Getting past the hurdles

After nearly two weeks in the field, I’ve reached the first bump. This is the stage of the program where I desperately want to be back in civilization. All my underwear smells disgusting. I’ve been wearing the same shirt for five days. It’s pouring rain again. My sleeping bag keeps freezing at night. I haven’t had a proper shower since we left.

Except I think it’s also at this stage where small things start to become really amazing. I splashed creek water on my face today and it felt like the best bath of my life. The view this morning was absolutely gorgeous because it rained all night—mist and fog in the distance, a mosaic of blues and greens across the forest and pasture in the distance. Eating apples has become the best snack in the world—I’m trying to break my addiction to processed sugar.

Somehow, at the end of the day, it all evens out. I know I sleep better and longer here than I ever have at home or school. I eat better, I feel better, and even my perpetually angry stomach has calmed down. Sometimes, I wish we had real shelter, a heater, a shower. But sometimes, I think the whole rest of the country would be better off with less.

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I want to be an ecologist

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Baker National Forest, Baker County, Oregon
context: We watched a documentary about a few OSU ecologists doing field work in Yellowstone National Park and documenting the way streams have recovered after wolf reintroduction, because wolves keep elk populations in check, preventing them from overgrazing stream banks.


God, I want to be an ecologist right now. It’s the cheesy music. The cheesy music always get me. And the wolves, the pictures of wolves running through snow and the hope that if I live long enough, I might see that happen someday. I love the way nature works so well. Ecology is like peeling back the layers of an onion. Today, it doesn’t seem scary. All we need to do is bring back wolves and cougars and lynxes and everything else will come back. It seems to beautifully simple and happy. Until you get to the people, and the politics. That screws everything up. Why did I have to pick ES-politics? ES-Bio is full of the possibility of redemption. Politics makes for good papers, good thinking and studying but no optimism. I’ve watched C-SPAN, and even on issues everyone agrees are important, half the things people stand up and say are ridiculous, tangential or obstructive. What chance do wolves have?
I love the fact that you can’t replace wolves. We can try to mimic their ecological functions, but we can’t impart that same fear in elk populations. We shoot indiscriminately, construct fences and do our best to be seen as the top predator, but we can’t pretend to be wolves, try as we might. Wolves live because of elk. The two are intimately intertwined in a way we could never hope to equal. Which is why we need them, so much, to keep that ecological balance.
And I hate the idea of shooting wolves. It pains me so much, viscerally, to think of that bullet piercing through layers of grey hair, the wolf falling, bleeding onto the ground. But I think that hunt might be necessary for wolves to live with ranchers. If you take control away from people, they feel powerless. They act on their own. I think, I hope, that allowing a hunt will help bridge that divide. I hope those few wolves that are shot will help the rest survive. I hope wolves will learn to fear humans, to run at night, to make themselves invisible. I know, if we let them, they will survive. They’re fighters by nature.

Seeing cows

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Baker National Forest, Baker County, Oregon
Today, I went running without my glasses on. I saw the same landscapes I‘ve been seeing all week, but without the sharp focus I’m so used to. Somehow, I think that blur makes it easier to see. Sight becomes a matter of color and pattern, general characteristics spread out across the entire skyline. The specific details tend to fade. A black dot on the horizon moves closer and closer, until suddenly you realize it’s a cow ten feet from you. And then you feel vulnerable, realizing that the cows of the world, organized into reasonably sized herds, could wrest control of everything from people if they put their minds to it. A single cow could trample me to death, leaving my body bleeding in the road until someone noticed I hadn’t come back from mg run. Yet they eat so placidly, wander our public lands and follow each other calmly to slaughter in an industrial warehouse. Tick. Slit the carteroid artery. Tock. Dripping blood. Tick. A resigned moo. Tock. The line keeps moving.
Cows seem almost to belong in this system. They’re thoroughly domesticated, stubborn perhaps in insignificant matters, but complacent as cogs in the wheel of industry. I don’t know this for certain; I’ve never spent time with a cow, birthed a calf or played my part in the slaughter. But looking into a cow’s eyes, I don’t see the wild. They’ve had it tamed out of them.
Can there be honor in a kill like this? Can the predator kill its pretty without the delicate dance between the two that has existed since time immemorial? I don’t think our slaughterhouses and pastures honor that dynamic, but perhaps they honor what the animal is, in itself. This seems like a better medium, though we’ve raised them to be that way. I’ve never killed a cow. I’ve never killed any mammal at all. In fact, I believe the most highly evolved murder I can be held responsible for was boiling a moonsnail and eating it whole on a breach trip freshman year of high school. And yet, I eat meat, after eleven years of refusing. I eat it happily, relishing the taste of flesh, overenthusiastic after so many years of trying to live what I believed was a better way. I eat is uneasily, feeling insincere in my excitement because I’ve never proved to myself that I know what it is to nourish myself with the flesh of another living being. I eat it hoping of a better world, where food is transparent and I won’t have to worry that the labels I’ve decided to screen my food by don’t actually mean anything about the health of my body, the animal, the ecosystem, the planet. I eat it, and I feel nourished. This feeling is what I go back to when I have nothing else to make it ok.

Wolves revisited

My relationship with the wild has always been intimately tied to wolves. I went on three week-long wolf tracking expeditions in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho during high school, and those three weeks did much to solidify my love of spending time outside, not showering and sleeping under the stars. Even after camp ended, I followed the wolves’ political situation intensely, especially when US Fish and Wildlife began to talk about removing the Rocky Mountain reintroduced populations from the Endangered Species List (wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho in the mid-1990s after being driven to extinction by humans). I wrote letters and tried to get other to do the same. When they made the decision to delist wolves, I cried. Their removal from the list meant wolves would have a hunting season and could be shot by anyone with a permit—something akin to sacrilege in my mind.

This week, I got to understand the other side of the wolf story. I thought I understood the opposing views well enough. Conservation groups wanted wolves back because they were a fundamental part of the natural ecosystem that our actions had carelessly removed. Ranchers objected because wolves might kill cattle, but coyotes already killed cattle, and Defenders of Wildlife had set up a fund to compensate ranchers for wolf depredation. Hunters objected because they wanted to hunt elk, but elk populations had overshot the ecosystem’s carrying capacity and were overgrazing. Obviously, conservationists had the better set of arguments, and everyone else could learn to adapt to wolves.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. I knew it wasn’t, but I never heard the other side of the story from someone who’s lived it, not just from the Defenders of Wildlife website. But yesterday, we got to talk to a group of five ranchers in Wallowa County who have seen the effects of wolves on their cattle (wolves have now migrated into Eastern Oregon from Idaho, with about 14 wolves in two packs). As it turns out, depredation is only one of the many ways wolves cause losses for ranchers, and even when compensation is available for livestock losses, it seems laughably inadequate. One rancher told us last year, wolves killed 20 calves out of the 450 he had out (typical losses for ranchers in this area are about 1%). He was able to get compensation from Defenders of Wildlife for one of those animals. In addition, calves often weigh less due to stress from increased predation. In total, he estimated losses per cow from all wolf-related sources at $250 per head—a large chunk of income for a rancher barely making ends meet. Another rancher pointed out that by far the largest losses experienced with wolves in the area were property losses on the ranch itself, because no one’s interested in buying a ranch with wolves in the area.

Listening to the ranchers speak, I was reminded of salmon. Salmon have been driven to the brink of extinction by a variety of sources—dams, habitat destruction, overfishing and cattle grazing in spawning grounds. Every time a new dam is proposed, environmentalists say this is it, this is going to be the straw that breaks the salmon’s back. For ranchers, that straw is wolves. The American cowboy is a dying breed—the average age of a rancher in the US is 58. Ranchers are subject to ridicule and hate from almost every environmental group in the country over their use of public lands for grazing. They have to comply with environmental regulations about salmon habitat and riparian areas. They’re often booed when they go to meetings about policy to give their perspective or barred from participating in the first place. And even when they don’t have to deal with the politics of ranching, they’re lucky to break even by the end of the year. So naturally, they feel threatened.

I still think wolf reintroduction is important. I think wolves have an important role to play in the ecosystem. But if we want to keep wolves, we might have to compromise. We might have to move slowly. We absolutely have to listen. I don’t like the idea of hunting wolves, but if they need to be hunted to stay here, I might be able to live with that. I don’t know what the life of a wolf is worth, or how you measure it against the life of a cow, the lifestyle of a rancher or the value of a living ecosystem. I know there aren’t easy answers to these questions, and I know things are never as simple as they seem between the walls of a classroom.