I have mentioned that there are cattle here. They are a fairly ubiquitous element of the landscape, whether you see them or not; miles of fencing, evidence of heavy grazing, corrals in various states of disrepair all imply their existence. Farming never really took hold here apparently, and from what I have learned, since the place was re-settled by Americans moving west during the mid-1800s, ranching has been the order of the day. For many days. I have also mentioned that there are deer (muleys) and antelope, though whether or not they play, I cannot fully attest. Also elk, although the Wife informed me that the current population are a reintroduced species, the original having been hunted to extinction.
Which brings us to another point. Wolves. More specifically, the Mexican Grey wolf. Essentially eradicated from the landscape, this once widespread southwestern species is the subject of a federal reintroduction program. According to that program’s website, there are approximately 110 individuals currently in the wild.
The human relationship with wolves has been a tenuous one, and while I am far from any sort of specialist on the matter, I can say from experience that the subject of the wolf is one broached at one’s peril in certain company. Much like my previous discussion regarding wilderness, this is a difficult issue and one with a very polarized history… and present and future it would seem.
In the 1990s, the logging industry in this area, one of the predominant livelihoods available to the local population as I understand it, was essentially shut down. Regulations seeking to address the very endangered existence of the Mexican Spotted owl. This issue is still touchy in this area, from what I have gathered in my brief time here. Again, I am no specialist in these matters, but the point being, there is a bit of recent history here regarding the relationship of people to the natural world. I am no specialist on that either, but that is what I have been pondering of late. Clearly.
Not trying to oversimplify the issue, but rather for the purpose of discussion, I see and thus here propose, two fundamental views as held by humans in regard to our relationship to the natural world; we are a part of it or we are apart from it.
In the first view, simply, our actions have direct effect on and thus implications for, the existence of the world we inhabit. This is an ecological viewpoint that places humans as part of a larger, interconnected system, where the actions and behaviors of any of the elements have some effect on every other part of the system. This implies an element of responsibility for our actions as they will have some greater influence on the world of which we are a part (and in saying “the world” I mean generically the whole of existence on this here floating rock we call earth).
In the second, while our actions may well have some effect on the world, that effect is seen more in relation to the status of humans as characters outside the existence of the natural world. That is, does said effect benefit or detract from human interest primarily. In this view, the possible effects beyond human interest are secondary and seen primarily in comparison to the well-being of humans rather than of the system. Indeed, the extreme of this view puts humans in a position of control over the system rather than any part of it.
The question of whether or not humans have affected the world by our actions is rather a moot point. If we dig a well, or plant a field, or build a wall, hell if we fell a tree or catch a fish, we have had some effect on the world around us. That really is not the question. The question lies in whether or not such actions have implications beyond how they may or may not benefit the human or humans in question. And here is a very important point; the humans in question. Does killing an elk have an effect on the hunter? Certainly. How about on the hunter’s family. Likely. On the hunter’s community? Probably. What about on the people that live in the next village over? Perhaps. How about killing the last elk? How does this action affect the humans in question? Suddenly, should we not expand the question to which humans have been affected? And, if we broaden the question to humans that would not seem to have been directly or indirectly affected in the first instance, but may well be in some way by the second, this then implies that an action can have a wider reaching consequence than what it might immediately seem. By suggesting this, I would propose that we are in fact a part of a larger system, actors within it rather than directors of it. What affect does the killing of an elk have on the elk population? What affect does the killing of the last elk have on the overall forest, on the system?
Of course in stating this I have showed my hand, as it were. I am convinced that what we do, whatever we do, is part of a larger system. I believe it is folly to think otherwise. Furthermore, I believe that this question points to, if not is, the central struggle in human existence; the question of the individual in relation to the whole. It is implicitly tied to my previous discussion of free will. How will an action, that I as an individual choose to do or not do, affect what exists beyond what I perceive as “self”? Furthermore, in what way does that matter… if at all?
This then leads to the difficult question, the one that snarls such a discussion into argument; how this relates to the human relationship with the rest of the system. If, as has been suggested by some, humans are the principle actors in this existence, what does it matter how our actions affect the system? I do not subscribe to such a view personally, but many have and many do.
Going back to the wolf. Or wolves actually. And the owls. And the cows, and the trees.
Recently, on a road trip, the Wife and I saw a billboard exclaiming fervent opposition to wolves on the landscape. It was the opinion of a group which proposed to be protecting the American Western Culture, presumably that being one of cattle ranching. This was not far, geographically speaking, from “the first wilderness”. Just the other day I was in a local shop buying eggs and dog food and saw a brochure with a photo of a young cow accompanied by a statement that “Wolves killed my brother”. The day before yesterday I saw an image on the interwebs from a site supporting the wolf reintroduction program; two young wolves with a statement, “Write a letter for us, we do not know how to hold pencils.”
Emotion. Both sides playing a nasty game. Both however, implying that human actions are having consequences. On the one hand, the manipulation of the system aimed at managing for natural elements is having a negative effect on certain human livelihood. On the other, manipulation of the system aimed at managing the human landscape has negatively affected the natural world. All of the actions having wider reaching implications than immediately suggested, yet neither really taking into consideration those implications fully. What it does say to me is that the system is more complicated than the here and now.
I don’t know what to make of it all. I think, I believe, that we are part of the system, though we unnaturally too often act to control it. Does the reintroduction of wolves to this area threaten the imminent demise of the local cattle industry? Unlikely. Could it make complications for some participants of that industry? Probably. Is this about right and wrong? I guess it depends on who you ask. Are these social questions? Political questions? Moral questions? Yes, probably all of those. But if that is the case, this says to me that such questions are systemic and thus more complex than how they are too often posited; in the here and now. But what do I know? I am neither forest manager, nor rancher, nor politician, nor activist really. More of an armchair philosopher I suppose, and what good is that? Who knows?