I was born and raised a city kid; you have to go back to Scotland and Queen Victoria to find someone in my family who lived and worked in the country. Pavement and asphalt are my natural habitat, so it was with some unease that I bought my first pair of hiking shoes this year, in preparation for a trip to Ireland that involved climbing to the peak of an island rock, and a week in the wilds of Montana.
I have always had immense respect for nature – a wary sort of respect that puts nature at a polite distance, and running water and warm bedding a few paces from where I stood. It’s an arms-length relationship I’ve cultivated since a series of camping trips I took with my sister and her husband in the ‘70s, north into the Canadian Shield, with its many variations on damp and rain, and its generous inventory of insects.
A month before I flew to Montana, there was a story in the news about a young man who left the boardwalk around Pork Chop Geyser in Yellowstone National Park and fell through a thin crust of rock and soil into the superheated, acidic water; his body was never recovered. Many of the news stories included interviews with park officials, noting that tourists had been ignoring posted notices and signs warning them not to stray off of marked paths or approach the animals. “The rules in the park aren’t just arbitrary,” a park spokesperson told the New York Times. “They’re really here to protect people who are visiting the park and the things that they’re here to see.”
I was in Yellowstone a month later, where I saw the boardwalk – and the signs, warning us about the fragile landscape and approaching the abundant bison or elk. In Montana I saw signs pointing out the danger from rattlesnakes and grizzlies. The landscape was truly majestic, the wildlife wonderful to witness, but with animals and hot springs added to my anxieties about weather, altitude, and terrain, I was never able to feel that I was “at one” with nature as much as I was its barely tolerated guest, cautioned to be ready to beat a hasty retreat when conditions changed.
There’s nothing new about our fascination with nature, or the deep identification with its alleged perfection and spiritual qualities, which began – tellingly – when industrialization started the migration of people from the country to cities, and had got its first philosophical justification from the French-Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who celebrated the idea of the natural man or the “noble savage,” free of the shackles of civilization.
It’s worth arguing that the secularization of the western world began with Martin Luther and Henry VIII, but Rousseau was the man who kicked the big hole in the dam that would soon sweep religion from the public square, and now we live in a world where the spiritual realm is being returned to the forests and rivers where our pagan ancestors saw them, and the environmental movement invokes the fear of nature’s wrath in new laws and regulations.
I do not consider this a good thing.
Just over a decade ago, the prolific German director Werner Herzog made a documentary called Grizzly Man, about the wildlife activist Timothy Treadwell. An alcoholic and misfit, Treadwell turned his life around in the Alaskan wilderness, where he devoted his life to protecting the native wildlife and particularly the local grizzly bears from what he perceived as threats. At first it was poachers, then tourists and fishermen who were (reasonably) afraid of the bears, and finally the park officials who thought Treadwell was crossing a very dangerous line in his nearly physical identification with the bears, putting his own life and that of others at risk.
Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by a rogue bear in the fall of 2003, the sound of their death recorded by a video camera with a cap still on the lens. Herzog’s film uses Treadwell’s own footage of his life among the bears to tell the story of a man who sought escape from civilization – from his very humanity – with creatures he considered spiritually and morally superior to him, acknowledging frequently that his lifestyle contained a likely death wish.
Treadwell worshipped at the altar of nature, and that was his tragic mistake. Narrating his thoughts over Treadwell’s final video footage, of the bear that probably killed him and his girlfriend, Herzog examines the face of the huge bear nosing around in the long grass near their campsite: “What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
Earlier in the film Treadwell comes upon the remains of a cub killed by a male bear to encourage its mother to breed again, and a baby fox killed by wolves. He believed that “perfection belonged to the bears,” Herzog notes in his voiceover, “but once in a while Treadwell came face to face with the harsh reality of wild nature. This did not fit into his sentimentalized view that everything out there was good and the universe in balance and in harmony.”
“Here I differ with Treadwell. He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.”
There is no morality in nature, where utility is the only yardstick by which success – and survival – is measured. It’s no surprise that, as we’ve transposed our spiritual longings from religion to nature, our laws are striving to justify the utility of murdering the weak and the innocent. We’re entering a wild, dangerous place, and we’re ignoring the signs.