For nearly a year now, I’ve had the privilege of living and working in Grand Canyon National Park. In late June, I was among some 1,100 attendees participating in one of the four nights of the 24th annual Grand Canyon Star Party. Astronomers from across the country, operating nearly 50 telescopes that were set up behind the Visitors’ Center, invited folks to get a glimpse of the planets in our own solar system as well as nebulae and star clusters sitting millions upon millions of light years distant from us.
The evening took me back to my childhood in Massachusetts where I spent many, many nights out under the stars looking up at a resplendent Milky Way. I am heartbroken to note that, if I were to return to the town of my birth today, it’s more than unlikely that I would catch even a fleeting glimpse of that Milky Way. Eight out of ten Americans today won’t ever live where they can see their own galaxy, their own solar system. More than two-thirds of Americans and Europeans no longer experience real night—that is, real darkness—and nearly all of us in the world live in areas considered polluted by light.
In Episode 31 of On the Road with Mac and Molly, I chat with Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night, about the disintegration of what is natural into what is artificial. In this critically important book, Paul opens our eyes to how much we lose cooped up, as we are, under a perpetual glare.
At one point in the book, Bogard tells of a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where, he suggests, one can see “real darkness.” There, he notes, fifty million people each year pass by a painting of “a small, dark town, a few yellow-orange gaslights in house windows, under a giant swirling and waving blue-green sky.” In The Starry Night, painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889, we see our world “before night had been pushed back to the forest and the seas, from back when sleepy towns slept without streetlights.” The Starry Night is “an imagined sky inspired by a real sky much darker than the towns we live in today.”
In a letter from the summer of 1888, Van Gogh described the night sky he saw overhead during a visit to a French beach: “The deep blue sky was flecked with clouds of a deeper blue than the fundamental blue of intense cobalt, and others of a clearer blue, like the blue whiteness of the Milky Way. In the blue depth the very stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, pink, more brilliant, more sparkling gemlike than at home—even in Paris: opals you might call them, emeralds, lapis lazuli, rubies, sapphires.”
For most of us today, when we can see stars, most of these appear to be white so the idea that stars come in different colors seems wildly impossible. But, Bogard insists that if one were to “gaze long enough in a place dark enough that stars stand in clear three-dimensional beauty,” one would “spot flashes of red, green, yellow, orange and blue.” When Bogard made the visit to MoMA, he was in search of not only The Starry Night but also Giacomo Balla’s Street Light, a painting, dated 1909, that is so little known that the museum doesn’t even keep it on display. While Van Gogh’s painting depicts, what Bogard calls, “old night,” Balla’s is a painting of “night from now on.” Bogard notes: “In both paintings, the moon lives in the upper right corner, and for Van Gogh, the moon is a throbbing yellow presence pulsing with natural light. But for Balla, the moon has become a little biscuit wafer hanging on for dear life, overwhelmed by the electric streetlight. And that, in fact, was Balla’s purpose. “Let’s kill the Moonlight!” was the rallying cry from Balla’s fellow Italian futurist, Filippo Marinetti. These futurists believed in noise and speed and light—human light, modern light, electric light. What use could we now have of something so yesterday as the moon?”
In his book and in Episode 31 of On the Road, we travel with Bogard around the globe to find night where it still lives…showing exactly what we’ve lost, what we have left and what we might hope to regain. We hear how the loss of night is not only a loss of beauty above us. More light at night does not, as some insist, ensure greater safety and security; properly designed light at night does. Exposure to artificial light at night has been cited as a factor in health concerns ranging from poor sleep to cancer. Light pollution is also threatening the health of the world’s ecosystems as everything from reproduction cycles to migration patterns are adversely affected by artificial light at night. But there is hope. Light pollution is one kind of pollution we can readily fix. And, as the jacket cover of the book proclaims: Bogard’s “panoramic tour of the night, from its brightest spots to the darkest skies we have left gives us every reason to flip the switch—tonight.”
I’m looking forward, with great excitement, to next Monday’s interview with Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night. The cover of his book notes that: “A brilliantly starry night is one of nature’s most thrilling wonders. Yet in our world of nights as bright as day, most of us no longer experience true darkness. Exposure to artificial night at light has been cited as a factor in health concerns ranging from poor sleep to cancer. And eight out of ten Americans born today won’t ever live where they can see the Milky Way.”
Natural patterns of darkness are as important as the light of day to the functioning of ecosystems. With at least 30 percent of all vertebrates and more than 60 percent of all invertebrates worldwide nocturnal, and with many of the rest crepuscular (active at twilight), the implications are enormous. While most of us are inside and asleep, outside the night world is wide awake with matings, pollinations, and feeding–in short, the basic happenings that keep world biodiversity alive. Light pollution threatens this biodiversity.
I’ll be chatting with Paul about the search for natural darkness in an age of artificial light and will be posting an article on this site about this critically important book. I’ll also let you know when this On the Road with Mac and Molly episode is available for listening on Pet Life Radio (www.petliferadio.com).
Today, when we think of eugenics, our thoughts most likely turn to mid-twentieth century Germany and Nazi efforts to create a “pure race” by eliminating those considered unworthy of contributing to the chain of heredity.
What many may not know, however, is that the eugenics movement was well established in the United States before it spread to Germany. In fact, the Rockefeller and Carnegie families helped develop and fund the German eugenics programs including the one in which the notorious Josef Mengele was employed before being assigned to Auschwitz.
While the Nazis force-sterilized some 400,000 individuals deemed to be feeble-minded, degenerate, dissident or, in some other way, unfit to continue the line, beginning in the early 1900s and continuing for decades past World War II, more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized, against their will, as part of a eugenics movement aimed at “improving” the human race by eliminating “defectives” from the gene pool.
The world has never had a problem producing plenty of people who consider themselves more valuable than others based on education, social status, age, race, country of origin, physical and mental abilities, and other factors. “Eugenics,” the term that informs some our discussion of this kind of thinking today, was coined in 1869 by British scientist Sir Francis Galton. The movement, sparked by the concept, was fueled by Social Darwinism, and popularized by publications such as 1910’s Eugenics: The Science of Human Improvementby Better Breeding by C.B. Davenport. As eugenics originated in a time when decency and morality as well as promiscuity and criminality were considered hereditary, two tracks were laid: “positive eugenics,” that encourages the “genetically superior” to breed, and “negative eugenics” that works to prevent the “genetically inferior” from reproducing.
I’ve never recovered from the horror I felt when I read Buck v. Bell (1927) in a Civil Liberties class in college. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s Buck decision, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the court ruled that a state statute permitting compulsory sterilization of the “feeble-minded” and “socially inadequate” for the protection and health of the state did not violate the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Etched deeply in my mind is the line that concluded Holmes’ argument: “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” The Buck decision, which tested the validity of a Virginia law allowing eugenical sterilization, was largely seen as an endorsement of the practice and it paved the road for the tens of thousands of operations that were subsequently performed. In my estimation, this SCOTUS decision ranks with Roe v. Wade (1973) and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) as among the most heinous ever handed down by the court.
In 1924 Carrie Buck—involuntarily institutionalized by the State of Virginia after she was raped and impregnated—challenged the state’s plan to sterilize her. Having already judged her mentally deficient, Virginia wanted to make Buck the first person sterilized under a new law designed to prevent hereditarily “defective” people from reproducing.
In Paul Lombardo’s book, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell, the author demonstrates that neither Buck nor her mother and daughter were the “imbeciles” condemned in the Holmes opinion. Lombardo insists the cards were stacked against Buck before she even stepped into the courtroom and the state of Virginia had her sterilized shortly after the 1927 decision.
The Buck decision was cited at the Nuremberg trials in defense of Nazi sterilization experiments; it has never been overturned.
Indiana was the first of 32 states that passed laws allowing authorities to order sterilization. Some states limited sterilization to inmates and institutionalized patients but others, including North Carolina, went further, allowing individuals within a community – often social workers – to petition the state to have a person sterilized.
On July 24, North Carolina adopted a budget that includes $10 million to compensate victims who were forced to undergo this procedure. It’s believed that 1,110 men and 6,418 women were sterilized in the state from 1929 to 1974. The amount paid out will depend on how many individuals step forward; it’s estimated the number surviving today is about 2,900. A state task force has been charged with making a recommendation on compensation: $20,000 per person has been suggested.
Elaine Riddick, one of the state’s most vocal victims of forced sterilization, said (in a report published by the BBC), that in 1968 she was raped by a neighbor who had threatened to kill her if she revealed what he had done. “She was 13,” the BBC reports, and “the daughter of violent and abusive parents in the desperately poor country town of Winfall [North Carolina] . . . While she was in the hospital giving birth, the state violated her a second time, she says. A social worker who had deemed her ‘feeble-minded,’ petitioned the state Eugenics Board to have her sterilised. Officials coerced her illiterate grandmother into signing an ‘x’ on an authorisation form. After performing a Caesarean section, doctors sterilised her ‘just like cutting a hog,’ she says. ‘They killed my kids . . . They killed mine before they got to me.’”
Official eugenics programs in the United States ended in 1979 but now The Sacramento Bee is reporting that, from 2006 to 2010, nearly 150 female inmates in California may have been sterilized and without required state approvals.
According to the Bee: “At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules during those five years—and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s . . . Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future . . . The allegations echo those made nearly a half-century ago, when forced sterilizations of prisoners, the mentally ill and the poor were commonplace in California. [California was a leader in the eugenics movement, responsible for a third of all sterilizations nationwide.] State lawmakers officially banned such practices in 1979.”
The Sacramento Bee reports that the OB-GYN who worked at one of the correctional facilities has denied pressuring anyone. Instead, he insists he: “offered tubal ligations only to pregnant inmates with a history of at least three C-sections” for whom additional pregnancies could pose a danger.
More and more commentators are raising the alarm about the continuing force of eugenics but no discussion of this practice can really be broached today without touching upon the international, interdisciplinary transhumanism movement (H+) that has as its goal the fundamental transformation of human beings beyond their current physical and mental limitations. It is the next step in the drive towards engineering perfection.
In an article by Kevin Roeten that posted today on the Capitol Hill Outsider (http://capitolhilloutsider.com/re-emergence-of-eugenics/), the writer argues that, under Obama’s administration, eugenic methods that breach moral ethics are on the rise. Roeten also cites the number killed because of the Roe v. Wade decision and, in that context quotes Justice Ruth Ginsberg who, in recently stating her belief about abortions, said: “Frankly I had thought that, at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” And, yes, Roeten asserts, she was directly referring to eugenics.
Geoffrey Miller, on the Edge.org (http://edge.org/responses/q2013), says, “China has been running the world’s largest and most successful eugenics program for more than thirty years, driving China’s ever-faster rise as the global superpower. With the 1995 Maternal and Infant Health Law (known as the Eugenic Law until Western opposition forced a name change), China forbade people carrying heritable mental or physical disorders from marrying, and promoted mass prenatal ultrasound testing for birth defects. Deng [Xiaoping] also encouraged assortative mating through promoting urbanization and higher education, so bright, hard-working young people could meet each other more easily, increasing the proportion of children who would be at the upper extremes of intelligence and conscientiousness.
“Chinese biopower has ancient roots in the concept of ‘yousheng’ (‘good birth’—which has the same literal meaning as ‘eugenics’). For a thousand years, China has been ruled by a cognitive meritocracy selected through the highly competitive imperial exams. The brightest young men became the scholar-officials who ruled the masses, amassed wealth, attracted multiple wives, and had more children. Chinese eugenics will quickly become even more effective, given its massive investment in genomic research on human mental and physical traits. BGI-Shenzhen employs more than 4,000 researchers. It has far more ‘next-generation’ DNA sequencers that anywhere else in the world, and is sequencing more than 50,000 genomes per year.”
Sex-selective abortion is worsening sex ratios in countries such as India and China (where males are preferred to females) and one wonders how many females are not being brought to term in the U.S. because parents in this country, as well, would prefer to have males. In May of this year, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it would be filing suit against Arizona’s law (passed in 2011) that bans abortions based on gender preference or race. The Arizona law is the only state law in the nation that bans race-based abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks U.S. abortion laws. Three other states, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, ban sex-based abortions. North Dakota and Kansas enacted sex-based abortion bans this year, but they’re not yet in force. The North Dakota law also bans abortions because the fetus has a birth defect. Today, it is estimated that 91-93 percent of pregnancies in Europe with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome are terminated; in the U.S., termination rates have been estimated at between 87 to 95 percent.
USA Today’s editorial board voiced their objection to Texas’ new anti-abortion law arguing that it will make it difficult for people to abort babies with Down Syndrome. “While some genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome, can be detected with amniocentesis at 16 to 22 weeks, even then it can take two weeks to get results,” they write. ”Add specialists, research and time to reflect, and a 20-week ban forces women and couples to make heart-rending decisions against a ticking clock.” Never mind that the child in the womb can feel pain at this age and, as Roeten notes, are killed with the most barbaric of methods: “instruments/substances for dismemberment, disembowelment, decapitation, and poisoning and/or burning a developing baby to death.”
This, in my opinion, is institutionalized murder and it brings to my mind the quote from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal that others.” The privileged, the powerful, the elite “some” have used the tools of sterilization and abortion to eliminate those they deem unworthy of life. Now the privileged, the powerful, the elite “some” have the tools to engineer what they believe will be a perfect human race. Science fiction often presages science fact and movies like Gattaca and Elysium may be providing us with previews of the dystopian worlds the powerful may impose upon the not so powerful underclasses.
What is perfection? What would constitute a perfect life? A perfect person? A perfect society? A perfect world?
Would we be better off with recalibrated pleasure centers designed to ensure lifelong emotional “well-being”? Would personality pills instill in our spirits love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Would uploading our minds into machines—a process that is predicated on the belief that there is no immaterial soul (we are only our biological wiring)—make us happy?
It’s hard to argue against gene therapy that could eliminate disease, replacing “bad genes” with “good genes,” and I imagine there are loads of folks who would love to have their inner RNA codes reset for slimness and longevity. People are already benefiting from cybernetics with cyborg upgrades enhancing hearing and vision. And, I have to admit, it might be quite a hoot to have retractable wings. But what will it take to reach the transhumanist ideal of perfection? What will it cost us?
Religion is viewed by some transhumanist philosophers as entropic, dangerous, irrational, and a barrier to progress. Max More, for example, specifically speaks of the “Christian notion of salvation by the act of Jesus, rather than through our own restitution for wrongs and our own self-transformation” as resulting in “moral hazard.” He sees an “urgency” in replacing religions with other types of “meaning-fostering” systems. His choice: the “dynamic optimism” of “extropic transhumanism.”
“God,” he concludes, “was a primitive notion invented by primitive people, people only just beginning to step out of ignorance and unconsciousness. God was an oppressive concept, a more powerful being than we, but made in the image of our crude self-conceptions. Our own process of endless expansion into higher forms should and will replace this religious idea. As extropians pursuing and promoting transcendent expansion we are the vanguard of evolution. Humanity is a temporary stage along the evolutionary pathway. We are not the zenith of nature’s development. It is time for us to consciously take charge of ourselves and to accelerate our progress. No more gods, no more faith, no more timid holding back. Let us blast out of our old forms, our ignorance, our weakness, and our mortality. The future is ours.”
Again, I must say I do wonder how extropians might pursue their ideal. How might they be working, even now, to remove that which they deem impediments to their ideal? Will they, in the pursuit of “perfection”—in the pursuit of racial purity, in the drive to drive out religion—attempt to exterminate those whose genetic stock or whose faith in the Other does not fit their ne plus ultra? Your thoughts?
For two years, two months and two days – from late 2010 to the start of this new year – my husband and I traveled across the United States in search of “experiences outside of our experiences.” Now settled for a time, I am preparing a book that traces the spirit-elevating lessons to be found in wayfaring.
In our days on the road, we met many fascinating people from gold panners and a family of wild mushroom pickers in Oregon to a moonshiner in Louisiana, from a mariachi band in Texas to Gullah-Geechee sweetgrass basket weavers in South Carolina. We spent delight-filled days marveling at glorious natural wonders from the majestic Grand Canyon in Arizona to the hoodoo-filled Bryce Amphitheater in Utah, from the lush and soul-soothing Appalachian Mountains in Tennesee to the barren salt flats of Badwater in California’s Death Valley. Along the way we also had a good many surprise encounters with wild animals, many of which we found in new and unanticipated habitats. Our companions: grizzlies, black bears, coyotes, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, pronghorns, mountain goats, alligators, bald eagles, elk, bison, even a band of beggin’ burros. In this entry, I’ll be recounting some of the most magical and memorable of these encounters. Before I do, however, allow me to share a bit of history.
From the time our daughter Brooke was little more than a toddler, through her teen years and even to her adulthood, she and I made regular visits to the Audubon Sanctuary in our hometown of Ipswich, Massachusetts. There we would meander down the woodland paths, climb up the drumlin and esker, and stroll through the meadows to our favorite spot, the Rockery. We would settle ourselves into one of the hideaways by the Rockery Pond to listen to the pickerel frogs and to search for birds, painted turtles and other wild things.
In every moment, we would breathe in and revel in the beauty of the created order. After our sit, we’d scramble up and around the cave-like rock formations near the water and, as we did, we would each unpack our days.
A number of years have passed since those sublime hours in the Rockery. Brooke is now married and has toddlers of her own. Three years ago, she moved with her husband, a Marine, to Japan. And, there they stayed till just a few months ago. While they were all on the other side of the globe – Brooke and I turned to other avenues for our unpacking: Skype, Facebook, email, the post, the telephone.
With my husband Gene retired, with my work as a writer transportable, and with Brooke and her family so far away, Gene and I decided – in the summer of 2010 to launch into a time of wayfaring. We sold or packed away most of our belongings, purchased a truck and an RV and set out on the road.
Over this time, our meanderings have taken us over continuously changing interior and exterior terrains. These days and the lessons gleaned from this “rubber hobo” life are now the subject of a book on which I am at work. I should probably note here that I would define a “rubber hobo” as a free-spirited wayfarer – with no attached-to-the-land home – who travels about the country in a rubber-tired vehicle. A rubber hobo may work at odd jobs along the way but he or she remains unencumbered enough to answer the call of the open road whenever it may come.
As I write this, we are visiting with our daughter and her family in their new home in Surf City, North Carolina. Though today we are far from our much-loved Ipswich with its much-cherished Audubon Sanctuary, we have found new sanctuaries for the mind and heart and spirit and we still venture out each day in search of new rockeries: places of challenge and yearning and searching and learning.
As I reflect, I note that some of the most remarkable moments in my life have come through surprise encounters in the natural world.
While I’ve been working on the book, an earlier trip came to mind; it’s one I made with friends to Zimbabwe. We were in that country working as journalists but were able to take a few days away from researching and writing to visit Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls. We chose as home base for our trip, Hwange Safari Lodge, a 100-room hotel that sits on 33,000 acres abutting the 3.5 million acre national park. Most of the lodge’s rooms and suites overlook a waterhole and savanna bush and all come equipped with mosquito nets.
On our first evening at the lodge, after a buffet of traditional African fare, my friends and I made our way – at sundown – toward the waterhole. There, we spied – silhouetted in the half-light glow – a herd of more than 40 elephants coming in to take an end of the day drink. The adults strode in slowly and their young clung close to their sides. I couldn’t hold back the tears and found myself weeping and weeping, overcome by so many emotions. I felt so privileged to be in their presence. But there was even more to the moment, for behind them – in the distance – I could see herds of impala, zebra and wildebeest racing across the savanna. The images from that night are indelibly stamped on my heart and memory and I find I am – even now – near to tears as I place myself again in that space, in that moment, at Hwange . . . Magic.
The morning after this encounter, one of my companions and I were awakened by a commotion in a neighboring room. Our friend Diane had disregarded the warnings of the hotel staff and had left the sliding glass door to her patio slightly ajar. She’d had quite the rude awakening when she opened her eyes to find a vervet monkey cavorting about her room, somersaulting on her bed! After some loud hand clapping and shouting, the three of us were finally able to shoo the uninvited guest out of doors.
Later that day or, perhaps it was the next, my companions and I stopped for tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel. This gracious “grand old lady of the falls,” established in 1904, is set in the midst of lush tropical gardens. It epitomizes the romance of grand travel but it is also a place where – again – we were to be entertained by vervet monkeys. These impish creatures reminded me of the squirrels who frequented my bird feeders in New England; the vervets were just as numerous and just as mischievous.
In another spot on another day, three of these delightful fellows lined up on a log for me in perfectly profiled poses. What a great photo op they presented!
When I was traveling some days later in a Jeep en route somewhere, I spied three young warthogs off the road. I asked the driver to stop and raced into the bush to take some photographs. I was getting some fabulous shots when – suddenly – a question popped into my mind: “Where’s Mummy?” It was right about then, that the foolhardiness of my impromptu mission became apparent to me. A large female warthog seemed to come out of nowhere to face me. I backed away respectfully and, thank God, I was able to make it safely back to the Jeep. I learned a lesson that day and I am truly grateful Mama Warthog left me alive to share it.
Human beings can behave so foolishly – human beings can abandon all reason, all common sense – when faced with a good photo op in the wild. I’ll never forget a story told to me by Nevada Barr in an interview for my radio show, On the Road with Mac and Molly. Barr, who spent many years as a ranger, is now an award-winning author of mysteries set in the national parks. I nearly keeled over when she recounted that a fellow ranger, who had worked at Yellowstone, had given a man a ticket for smearing ice cream on his daughter’s cheeks. Why the ice cream? Why the ticket? The man had covered his daughter’s face with the cold confection in hopes of luring a grizzly bear over to lick it off. The man was angling for a good picture!
When Gene and I were visiting Yellowstone we were witness to a similar episode of foolhardiness. We couldn’t believe our eyes as we watched two young men leap from their vehicle to make a mad dash into the woods – tripod and camera in hand – trying to get a close-up photo of a grizzly that we and they had spied some yards off the park road. Gene and I were quite content to remain at a more respectful distance. And, thank God – again – like my Mama Warthog, this grizzly allowed this pair of photogs to live another day.
Yellowstone is the flagship of the National Park Service and, based on our experience, we would say it is THE place in the country to find wildlife. Visitors can view much of the park from the comfort of a vehicle or they may hike the miles and miles of trails to backcountry destinations.
Yellowstone is spread out over 2,219,789 acres, making it larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Seven species of ungulates (bison, moose, elk, mule deer, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn); two species of bear (grizzly and black); 67 other species of mammals; 322 species of birds; and 16 species of fish all call the park home. There are more than 1,100 species of native plants, more than 200 species of exotic plants and more than 400 species of thermophiles (microorganisms that grow best at elevated temperatures).
Yellowstone boasts 10,000 thermal features and more than 300 geysers. It has one of the world’s largest petrified forests and more than 290 waterfalls. There are nine visitor centers and twelve campgrounds (with a combined total of 2,000 campsites).
Yellowstone was the first national park established in the world and it should be the first park on any list of places to visit. Yellowstone is, as I said, THE place to see wildlife. Hints at that truth became immediately evident to us upon our arrival at the park. As we passed through Yellowstone’s south entrance, we were greeted by buffalo butt. We drove along for quite a distance looking at the backside of this bull that just took his sweet, sweet time strolling down the road, unperturbed by and seemingly oblivious to the vehicles inching along behind him.
Some days later, I’d see another bull, planted next to the park’s Mud Volcano, showing a similar disinterest in all the folks eagerly clamoring and clustering around him trying to get the best photo. He’d plopped down for an afternoon sit and that was that. On the walk up to the Mud Volcano, could also be seen a jackrabbit placidly sunning herself just a few inches away from a snake that was moving in her direction.
One is certain to come across a good many “bear jams” – traffic delays – throughout Yellowstone as folks stop in their tracks – in their vehicles or on foot – whenever one of the park’s denizens comes into view. And, just before sunset, great numbers of folk compete for the best parking spots adjacent to Hayden Valley which has come to be thought of as America’s Serengeti. The soil in this former lakebed permits little tree growth and the shrub and grassland valley plants are frequented by grazing animals – from rodents to large ungulates like elk, moose and bison – and they, in turn, attract predators: bears, coyotes and wolves. Folks pick a hillside, cop a squat, pull out the binoculars and cameras with their mega, mega telephoto lenses, and marvel.
Home base for our stay at Yellowstone was Fishing Bridge, a campground that – apparently – sits in bear central. Here, only hard-sided camping units are allowed and the rules regarding bears are given to visitors verbally and in writing and bear spray, a specially designed-to-repel-bears pepper spray, is available at retail outlets in and surrounding the park.
When you’re visiting Yellowstone, you’re warned to be alert for tracks, warned to stay away from carcasses (as bears will defend them), and you’re warned to stay at least 100 yards away from not only bears but wolves as well. You’re wise to give other animals – bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose and coyotes – at least 25 yards of breathing room. Bison are especially unpredictable and dangerous; they can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can sprint 30 miles an hour. We did see quite a number of bison at Yellowstone but, I might note here, that the largest concentrations of this creature that we’ve seen to date are found in Custer State Park in South Dakota.
In Yellowstone, we came upon great numbers of elk (even quite a few hanging about at park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs). We also spied black bears, ospreys, trumpeter swans, moose, and mule deer.
As we’ve been traveling about the country, one thing that’s particularly struck me is that we have often seen large animals – white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, mountain goat…even bighorn sheep – in the middle of densely-populated neighborhoods. In Manitou Springs, Colorado, we met two deer walking up the steps of the post office. In Estes Park, Colorado – we came across at least a dozen young elk grazing in a field adjacent to a retail complex. Not far from there, we saw another dozen or more bighorn sheep scrambling up a hillside in a residential neighborhood. It was also in Colorado, where we found a mountain goat lounging on the lawn of a bed and breakfast.
Scholarly papers have been written in recent years detailing the effects of residential development on wildlife in the Rocky Mountain states. One paper noted that white-tailed deer display a high adaptability to human activity. Studies suggest that deer often select high quality forage near residential structures and benefit from the reduced number of predators found there. Elk, however, initially respond to the presence of humans with increased vigilance and flight. Large developments, such as ski areas, are altering elk distributions during sensitive periods such as fawning and this is leading to a decrease in their populations. But, now, elk are beginning to move to areas that have restrictions against hunting such as private lands. As hunter-friendly ranches are increasingly being transformed into subdivisions, more land is becoming available as a refuge for elk during hunting seasons. Bighorn Sheep are also now wandering about populated areas searching for food and safety. Humans are crowding them out and wise decisions will need to be made in the years ahead to equitably address these new realities.
Sometimes, human beings decide to let animals alone to just be in their habitats. Humans adjust their patterns so as to co-exist alongside other species. In Louisiana, near New Orleans, we were warned not to walk Mac and Molly by a lake on a campground because the alligators that live therein are particularly fond of dog.
While ziplining at Forever Florida, in St. Cloud, over pine flatwoods and forested wetlands, I was surprised when I looked down and saw an alligator looking back up at me. I was comforted by the knowledge that I was 68 feet in the air and traveling at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.
On my arrival at Forever Florida, which is a 4,700-acre wildlife conservation center, I was greeted by a muster of peacocks and peahens. While riding there in an all-terrain safari coach, I was especially intrigued by our guide’s commentary on the Cracker cattle, Cracker oxen and Cracker horses that all call the adjacent Crescent J Ranch home. It turns out the animals trace their ancestry – in direct line – back to those first brought to Florida in the 1500s by Ponce de Leon.
On the other side of the country – in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, we found some relatives of those Spanish Cracker Horses: burros. Burros – and the name comes from the Spanish word for donkey – most likely derive from the African wild ass, which survives in the semi-arid scrub and grasslands of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.
This charismatic relative of the horse, long of ear and muzzle, might have been domesticated a continent away, but it now spends its days on the prairies and pine savannas of South Dakota’s Custer State Park.
At the park, the burros are feral. They were introduced into the area by humans and have reverted to a wild or semi-wild state. More specifically, the park’s donkey squad descends from pack animals once used for treks to the Harney Peak summit. Now naturalized, they often plead for food from park tourists in places like the Wildlife Loop Road where they – quite frequently – cause traffic jams. Their boldness is such that they are now referred to as the “beggin’ burros.”
Gene and I – and our sibling pair of Old English Sheepdogs, Mac and Molly – were stunned and then fascinated to find the burros poking their heads into our vehicle looking for a handout. This band of beggin’ burros – which, word has it, especially crave crackers – has quite the racket going.
Well, if we can co-exist with other species, preserve the heritage of other species, and let the tamed of other species loose to be feral, perhaps, we might also do what we can to ensure that still other species are protected so that they may continue to exist at all.
Years ago, when Gene and I made our first trek across the country in an RV, we were amused and captivated by the antics of the very social, black-tailed prairie dogs whose communities we encountered while hiking near the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
It broke my heart to hear that these little creatures have now contracted the bubonic plague. Plague has been especially active in their populations in the northern Great Plains only within the last decade but the plague was actually discovered among them as far back as 40 or more years ago. The disease appears to be spreading to encompass the entire range of the species. Some environmentalists – and the National Wildlife Federation in particular – are convinced the prairie dog has become an endangered species even though millions still roam the Great Plains.
Some of the research suggests that the numbers of prairie dogs have been reduced by 98% since 1900 (reduced through plague, hunting and other factors). And there are concerns about protecting the prairie dogs that go beyond their numbers. Prairie dog colonies are associated with sustaining more than 170 other species. “In excavating their elaborate burrow system, prairie dogs change the soil chemistry, making it more porous to rain, and increasing the amount of organic materials that nourish it; they are like rototillers adding organic compost to the ground. [In imbuing the soil with such life, prairie dogs contribute to] the vibrancy of those crawling, scurrying and flying overhead. So, take out the prairie dog, and you start by losing that one species. Then add to it all the species in the soil you lose as a result, and then the impoverishment of the vegetation that results.” (Source: The Spine of the Continent)
As I recall the comical squeaks of the prairie dogs, I think how sad it would be to “hear” those voices silenced. When Gene and I were camping in Death Valley, California, I realized one night that I was hearing not one sound. Not an insect. Not a bit of running water. Not a single creature stirring. Not an engine purring, not a cell phone ringing. Dead silence. I looked up to find a night sky – unblemished by light pollution – and I stood awestruck beneath the most spectacular stellar display it has ever been my privilege to behold. As I strove to take it in, I found myself, as in that moment with the elephants of Hwange, weeping. I was profoundly moved in that silence, under that star-spangled sky, and, as I recall those moments now, I seek the lessons in them.
It was eye-opening, it was instructive, to hear the soundlessness. I was led to think of the sounds of nature I would miss if I could never hear them again: the chirp of a robin; the chatter of a monkey; the rustle of the pronghorn moving through the grassland; the powerful clambering steps of the bighorn as it makes its way up a stony hillside; the trumpet of an elephant; the call of a humpback whale; the groan of a walrus; the whinny of a horse; the bray or a burro; the clicks of a dolphin; the barks of a prairie dog, the barks of our own Mac and Molly.
How precious is this world which we call home and how blessed we are to share that home with creatures that crawl and swim and fly, creatures that amble and arc and strut and slither. I hope you’ll make time today to get out into the natural world, listening for, looking out for, and celebrating the wonderful creatures that so enhance and enrich our lives.
Photo of the Grizzly Bear by Gene Hailson. All other photos by Donna Hailson.