Just Another Species

Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in Modoc Count...
Image via Wikipedia

It’s too easy to think we’re it, we homo sapiens. The wise, rational ones.

Which is why I hunger to be in nature as often as possible. Only out there, walking, canoeing, kayaking, riding, on my bike, do I quickly and indelibly remember we’re just one of millions of species inhabiting our shared blue ball of Earth.

I was lucky enough, in my late 20s, to take two safaris in East Africa, one in Tanzania and one in Kenya. I had never before fully understood how poorly equipped the human body is for some habitats — without the necessary protection of camouflaging colors or fur or  feathers, scales, thorns or poisoned stingers.

The Equatorial sun was brilliant and harsh; I once lay directly beneath a large fallen tree trunk, desperate for the tiniest sliver of shade. Insects whirred and bit. The water was filled with all sorts of dangerous things that could burrow into our flesh or bloodstream.

The landscape was full of large, silent stalkers — how would we ever hear the lion before he arrived at our tent door? In the mornings, we opened it to discover a pile of elephant dung the size of an 18-wheeler tire. Right beside our tent.

It was a life-changing experience to be reminded how fragile and vulnerable we really are. That we are but one piece of a large ecosystem, and often its most disrespectful and destructive.

From an interesting and smart essay in today’s New York Times:

So, the conundrum: More than ever, an urban nation plagued by obesity, sloth and a surfeit of digital entertainment should encourage people to experience the wild — but does that mean nature has to be tame and lawyer-vetted?

My experience, purely anecdotal, is that the more rangers try to bring the nanny state to public lands, the more careless, and dependent, people become. There will always be steep cliffs, deep water, and ornery and unpredictable animals in that messy part of the national habitat not crossed by climate-controlled malls and processed-food emporiums. If people expect a grizzly bear to be benign, or think a glacier is just another variant of a theme park slide, it’s not the fault of the government when something goes fatally wrong.

This year, Yosemite is experiencing a surge of visitors — 730,000 in July, a record for a single month, they say…

“Many of these people aren’t used to nature,” said Kari Cobb, a Yosemite park ranger. “They don’t fully understand it. We’ve got more than 800 trails and 3,000-foot cliffs in this park. You can’t put guardrails around the whole thing.”

On this week’s bike ride, a cardinal flashed before my eyes. A deer and her fawn ambled across the trail in front of me. Hawks and eagles soared overhead.

As I walked the bike up a hill, I saw a skeleton flattened in the wet grass. A deer.

Our suburban town, from which I can see the glittering towers of Manhattan 25 miles south like Oz, is filled with wildlife: raccoons, deer, crows, wild turkeys, groundhogs, skunks, rabbits.

I love hanging out in their neighborhood, whizzing through their world.

I wonder what they think of us.

When and where do you most enjoy being outdoors?

10 thoughts on “Just Another Species

  1. Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)

    While I haven’t had the opportunity to Safari in East Africa, I value the experiences I’ve had outdoors. From canoeing in upstate New York or Maine, to hiking in the mountains of Colorado, to snorkeling in the ocean off of Bali, I’ve had many opportunities to witness the power and beauty and complexity of nature. But yesterday, simply walking out my front door, we witnessed a surprising gift of nature. a Luna Moth resting on the porch. I posted pictures here http://lkramer14.wordpress.com/2011/08/20/a-little-bit-of-natures-magic/.

      1. Lisa (Woman Wielding Words)

        Completely love it. One of my fondest (slightly terrifying) memories was coming around the curve of a river within a few feet of the Granddaddy of all Moose! His rack was huge.

  2. I absolutely love the outdoors too. As a kid, I’d collect all sorts of insects even before I could walk. I’d have this see-through purse and I’d pick up ants all the time and put them in the purse when I was three years old or so. I still kind of do that to do this day, but now I’m raising Monarch caterpillars. I’ve also come across foxes, deer, and all sorts of animals when I used to ride horseback.

  3. crgardenjoe

    We used to live in a tiny farm town in western Iowa, which was quiet and nice, but it was surrounded by farms and we saw little “nature.” Now we live in a much larger city (in Iowa terms, not New York terms)–but, because a creek bed runs through our back yard, we often see deer, woodchucks, hawks and hear (and sometimes see) owls. Since I teach at a university, I have some time in summer to get out and enjoy the outdoors, which is why I chose “garden” as part of the name of my really random blog. But my woodsy back yard and the stream behind are among my favorite outdoor spots, although my wife and I love the state and county parks in our area, too. Besides the big stuff–trees and cliffs and rivers and lakes–I like the “small” stuff, like the flowers and butterflies: http://crgardenjoe.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/flowers-of-summer/

  4. jacquelincangro

    A great reminder that we are a part of nature, not apart from nature. You don’t necessarily have to go far, just be more aware of our surroundings. Just today I saw a spider capture a large mosquito in her web. The spider quickly went to work on it, wrapping it up in the web silks until it was kind of mummified. It was amazing to watch.

  5. Thanks.

    Kids now suffer something called Nature Deficit Disorder because so few of them even play outdoors, touch animals or trees or plants…I wonder how many of us can even identify half a dozen species of bird or tree or flower at this point.

    It is amazing to watch a spider or a bird or an animal doing its thing. It requires us to slow down and really pay attention.

    I hate this side effect of technology.

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