refuge for the swan and the hummingbird. Beauty enough so his ivory no longer condemned the elephant.
Suppose our houses grew as green and leafy as trees, and memory traveled in our bodies with the echoes of a thousand other ways of being, tuning them to the hot and the cold that belongs to the land along with life-giving water.
Suppose we sheltered the earth as it has sheltered us, sharing that climate-blanket that kept our ancestors safe for 100,000 years as they became human.
Suppose we sheltered ourselves following the lessons of sweet beauty as we look out upon a living landscape calling to us as the flower calls to the bee, asking for pollination.
Following the model of nature’s honey, we can build refuges of hope and inspiration and motivation–and healing.
Where nature can lead, we can follow. Where nature has need, we can act out of our belonging to the land; praying for rain with the work of our hands.
We can regale other lives with our stories, gathering all the thirsty lives to the river we have set free.
Madronna Holden has been learning and teaching at the college level for the past four decades – since she received her Ph.D. in philosophical anthropology in 1974. She is grateful to the indigenous elders of many traditions and the ongoing dialogue with my students for what they continue to teach her. Her own ancestors have influenced her greatly. Her mother’s Czech ancestors kept alive vital oral traditions including that of her grandfather’s grandmother, a healer who obtained her power from “speaking with the earth.” She thus had the gift of growing up within what she terms an eco-spiritual tradition. It was from her grandfather that she first learned how the map of a man’s mind might reflect the map of a particular landscape. It was through her parents that she met Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee, whose words appear in a number of her essays.
Featured image: from Commerce of the Prairies; or, The journal of a Santa Fe trader, during eight expeditions across the great western prairies, and a residence of nearly nine years in northern Mexico, published in the 1850’s.
In the time after, the buffalo come home. At first only a few, shaking snow off their shoulders as they pass from mountain to plain. Big bulls sweep away snowpack from the soft grass beneath; big cows attend to and protect their young. The young themselves delight, like the young everywhere, in the newness of everything they see, smell, taste, touch, and feel.
Wolves follow the buffalo, as do mallards, gadwalls, blue-winged teal, northern shovelers, northern pintails, redheads, canvasbacks, and tundra swans. Prairie dogs come home, bringing with them the rain, and bringing with them ferrets, foxes, hawks, eagles, snakes, and badgers. With all of these come meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds. With all of these come the tall and short grasses. With these come the prairies.
In the time after, the salmon come home, swimming over broken dams to forests who have never forgotten the feeling of millions of fish turning their rivers black and roiling, filling the rivers so full that sunlight does not reach the bottom of even shallow streams. In the time after, the forests remember a feeling they’ve never forgotten, of embracing these fish that are as much a part of these forests as are cedars and spruce and bobcats and bears.
In the time after, the beavers come home, bringing with them caddisflies and dragonflies, bringing with them ponds and pools and wetlands, bringing home frogs, newts, and fish. Beavers build and build, and restore and restore, working hard to unmake the damage that was done, and to remake forests and rivers and streams and marshes into who they once were, into who they need to be, into who they will be again..
In the time after, plants save the world.
In the time after, the oceans are filled with fish, with forests of kelp and communities of coral. In the time after, the air is full with the steamy breath of whales, and the shores are laden with the hard shells and patient, ageless eyes of sea turtles. Seals haul out on sea ice, and polar bears hunt them.
In the time after, buffalo bring back prairies by being buffalo, and prairies bring back buffalo by being prairies. Salmon bring back forests by being salmon, and forests bring back salmon by being forests. Cell by cell, leaf by leaf, limb by limb, prairie and forest and marsh and ocean; they bring the carbon home, burying it in the ground, holding it in their bodies. They do what they have done before and what they will do again.
The time after is a time of magic. Not the magic of parlor tricks, not the magic of smoke and mirrors, distractions that point one’s attention away from the real action. No, this magic is the real action. This magic is the embodied intelligence of the world and its members. This magic is the rough skin of sharks without which they would not swim so fast, so powerfully. This magic is the long tongues of butterflies and the flowers who welcome them. This magic is the brilliance of fruits and berries who grow to be eaten by those who then distribute their seeds along with the nutrients necessary for new growth. This magic is the work of fungi who join trees and mammals and bacteria to create a forest. This magic is the billions of beings in a handful of soil. This magic is the billions of beings who live inside you, who make it possible for you to live.
In the time before, the world was resilient, beautiful, and strong. It happened through the magic of blood flowing through capillaries, and the magic of tiny seeds turning into giant redwoods, and the magic of long relationships between rivers and mountains, and the magic of complex dances between all members of natural communities. It took life and death, and the gifts of the dead, forfeited to the living, to make the world strong.
In the time after, this is understood.
In the time after, there is sorrow for those who did not make it: passenger pigeons, great auks, dodos, striped rocksnails, Charles Island tortoises, Steller’s sea cows, Darling Downs hopping mice, Guam flying foxes, Saudi gazelle, sea mink, Caspian tigers, quaggas, laughing owls, St. Helena olives, Cape Verde giant skinks, silver trout, Galapagos amaranths.
But in those humans and non-humans who survive, there is another feeling, emerging from below and beyond and around and through this sorrow. In the time after, those still alive begin to feel something almost none have felt before, something that everyone felt long, long ago. What those who come in the time after feel is a sense of realistic optimism, a sense that things will turn out all right, a sense that life, which so desperately wants to continue, will endure, will thrive.
We, living now, in the time before, have choices. We can remember what it is to be animals on this planet and remember and understand what it is to live and die such that our lives and deaths help make the world stronger. We can live and die such that we make possible a time after where life flourishes, where buffalo can come home, and the same for salmon and prairie dogs and prairies and forests and carbon and rivers and mountains.
Originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of YES! Magazine.