Human beings are really big. There isn’t a place on the planet we don’t touch and we’ve come up with technologies to circumnavigate just about any challenge Nature throws at us. We even consider disregarding the laws of thermodynamics governing energy transformation and entropy when we assume that there is an infinite supply of resources at our disposal. Some of us are huge, having amazed enormous sums of wealth and having global influence. Others of us are marginalized, hungry, and without opportunity to even dream of such wealth. Many of us are happy, but we also have conflicts that fuel violence. We’ve gotten so good at killing each other that we’ve developed weapons that could destroy our whole planet many times over. We cooperate enough to avoid that and in the meantime keep ourselves preoccupied with things like growing enough food to feed billions of people (while funneling some of the revenue to be gained into a few deep pockets) and transport it along with every other good imaginable across oceans, connecting continents that had been growing in relative isolation for quite a long time.
In our efforts to smooth things out for the sake of our own comprehension and the efficiencies we enjoy, we are managing to undermine the complexity of life and time and space that many have forgotten as their sustenance. We clear cut old growth forests for the timber products and often cover that landscape with grazing livestock or roads or places for people to live. We blow the tops off mountains, digging for millennia old hydrocarbon bonds to burn for energy. We use pesticides and herbicides and even genetically identical engineered plants that can handle those synthetic petrochemicals to grow food for ourselves, other animals we want to eat, and our engines. Those crops are mostly grown over large areas in straight lines groomed by big machines. We’ve decreased the populations of major carnivores like wolves, manage to control the wild Bison that once shaped the great plains, killed off plenty of other species that couldn’t keep up to fit into our world, and spread invasive species that sometimes choke out all of the confusing native diversity in a well-established ecosystem. On top of that, we can hop in front of computers, wiggle our fingers, and correspond with someone instantaneously all the way on the other side of the world. We can do the same thing to communicate with the people and machines we’ve put in space. We build cities and highways to connect them, use antibiotics and vaccines, travel enormous distances at ludicrous speed. Like I said, we’re really big and really smart. Humans are a great and accomplished species.
We learned a while ago that the earth is round and orbits the sun, but it seems to me that we haven’t yet learned that the world isn’t flat because so many of our efforts are geared towards simplifying the world around us. As a big and clumsy species, we need that to keep our balance, like a toddler who isn’t quite ready to navigate the stairs. Right? The toddler analogy can only carry so far, so I actually propose that we are getting lost. Our world is getting so smooth that we are losing our bearings and at some point we’re going to start scrambling, losing grip and balance, spinning in circles. When this happens, it’s like we’ve lost our rhythm. Traffic lights out of sync, trains late, seasonal patterns shifting, an orchestra out of time. The next thing is discord, loss of harmony. This hurts and frightens us. As we continue to lose our sense of rhythm in the declining diversity of biota and cultures, this sense of loss and being lost (when one is fully aware of it) makes me feel small. An individual human is actually a very small thing. I won’t try to argue that individuals can’t do great things and have widespread impacts, but I will argue that accepting the fact that we are small, embracing it, and finding humility is a way to find our way out of being lost.
Our WRFI ½ summer edition group is a collection of thinkers and outside the norms of western culture. Rather than cowering in fear of being small, these are people who are responding to the threats we face by challenging ourselves to learn and find our place (with some college credit thrown in the mix). I admire these people and take pride in being among them because for us the felling of being small and getting lost is an exciting thing. In our travels in the Y2Y corridor so far, we are witnessing the effects of anthropogenic global climate change meeting with land managers and keepers of history from various cultural backgrounds, critically examining national parks and other public lands management. We’ve watched wolves and learned about the ecology of fear in which multiple trophic levels topped by a large carnivore shape diverse and resilient ecosystems. We’ve walked through stands of whitebark pine, devastated by blister rust and bark beetles, learning about the trees’ role as a keystone species. This ecosystem is a perfect example of how an ancient relationship between lodgepole pine and mountain pine beetle has been pushed so far out of balance by our direct impact on the landscape and the effects of climate change. That it threatens major timber resources, delicate alpine ecosystems as well as so many other ecosystem components, processes, and patters that we don’t even know how to describe. With all due respect to appropriate levels of skepticism in science, this is the type of discord that is really scary from the big human perspective. Phenology is always changing and we always have more to learn.
Science and technology allow us to see patterns and connect them between places many time zones apart. To me, these patterns are humbling and by making the choice to be small, I find that I am able to internalize more levels of consciousness and being in the landscape than I thought possible. Traveling light, consuming only what I can afford and carry with me, making time for reflection and articulation of my thoughts, taking care of my own needs and working dynamically with the group, careful consideration of LNT principles, summiting Scapegoat Peak or surfacing to gasp for air in cold alpine lake, tasting glacier lilies, smelling rain, hearing no machines except for the occasional airplane crossing a wilderness area, living in my body instead of a computer, recording all of these observations too. All of these are ways in which I am learning to be small. And in that small place I think we can find the best of humanity. To be small and not trapped by fear requires curiosity and empathy. It is a certain kind of respect for other people, all beings, time, places, and self. Traveling in wild places with this kind of respect is like saying “please.” And as we all learned early on, “please” is to be followed by “thank you.” I find that expression of gratitude in the transition from transcendent acceptance of being small and lost to a state of being fully present. So here we are, not even halfway and a few showers away from a return home. Ready to keep moving and growing and come back with stories!