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Travels in the Greater Yellowstone
1. The View from Blacktail Butte
Your love of spring is proportional to the depth of your winter. My wife, Dana, and I live with our Australian shepherd, Rio, at the base of the Teton Range, at the edge of Lupine Meadow and along Cottonwood Creek in Grand Teton National Park. It is a place of extreme winters, a place where geography is destiny. Snow often covers the ground for six months a year. Wyoming's record low temperature is 63 degrees below 0 at Moran, twelve miles northeast of our cabin. Nights in the cabin are cold, often painfully cold. Timbers in the walls crack like a gunshot close to your head. There is also a blend of silence and serenity that is rare in the modern world. And uncommon beauty: walking in the dark with a headlamp, we sometimes see ice crystals falling from a clear sky.
Home is four miles from the trailhead for Taggart Lake, across a sagebrush-covered plain buried beneath deep, windswept snow. For several miles it is flat as a table, bare and uncluttered.
Once a week Dana skis home from work at dusk in temperatures that are often well below zero. Rio and I go out to meet her halfway. At times we all break trail for miles through encrusted, dazzling snow. At times the plain is a monotonous gray, dim and dreary. At times falling snow unifies land and sky into a subtle pale gray bleached of reference and coats us until we assume the hue of the place through which we pass. At times the moon rises above thissnowy plain into a translucent violet sky like a silver orb rising from the sea.
When Rio and I see Dana, Rio runs ahead, lunging through chest-deep snow until Dana greets her; then back to me and back to Dana again, back and forth until weher flock, her family, her responsibilityare together. Dana and I slurp sweet tea from a thermos and Rio dances about, whimpering with joy.
In early November, snowshoe hares change into their winter coats and we follow their example. Winter clothes will be standard fare until at least late April. During winter at the cabin we have no running water, no television, and no music; we do have an abundance of solitude and time. Summer returns us to the jet train of modern life.
Color is a luxury in a white world. I fall inordinately in love with my oil paints. Dana, who loves flowers, nurses various bulbs to provide relief from what we refer to as "the great white." Our favorite is a gaudy, shocking red monster of an amaryllis named Zelda that fills half a window and glows briefly in defiance of the colorless world. She dies eventually; the great white lingers. Protesting winter is like beating a stone drum and expecting to hear rhythm.
However beautiful our winters, sometime in February we begin to yearn for spring, for color, for something other than the metallic smell of cold, and most important, perhaps, the freedom to walk. By March the bare aspen, cottonwood, alder, and willow bore all but the most devoted skiers. Then, always suddenly, spring winds shred old, frozen snow from the limbs of conifers and the snow on the ground begins to melt.
Every year spring comes earlier. The runoff from western rivers peaks ten days sooner than it did fifty years ago. This year the Snake River in Jackson Hole peaked nearly a month earlier than it used to, and the ice went off Jenny Lake three weeks earlier than it did two decades ago. And the seemingly hard winters that we have known are nothing compared to the epic winters Wyoming once knew. They are history now, and soon the memories of them will be history, too.
In April the ski areas close and many restaurants and shops in Jackson follow suit. Locals depart for friendlier climes. If they arewealthy they go to Baja, Belize, Hawaii, and France; if they are not they go to Arizona, Death Valley, and southern Utah. Those who remain in April inhabit a delicious seclusion unknown in any other month in the ecosystem. We believe that solitude is a function of distance, but it's more complicated than that in the modern world. Being alone in Greater Yellowstone requires a bit of cunning, the absence of trails, and the absence of profitable recreation. Even that solitudesatisfying, healing, and spiritually renewingis marked by an awareness of how much care and thoughtfulness is required to find qualities that should, one thinks, be normal in national parks or designated wilderness.
As the snow melts off Lupine Meadowour front yardwe wander about looking at the ground, appreciating dirt. Until you have lived without dirt for six months you do not appreciate its rich hues and aroma, the Godiva-chocolate umber, the gold ochre, the camel tan. Dana kneels and smells the dirt. It has, she says, "the smell of life."
Flowers begin blooming early in the spring, and our appreciation of them is heightened by knowing that trees and bushes will not leaf out until May. Flowers are among the first species to return, beginning the perpetual cycle of return and reinhabitation that permits Greater Yellowstone to flourish each summer in all its abundance and magnificence. Without these returns and reinhabitations, the ecosystem would be impaired and impoverished. We celebrate that homecoming.
First to arrive, regardless of fluctuating weather patterns, is the sagebrush buttercup. Finding the first one is a pleasant game. It usually appears along the edges of receding snow, sometimes even piercing a thin layer of ice. The lemon yellow petals are so bright you neglect its green leavesthe first new green of the year, earlier than the grasses.
We walk toward Jenny Lake and search a favorite area for orogenia. Orogenia is not ubiquitous in Jackson Hole, but where it occurs it is prolific. The umbel of white florets is so inconspicuous among the glacial grit and cobbles of our meadows that many residents nevernotice it at all. The flower is rarely two inches tall, and it tends, like many spring flowers, to droop. Each floret is smaller than a pin head. From it rise diminutive anthers, which, together with the top of the ovary, are a rich, dark purple. Its name is from Greek: oros, "mountain," and genos, "race," so: "of a mountain lineage." I like that. The local names are equally charming: turkey peas, snowdrops, Indian potato. As the last suggests, the root is edible, crisp and tasty.
Slightly later, fields of pink and white spring beauties bloom, interspersed with an occasional steershead. Steershead also droops and its hues are so akin to the spring beauty that one wonders if they are a camouflage. Yellow fritillaries boast a delicious petal, enjoyed raw, and edible bulbs the size of rice. Yellow violets appear, a few lavender waterleafs, and, alas, swarms of dandelions, the earliest blooming of many alien species that have invaded the ecosystem, much like viruses invade a body. Dana forgives them. "We are rich," she says. "We have flowers."
The return of other species is reassuring because many species avoid Greater Yellowstone's winters. Our winter birds are few in kind. Chickadees, both mountain and black-capped, spend so much time at our feeder one wonders how they get along without us. A few ravens are about, Clark's nutcrackers, several Stellar's jays, blue and ruffed grouse, great horned owls, and our favorites, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches. Along the creeknever away from waterare dippers and belted kingfishers. Mergansers, an occasional mallard, a few swans. Goshawks cruise the winter forests like ghosts. Snow buntings, wintering here from the Arctic, flutter about in groups, feeding on windblown seeds.
Mammals are also rare. Moose, coyote, pine marten, snowshoe hare, sometimes a wolverine just passing through. Shrews, mice, and voles move about under the snow; picas live deep in the talus, eating grasses they collected all summer. Insect species are uncommon or absent.
If we could be said to have companions, they are moose. They seem not only tolerant of our presence but interested. Nor does Rio's growling intimidate them. After she charged a moose when she wasa puppy, she decided she was not cut out for herding moose. She sits on the porch and growls; the moose ignore her.
Sometimes they are indifferent to our presence. Once when Dana was meditating out on our picnic table, a bull moose walked past, perhaps five feet in front of her. She remained still; the bull studied her and went his way.
At other times they seem genuinely curious. One moonlit night we heard a moose walk by the cabin on frozen snow until it reached the window next to our bed and stood towering above us, the bottom of its chest level with the sill. Slowly its head dropped down until its face appeared next to us, perhaps eighteen inches away, the massive nose quivering as it sniffed, an enormous eye reflecting moonlight. Rio, on the bed as always, growled softly, her most serious warning, but the moose paid no mind. Then ever so slowly it backed away and wandered north a few yards to feed on branches of subalpine fir. In the morning we found a shallow depression where its warmth had melted the snow. The depression's depth and shape showed that it had spent the night watching us.
Despite the presence of winter residents, tens of thousands of other beings must return if this island of Greater Yellowstone is to flourish. Each returns in its own manner.
Ground squirrels and bears have been here all winterin hibernation. Ground squirrels return, so to speak, from the dark, digging out from their burrows to the surface of the snow and braving long journeys across unmarked expanses to feed on new greens. Great gray and great horned owls await them. Grizzlies and black bears leave their dens when melting snow reveals winter kills and red squirrel middens filled with whitebark pine nuts. Trout leave the depths of the lakes and feast on bugs washed down the feeder creeks into the holes at each inlet.
The majority of critters return via a migration indexed to what they eat. Some migrate from within the ecosystem, both vertically and horizontally, others travel thousands of miles. They are nomads with summer and winter homes connected by established corridors to the island of Greater Yellowstone.
Pronghorn that will raise calves in Grand Teton National Park's meadows travel two hundred miles from southern Wyoming, one of the longest mammal migrations in North America. Elk return from a national wildlife refuge near Jackson. Mule deer arrive from warmer, exposed buttes at the southern end of Jackson Hole. Swainson's hawks return from Argentina, redtail hawks and mountain bluebirds from Mexico. Wilson's warblers, a tiny being weighing about a quarter ounce, come back from Costa Rica. Robins return from the southwestern United States and Mexico when worms are about in the just-melted earth. Ospreys return from winter habitats ranging into South America when ice leaves rivers and lakes, exposing fish. An osprey nest at the end of Lupine Meadow has been occupied for as long as I can remember. The first time I see an osprey flying along Cottonwood Creek with a fish in its beak I wonder where it's been all winterPanama, Ecuador, Chile?
Ticks, mayflies, butterflies, and squalla stone flies appear; mosquitoes begin to emerge, though they are never numerous. Geese, ravens, loons, and kestrels lay eggs. Fungi emerge from the wet earth. The planet tilts toward the sun, trillions of bacteria go to work, photosynthesis proceeds.
All these returnees are essential parts of a vast complex whole that is itself unseeable, the web of life constituting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and their arrival reveals how the integrity of Greater Yellowstone depends on corridorsin the air, on the land, and in the riversand on environments, habitats, human acts, and policies at the other ends of these corridors in places far from our national parks and wilderness areas.
We greet the visible returnees with acts of appreciation because we are a species that valorizes the eye and many of our judgments are visual. The very small is seen only with specialized equipment, usually by those experts with specialized interests. The very largethe entire ecosystemis virtually ignored except by other experts with other specialized interests. Human perception is restricted to a certain scale, just as it is restricted to certain wavelengths of light. The spectrometer and varieties of satellite imagingallow us to see more, each in its own mediated manner, but in general we are indifferent to other spectrums or scales (and there are ecosystems at every scale)indifferent, that is, until things begin to go wrong.
It's sort of like a body. When things go wrong with the body (itself a collection of ecosystems at various scales) we ask for X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging, swabs and biopsies. Similarly, concern for the health of an ecosystem requires us to adopt different scales of view than those derived from a casual afternoon drive through the landscape. One of the least technical ways of seeing things at a larger scale is to climb a summit and look around.
Although Dana and I are committed to greeting each new arrival, it is difficult for humans to get around in April, especially if you want to climb a summit. Many of the roads in Grand Teton and Yellowstone remain closed. Large sections of Jackson Hole and the surrounding mountains are designated critical winter habitat for game animals and will not open to public entry until May 1. Then, too, cycles of freezing and thawing convert dense snow into large loose crystals that collapse beneath your skis or snowshoes, leaving you crotch-deep in junk, which discourages snow travel in the valleys. Axle-deep mud defends the dirt roads. Places open to the public concentrate people. A dedicated community of skate-skiers, in-line skaters, runners, and cyclists crowd the newly plowed road through Grand Teton National Park while it is still closed to vehicular traffic. But we do not want be on pavement; we want dirt and life, a place to hike, and that means our valley's buttes.
Our prevailing winds are from the southwest, or west, so the southern-facing ridges on the valley's buttes are swept by winds that remove snow, and the direct sunlight melts what little remains. These southern ridges are the first places where you can do steep hikes, even though you must sometimes ski to reach the bottom of them.
One named Blacktail Butte is protected inside Grand Teton National Park, near the community of Moose. Its southern ridges are my first hike each spring. Dana has just moved here from Hawaii and is particularly keen to see greenery and flowers. I've describedthe hike up one of its southern ridges and down another. As April drifts toward May and the days get warmer, she insists, as though she is affected by photosynthesis, "Let's go to Blacktail Butte."
"That means we have to walk uphill. Horrible thought." I'm a mountain-climbing guide. We've been skiing on the flats all winter and aren't in shape for hills, but I have to get in shape for hills and Blacktail is one of my workouts.
The butte rises next to the main highway through Jackson Hole. It is roughly three miles long and two miles wide, the south section being wider than the north, so that on a map it resembles an arrowhead. The top is 7,688 feet high. Most of its summit and sides are covered with forest, but many of its western flanks are partially bare ridges that extend downward like fingers of a hand.
"Butte" doesn't sound spectacular and Blacktail Butte isn't. It is devoid of alpine environments for which the Tetons are famous; there are no lakes, no streams, and precious few springs. And since it is so near the highway and its constant noise, few people are familiar with its charms. This is unfortunate, since the summit of the butte is an excellent place to survey the valley's structure and communitiesboth nature's and our own. It is a particularly fine location for seeing the result of geological processes in Jackson Hole. Faulting induced by earthquakes and the consequences of glaciation jump out at youeven amateurs like us can make sense of what happened.
Faults have raised the Teton mountains six miles. Studies over the past several decades by the geophysicist Robert Smith show that thousands of major earthquakes lifted the Teton Range into its towering setting while simultaneously making the valley of Jackson Hole sink. Strangely, his most recent measurements suggest the movements have reversed: the mountains are falling and the valley is rising!
Two of the more recent glaciations have been carefully studied. The first, called the Bull Lake Glaciation, buried the land upon which the town of Jackson now stands beneath 1,500 feet of ice. The second, called the Pinedale Glaciation, retreated only 14,000 years ago, a mere blip in geological time. Plants and animals returned to the rock-filled valley, and the first Native Americans followed them.
Other processesplate tectonics and hot spotsare less apparent and require knowledge of modern geology. The movement of the earth's crust over Yellowstone National Park's active volcanothe "Yellowstone Hotspot"leaves earthquake epicenters. Earthquakes rated 7.5 on the Richter scale have occurred in Greater Yellowstone, and it is only a matter of time before a quake of equal magnitude strikes Jackson Hole.
Blacktail Butte is probably the product of complex secondary faults, a medley of limestone, siltstone, claystone, sandstone, and shale, plus generous amounts of loess and debris from glaciations, surrounded by a plain of quartzite cobbles. No one knows why it survived glaciation, but there it stands, isolated, with the dignity that attends isolation.
The base of Blacktail Butte is only a half mile from the main highway. It is one of those warm, luminous spring days you dream of in January, a day for ambling and contemplation. Dana and I hike toward the butte, pausing often to enjoy new flowers and birds. Although our elevation here is only 300 feet lower than the meadow near our cabin, spring is more advanced. The slightest increase in warmth is a difference that makes a difference. Dana begins her welcomes. "Purple delphinium!" "Scarlet gilia!"
Few trees inhabit this plain; there is little soil and the glacial till is so porous water immediately drains into underground reservoirs. Trees present, usually cottonwood, grow along either waterways or irrigation ditches. Two plants of similar height are prominent: sagebrush and antelope bitterbrush. However, interspersed between these bushes are twenty species of grasses and more than one hundred species of flowering plantsa richer community than one would think.
We climb an alluvial fan at the bottom of a dry gulch that suggests that rain was once more abundant than at present. At the top we spot our first Indian paintbrush of the season. After gaining a ridge, one of the "fingers," descending from the summit, we recognize concentricirrigation ditches climbing up the fan beneath us, and faint outlines of fields, probably a homestead that failed in this harsh country.
The 1,200-foot difference in elevation between the sagebrush flats and the top of the butte, plus the many different planes of fingerlike ridges, each receiving different amounts of sunlight, produce a variety of microhabitats, each with its own set of wildflowers. At each new bloom we stop and Dana shouts an appropriate welcome.
As we climb higher, it gets cooler and the variety of flowers changes to those we first saw in Lupine Meadow this spring. Walking uphill is like walking back in time and reminds me that what is natural is always indexed to time. Hence the arrival of flora and fauna is one way of tracking time (technically known as phenology), one used by humans for millennia before the arrival of mechanical clocks in the twelfth century.
The sound of the highway is lost to the wind. The same cannot be said of the noise from airplanes. Beneath us lies the most conspicuous artifact in Jackson Hole, the Jackson Hole Airport, infamous for being the only airport in the nation located entirely in a national park. More than sixty thousand planes land in Grand Teton Park every year, at least seven thousand of them private jets.
The major flight path from the north goes down the Snake River through Grand Teton National Park, right over the float trips, the anglers, the park visitor center, its offices, and a clutch of homes. Many people want to get rid of the airport, but every year it becomes less likely as development and its beneficiaries subvert the national park ideal.
"It hasn't always been this way. I can remember when there were no subdivisions, no log castles, and the airport was slated for removal," I remark.
"Why wasn't it removed?" Dana asks.
"James Watt, former secretary of interior."
The roar of a Gulfstream jet landing at the airport destroys mycomposure. It glides by, improbably close, a mechanical goose approaching a concrete pond.
The ridge is edged with Douglas fir and with aspen that have been dwarfed by the wind. As we climb higher, the fir diminishes and limber pine becomes more common. The deepest gullies contain patches of dirty snow. Many open areas are still brownlast year's foliage matted from the winter snow load. New flowers peek up through it, every one a phoenix rising from the dead.
We see the first mourning cloak butterfly of the season. A prairie falcon soars over the ridge, hovers momentarily in the updraft, and then dives out of sight. It is a particularly well-named migrant, since it retreats each winter to the Plains states, from the Dakotas south to Texas. A redtail hawk signals its presence high above with its characteristic screech.
The summit on the south end of the butte is capped with flat rocks. Mountains surround us on all sidesthe Gros Ventre, Teton, Hoback, and Snake River ranges. The mountains are still white, the valley green with spring growth. The flat rocks are a perfect place to rest and snack. We are both beat. Every year Blacktail seems a bit harder to me.
A red-napped sapsucker lands obligingly in the limber pine next to us and pecks away for five minutes, providing the longest and best view I've ever had of the species. It has just returned from Mexico. We watch it with binoculars as it hops from tree to tree, admiring the bold colorsred, black, yellow, and whiteand the intricate patterns on its back.
A fire swept up the lower reaches of the butte last summer. Through the glasses we see patches of larkspur and bluebells, and a yellow field of arrowleaf balsamroot. Fresh green sprouts of grass look like slivers of emerald against the black soil. Six bison graze sagebrush flats further south, and herds of elk roam the cottonwood forest along the Gros Ventre River.
I walk around, searching for cactusopuntia fragilia plant both widespread and uncommon. Few people know there is cactus in Jackson Hole, and fewer still can find it. An exacting combinationof wind and exposure is required for its survival. It is an inappropriately named little plant that can survive sustained temperatures of 40 below 0, lives as far north as British Columbia, and is so tough that gardeners who have planted it claim it is virtually impossible to get rid ofa cactus weed, they say. Soon it will bear a pale yellow flower.
After a while we cannot help but notice the background magnified by our binoculars. The far away and unnoticed becomes near. As we sharpen the focus it becomes obvious that pine and bird and cactus exist within a matrix that is anything but wild and natural.
"Yonder lies Jackson Hole, last of the Old West." I'm quoting a famous sign. Right! Land of the trophy log house, hivelike motel rooms for the worker bees, the stretch Hummer, the Gulfstream jet, miles of irrigation ditches, roads, trails, and fences, a slew of golf courses, two ski areas, the largest building in Wyoming, thirty thousand people a day milling about town in summer, gridlock on the streets, the five-dollar latte, the arnica oil massage. And yet ... what an interesting collection of people! The reclusive billionaires and the ski bums, the traditional Republican ranchers and a thriving Latino community, a slew of misfit writers and hundreds of nonprofit organizations.
This is my favorite place in the world. Many people find it the epitome of natural beauty, but it is about as natural as it is the last of the Old Westthe delusional fluff of travel writers and the Chamber of Commerce.
The view from Blacktail Butte brings out my ambivalence about my home valley, a conflict between beauty and ecological health. I usually assume they go together, and the beauty of Jackson Hole is so overwhelming it's easy to ignore the crisis of its ecological health.
I cherish the partsthe spring beauties, the falcon, the stonefly, the wolfyet the matrix in which these parts are embedded consists of many mutually interdependent processespopulation dynamics, fire regimes, forest succession, river flows, climate, and so forthall of which have been rendered so artificial from human intervention that I no longer have a sense of exactly what in Jackson Hole remains natural and exactly what it is I want to preserve.
Jackson Hole is not a special case. Development in other towns nibbling at the edges of Greater YellowstoneCody, Lander, Pinedale, Afton, Driggs, West Yellowstone, Gardner, Cooke City, Bozeman, Livingstonall artificialize (to coin a term) Greater Yellowstone. Despite its natural beauty I think of Jackson Hole as a natural artifact, more like a garden, a hothouse tomato, or a game preserve in Scotland than wild country in Canada or Alaska, a background for people's preferred version of fungolfing, skiing, fishing, hand gliding, climbing, kayaking, rafting, in-line skating, mountain biking, hiking, snowmobiling, four-wheel driving, bird-watching, motorbiking, hunting, ATV-ingthe list seems endless.
"But it is so beautiful," says Dana.
"Yes, a beautiful artifact. It's been a natural artifact since the first Native Americans arrived twelve thousand years ago and exterminated dozens of species; since the mountain men killed off the beaver; since ranchers arrived in the eighteen-eighties and their cattle introduced alien diseases to elk and bison, and riparian lands were planted with alfalfa and other alien plants that changed the kind and distribution of indigenous plants; since those same ranchers and government agencies killed off wolves, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and eagles to protect their livestock; since various irrigation projects siphoned water from the valley's creeks and rivers until they went dry, and they dammed the valley's artery, the Snake River, and flooded nearly thirteen thousand acres of riparian habitat in 1916, rendering river flows artificial for the past ninety years and leading to a constant juggling act by the Bureau of Land Management in a vain attempt to satisfy Idaho's farmers, local anglers and fly-fishing guides and white-water rafting companies, all the while refusing to insure adequate water levels for the river's insect life (once stonefly hatches coming off the river would cover you like snow, now they are gone); since real-estate development along the Snake River further diminished the riparian habitats and channeled the river into a narrow slot that destroyed fish habitat and jump-started the long-term destruction of the cottonwood forests, all courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers who builtdikes paid for by public monies, simultaneously subsidizing agriculture and real-estate interests and promoting environmental destruction, only to later spend additional millions for further interventions to correct the devastating ecological consequences of their previous efforts; since the quasi domestication of Jackson Hole's iconic animal, the elk, who found their historical winter habitat occupied by fences, cows, houses, people, and began to starve in such large numbers a national outcry led the Izaak Walton League to purchase land that eventually became the National Elk Refuge, a flawed model of compassionate conservation that lacked sufficient area and resources to feed the elk who wintered there so that they were fed tons of elk kibble each winter, kibble delivered by horse-drawn sleds; since keeping elk artificially close together increased the likelihood of wild animals transmitting brucellosis back to cows, causing the state to trap and kill elk and some fools to call for killing all elk and bison to save their beloved cows; since elk were integrated into the local economy as a commodity and hunters, many guided by outfitters, managed the number and sex of the population, and tours among the Serengeti-like winter elk herd on horse-drawn sleds daily plied the refuge habituating elk that would be hunted by humans and Scouts collected the racks cast by the bulls to auction to Oriental medicine manufacturers and crafts folks for knife handles and chandeliers; since we suppressed wild fires and thinned forest around the development to create 'defensible space,' further altering the natural processes of forest succession, even though the Forest Service repeatedly tells anyone who will listen that what the American West does in the summer is burn, that burning is not only natural but as essential to the ecosystem as water; since Grand Teton National Park conducted 'controlled burns' to simulate natural succession even though the controlled burns are never big enough or hot enough to maintain the historical landscape architecture caused by uncontrolled wild fires. And I don't know how to parse all that with the perception that Jackson Hole is an icon of natural beauty, that is my home and the place I love."
Dana is silent. She's lost me to a mind on fire and she knows it. Iam exhausted from my rant. And I have said nothing about other scales. The Oxford entomologist J. M. Anderson says that temperate forest soil can support "up to a thousand species of soil animals ... present in populations exceeding one or two millions per square meter." The mycologist Paul Stamets begins his masterwork, Mycelium Running, with this sentence: "There are more species of fungi, bacteria, and protozoa in a single scoop of soil than there are plants and vertebrate animals in all of North America." Can we meaningfully track the consequences of human activity at that scale? Trillions of events are occurring in Greater Yellowstone every second. Trying to understand them is like driving into a blizzard at a hundred miles an hour and trying to analyze each flake as it passes. The Dense Array of Being. Thinking about it makes me dizzy. Yet these multiple, complex, interrelated waves of human artifice have cascaded through Greater Yellowstone for at least 12,000 years, and now the most pervasive human influence is affecting everythingglobal warming. What's left of "natural"?
An ecosystem is like Humpty Dumpty: all the King's bureaucrats and all the King's biologists can't put an ecosystem back together again. Flora and fauna will adjust or depart for cooler regions farther north. Raccoons arrive from the south. No trout or mountain sheep, but great bass fishing and coon huntin' in Wyoming. And what about new butterflies arriving in the ecosystem? Will we take arms against a flock of butterflies?
Dana leaves for a subsidiary point on the ridge we will descend so I can take a photograph of her with the mountains in the background. This is all so new to her she wants pictures to send to her friends in Hawaii and to her parents.
On the summit she stands with arms outstretched in the universal sign of victory. Again the magnification of the photographic lens throws things into a different perspective. Beyond her stretches the Gros Ventre Wilderness; directly above her head is Jackson Peak, edges of the valley that still harbor wilder thingswolves, grizzlies, mountain lions. We wander into their mountains, they wander into our valley; we live together in a mixed communitywhere the boundary of wild and tame, natural and artificial, is permanently blurred.
I study the Grand Teton with the binoculars. I've climbed it around four hundred times and I have an enduring interest in its being. I study the routes, the approaches, and the trails leading into the canyon beneath it, trails I will soon ascend again. Avalanche debris fills an area called the Meadow. Plumes of snow trail from the summit. Aloof, literally and metaphorically, it seems as timeless as anything I am likely to know.
But I am not seeing. I have left the moment, my lovely wife, the cactus at my feet, the mountain, everything present, to occupy my mind and fret. And since I think best when I am walking, I let my mind wander with my feet.
"Wild" and its cognates have become slippery words. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the history of "wild" to the Corpus Glossary , a Latin/Anglo-Saxon dictionary compiled in A.D. 725. Interestingly, the Latin equivalent in the glossary is indomitus, a word that suggests much of its consequent elaboration. Usage number 7, from A.D. 1,000, is: "Not under, or submitting to, control or restraint ; taking, or disposed to take, one's own way; uncontrolled ... going at one's own will; unconfined, unrestricted." This is Thoreau's sense of the word and why he wished his neighbors were wilder.
The opposite of "wild" is "control," which is defined as "purposive influence toward a predetermined goal." Since we became a distinct species we have influenced all life; it is impossible to be in a relationship without mutual influence. We see this in our own relationships. But influence is not control. Influence is quite compatible with "going at one's own will," or, to use a fancy word, autonomy. Control goes beyond influence; it is an increasing intervention with autonomy that travels along a spectrum, becoming controlling and, finally, abusive.
Why continue to apply the word "wild" to elk that eat kibble inside of fences, or to wolves whose ancestors arrived by air freight from Canada, or to trout whose ancestors were raised in hatcheries in California, or to mountain sheep imported from Oregon? Why call them "wildlife"? Can we use words any way we wish?
Humpty Dumpty is not only a character in a Mother Goose nursery rhyme, he is also a character in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, where he epitomizes a common contempt for ordinary language by saying that words mean whatever you fancy they mean. To wit:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to meanneither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be masterthat's all."
Indeedwho is to be master of the language of nature? Shall conservationists, biologists, and politicians call the shots, or should we start with the dictionary?
I think one distinguishes wild from its opposites the way one distinguishes master from slave. It is a matter of looking at your subject through the optic of control, a filter available to anyone who has ever experienced a relationship with a friend, a spouse, a child, a dog.
Biology and ecology are irrelevant to this practice. Wildness is not a branch of science. There is no biology or ecology course entitled "Wildness 101." The issue is freedom, whether in human nature or the rest of nature, a matter of philosophy, perhaps even religion, perhaps ontology, but it sure as hell can't be quantified. Computer models and statistical greed advance neither the cause of freedom nor wildness; indeed, there is a good deal of historical evidence to suggest they are antithetical to both. Who then is to decide what's wild?
Dana is waiting for me; I can tell from her posture. We have miles to go before we sleep. The ridge, its cactus, its colorful flowers beckon. We drop down the ridge, welcoming both, and then cut across into forest and alarm a cow moose. She snorts and ambles off into some aspen.
Walking down the southern ridge of Blacktail Butte I know,because I am too old not to know, that one spring I will not return to my valley with the sagebrush buttercups, the ospreys, and the bears. I am, alas, not only an irrelevant part of the ecosystem but an irrelevant kind of part. Humans can disappear and the ecosystem will be just fine. Nonetheless, it is unlikely we will disappear anytime soon, and I would like this place to endure with some semblance of its current identity, though I am quite confused about what that might be. I have nothing against racoons and bass, but I prefer mountain sheep and cutthroat trout, grizzlies and our own butterflies, thank you. I realize, however, that I have little personal sense of how the rest of Greater Yellowstone is faring. This year the view from Blacktail Butte made me want to see how it is doing, preferably with Dana, Rio, or friends who know it better than I do, to make my own quite unscientific judgment as to how wild and intact it all is, to study the places I visit, and to bear witness to those travels.
TRAVELS IN THE GREATER YELLOWSTONE. Copyright © 2008 by Jack Turner. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.