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Sleepwalking Through Grizzlyland: Why Humans Need Predators Too
The morning of June 21, 2000 — summer solstice, longest day of the year — found me first thing on the trail heading back to the aspen grove on the hill, where the night before the grizzly family had burned itself into one person’s psyche. That morning I discovered, exaggerations aside, that the world had changed.
After a blissful hour on the trail came the final, watchful approach to the meadow where the family of bears had appeared the night before. There beside the aspen grove lay the broken ground, freshly gouged and pocked by the mother’s foragings. Between deep green patches of geraniums and lupines lay chocolate scoops of dark earth. Impressions in the turned soil — heel, palm, toe, and claw — brought images of great paws deftly excavating earth by the bucketful, the muzzle of bear sniffing the bowl for roots and grubs exposed. From the lodgepole forest not thirty yards away came the crack of a branch, and for the longest of moments there was breathless silence, and staring frozen into the dark woods....
You never again see the country in the same way
It has become dreadfully cliché among writers to exclaim how once having met the grizzly on its home turf, one never again looks at the country in the same way. But there are only so many ways to dress up the same naked truth of that statement, and no honest way to omit it, so I’ll simply repeat the mantra. Because in truth your eyes will be focused, your ears will be tuned, your nose will be testing the air. Your back will be straighter, your feet will be lighter. One never sleepwalks through grizzlyland, dreaming of other places to be.
Wherever I went that day, exploring miles of what was now grizzly country, all was lit in sharp, crystalline relief. It was an eternal day bathed in the most sparkling sunlight, spent contemplating every track and scat and hank of hair, but also every floral configuration of geranium, valerian, gentian, and lupine. It was a day spent peeking inside the flower head of a dandelion, to find a yellow crab spider gripping an ambushed fly by the head.
Late in the day, I circled back for my last glimpse of grizzly grove and saw above it a golden eagle floating on enormous wings, lazily circling and ascending through a pine green backdrop to the purest blue sky. Nowhere to go, no place to be. White puffclouds building, schooner shadows drifting across the rolling sagebrush sea. “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,” as Kipling well put it, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.” That night at camp, with a hermit thrush singing flute notes over the soothing roar of the river, the longest day of an entire life faded to a close.
Without predators, incomprehensible loneliness awaits us
I cannot and do not pretend to speak for those few whose lives still carry the daily prospect of disaster at the jaws of professional killers. I cannot speak with the entitlement earned by the Tanzanian farmer who dutifully sleeps among lions or muster the authority of the Sundarban woodsman who goes to work wearing only faith and a facemask to shield him from tigers. I have only to convey what those of science have found, of the fool’s experiment unfolding, and the impending impoverishment of life in the void of great predators. All I can personally but crudely attest is that there is something fundamentally different about a land roamed by big meat-eating beasts, a sense that becomes forcefully apparent in a solitary walk through their realm. And I can only believe, from somewhere deeper than any logic center of the brain, that a life of incomprehensible loneliness awaits a world where the wild things were, but are never to be again.
From Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators. Copyright © 2008 by William Stolzenburg. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.
Related Video: Wildlife preservation is the theme of Earth Cinema Circle featured films for September/October 2009. Preview the films here and receive them free on DVD when you join ECC by October 15, 2009.