In our time, the wild is an ever-receding horizon. With every technological intrusion and political-economic travesty, it becomes necessary to qualify wildness. We can’t control or deny the wildness of vast phenomena like volcanism or the weather. Obscure realms of insects, fungi, and protozoa teem with wildlife. The earth’s rotation is wild. The sun is wild. But in the mesocosm, where we live, what’s wild is under continual assault.
What is wild when two-thirds of the planet’s surface has been degraded by human activity? When the rate of extinction is a thousandfold what is normal? What will wilderness be when the extinction crisis has passed and evolution replenished the Earth?
On a late May evening, I walked in to my woods in search of the wild. It’s a woodland tatter, not a remnant of what Ray Dasmann called “the old, wild world.” It’s my Concord, not my Alaska. For the twenty years that I’ve lived on this land, I’ve been going on rambles through the cover of 35 acres of self-willed albeit exotic Scotch pines (Pinus sylvestris). Prowling, I seek the return of the native, signs of the wildlife–prints in the snow or scuffs in the duff. That particular evening, I wanted to visit a small population of Star-flowers (Trientalis borealis) I’d come upon some years ago. When I found them again it rejoiced me to see that their numbers had increased.
Nobody planted them. The Star-flower is simply a plant common to the North woods. From the center of a whorl of six or seven lanceolate leaves, on fine stalks, rise buds the size of an apple seed that open as precise white flowers. A few were in bloom, hovering over the carpet of pine needles. Wild flowers. Not only were they not placed there by the hand of man, no one has ever tinkered with them to make them bigger, showier, longer-lasting or their petals some other color. The wonder of it is that these exquisite indigenes are growing under a derelict Christmas Tree plantation.
My half-mile deep, “woods” once was a maple beech forest. The whole region was part of the Northwoods. Homesteaders farmed the light sandy soils here. In my neighborhood that worked for about a century. By the 1930s a lot of soils began to blow. Pines became about the only crop that would grow in some places. Given time, other flora reappeared beneath them. Could Star-Flowers be harbingers of the next Northwoods wilderness? Now cherries, maples, and beeches sprout up anywhere the sun can hit the ground. There’s a population of Wild Lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum canadense), out back, too and a wood thrush fluting every summer.
Wilderness, according to one vernacular definition, is a place where human beings are on the menu, being large and unspoiled enough to harbor top carnivores. There’s no official wilderness on Michigan’s lower peninsula but by the menu standard, the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore, offers the possibility of being slain by a the furtive cougar. The wildlife my land accommodates is common and harmless. Over the years I’ve seen white-tailed deer, coyotes, foxes, skunks, coons, possums, a barred owl, wild turkeys, different warblers and flycatchers. Once in a great while, a sharp-shinned hawk will blast all the chickadees and nuthatches gathered at the the bird feeder into invisibility. There’ve been snakes, frogs and toads, moles, voles, mice, squirrels and cottontails. Bat scat tells me I’ve got chiroptera, but I don’t know what kind. Excepting slugs, maggots, beetles, a pack of feral dogs, or a cannibal there’s nothing out there that could eat me. On my rambles, though, I’m always finding bones and strews of feathers, lots of different scats. Wild things eat each other all the time.
On this recent ramble two or three crows waltzing overhead were all the wildlife obvious. As time passes, the crows seem to be moving nearer to my house. I hear them cawing right outside my bedroom window in the mornings, see their silhouettes and shadows pass over throughout the day. Adaptable and pestiferous though they may be, I like crows.
Being loath to waste food, and wanting to be hospitable to crows, when my late cat became fickle about her diet, I would take the spurned, stinky orts, along with chicken bones or any other other fleshly offal, out to a mossy opening, cawing in my thick human accent, and depart.
This evening the crows flapped above, on reconnaissance. The one with the ragged primary feathers had a basso caw. The other two were mezzos. Seated under a tree, how conspicuous I must have been, with my plain, solid surfaces and pale upturned face. Not being armed, or carrion, of what consequence could I be?
A crow perched on top of a pine. I craned back to look for nests, couldn’t see any. The perching one disappeared. The other two crows came and went, came and went. As the sun drifted lower, golden light beglamoured the trees. The pines became more pungent in the heavy, cooling, air. When I stood up there was a wooden “crack!” nearby. I looked behind me to see a flash of deer shanks fade into the deeper woods.
Reluctantly, I headed for my writing studio. Passing through another opening in the woods, I noticed that a crow had followed me and was making casual passes overhead. I stopped and gazed, liking the moment very much. Both being sociable, wide-ranging, generalists, that crow and I had more in common than a lot of animals. She was no Kirtland’s Warbler and I’m no tarsier.
The molten glory of the sunset washed every twig, cone, needle and flake of bark. Treading on up the hill towards my studio, I reached an open stretch of the path and saw that silent crow still with me. No cawing, just artless ellipses in a small patch of air. She drew in her wings and her whole body was a pulse. She stretched them and caught the sunset underneath: two quick copper flashes, then the black silhouette rowing through a slaty sky. By and by the crow flapped off. I switched on the lamp in my writing shed. The crow came back. I stepped out for a minute and that was that.
A half-dozen gulls ousted from the county landfill had glided past earlier, off to forage in some newly-tilled field. Those gulls brought scrounging to mind. Uneasily, I wondered whether the encounter with the crow had not been an elective affinity, but a clever bird looking for a handout. I had thought of offering a snack but didn’t, deciding it would be wrong to accustom the crow to connect me with food. Had my earlier offerings already done that? Or had the crow been training me?
As the magic of the encounter dissipated, I thought of the crow scenario in Peter Ward’s good, grim Future Evolution. In one of the book’s chapters, Ward, a paleontologist, projects a future ten million years hence. The few generalist organisms that survived the current unpleasantness have long since founded new lineages. Their descendants occupy niches in all the altered landscapes. Ward lands a time traveler in a garbage dump. There he encounters scores of new species of snakes, rats, and pigs all morphed for scavenging. Crows, too, have evolved along several paths, including top carnivore. Huge raptorial crows have become the post-Cenozoic lions, and a hapless Homo sapiens wandering through the landfill their prey.
Evolution is wild. All beings are implicated, none is left unchanged. Countless partners, countless dances. Yet the wildness of evolution or of the lithosphere might as well be an abstraction. As Gregory Bateson put it, “Extinction of the dinosaurs was trivial in galactic terms but this is no comfort to them. We cannot care much about the inevitable survival of systems larger than our own ecology.”
In a wild cosmos, control, finally, is an impossibility. Death is wild, and among our own kind at least, we try to control it. We expand the perimeter of civilization, hold the beasts at bay, lose sight of nature’s ultimate truths and become predators or prey to ourselves. The more individuals and societies strive to rule the wild, the fiercer the planet’s revolts become. Yet however deranged the race has become, not all humans have lost their love for the “the wholeness of life and/things, the divine/beauty of the universe.” Robinson Jeffers wrote of.
Diehard wilderness defenders are not about to quit fighting for it, regardless of the odds and definitional niceties. Conservation biologists map out half wilderness for our future, ecological restorationists sow the feral landscapes to come. They know that wildness is the preservation of the world.
Everything alive grew on a wild stem. Star flowers are wild. White-tailed deer are wild. Crows are wild, and as long as the sun keeps shining, all our destinies remain in play.