J. B. MacKinnon grew up on the edge of a Canadian prairie. “I knew the prairie in the hands-in-every-crevice detail that only a child can, and it was, for me, a place of magic.” He developed a healthy relationship with the living ecosystem, an experience that is no longer ordinary. Years later, as an adult, he returned to visit home, and his sacred prairie had been erased by the Royal Heights subdivision. He could find no trace of the red foxes that he had loved so much. It hurt.
By and by, curiosity inspired him to spend some time studying books about the days of yesteryear. To his surprise, he learned that the foxes of his region were not indigenous, nor was much of the prairie vegetation. His childhood home bore little resemblance to the wild prairie that existed several centuries earlier. Before he was born, the land was home to caribou, elk, wolves, and buffalo, all absent in his lifetime. What happened? Could the damage be repaired? MacKinnon explored these questions in The Once and Future World.
The world we experience in childhood is typically perceived as being the normal, unspoiled state. We can comprehend the damage that has occurred during our lifetime, but not all that has been lost since grandma was little, or grandma’s grandma. This ecological amnesia is called shifting baseline syndrome. It whites out the past.
Thank goodness for the venerable grandmothers of the temple of history. They can take us to sacred mountains offering views of eons past, and help us remember who we are, where we came from, and how much has been lost. We can see the Pleistocene cave paintings, aglow with reverence and respect for the family of life, created by a culture in which humans were “just another species on the landscape.” Later Greek paintings illustrate a culture of total disconnection — human gods, goddesses, warriors, lion killers — starring the one and only species that mattered (as does our culture).
Like MacKinnon, the world of my childhood has been erased. Three hundred years earlier, it had been a paradise of forests dotted with many pristine lakes, home to unimaginable numbers of fish, turtles, waterfowl, and assorted woodland critters. Thousands of years earlier, in the wake of the melting glaciers, Pleistocene Michigan had been home to giant beavers, walruses, whales, mastodons, mammoths, peccaries, elk, moose, caribou, musk oxen, and bison.* I had been completely unaware that they belonged in this ecosystem, and that their absence was abnormal. I did not dream of their return, since I didn’t know they were missing.
MacKinnon says that we have inherited a 10 percent world, because 90 percent of the planet’s wildness is largely gone. We can’t begin to comprehend all that has been lost in the last century or three. But the tragedy can also be medicinal. “The history of nature is not always a lament. It is also an invitation to envision another world.” Indeed! Our current vision is suicidal. His mantra is remember, reconnect, and rewild. “We need to remember what nature can be; reconnect to it as something meaningful in our lives; and start to remake a wilder world.” Great!
The rewilding bandwagon is picking up momentum now. Twenty years ago, it meant reintroducing missing species, like elephants, mountain lions, and wolves, acts that would spark firestorms of opposition. Lately, it has expanded to include smaller, doable tweaks that can be done right now, around the neighborhood, to make the ecosystem a bit more wild — reconnection. Tiny successes are likely to feed the soul, and inspire bolder acts of healing. It all adds up.
Importantly, rewilding directs some of our attention to the ecosystem that we inhabit, a form of awareness that’s getting close to extinction in consumer societies. MacKinnon doesn’t fetch his paddle to spank capitalism, greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, incompetent activists, or the consumer hordes that live high impact lives whilst dishonestly denying all responsibility. Instead, he suggests that most people simply don’t get it. Industrial strength cultural programming makes it difficult or impossible for most people to wander beyond the mall parking lot. Listen to this:
“Standing on the globe as we know it today, among people who are predominantly urban, who often spend more time in virtual landscapes than in natural ones, and who in large part have never known — do not have a single personal memory — of anything approaching nature in its full potential, it is hard to even wrap one’s head around where to begin.”
Most people are focused on short-term human interests, and nothing else. They have been taught to inhabit a world of pure fantasy. On the walls of their caves are paintings of trophy homes, SUVs, smart phones, tablet computers, big TVs, and on and on. Most of them will never find their way home.
The tiny minority of folks who have found the power to think outside the box, like biologist Michael Soulé, feel “profoundly alienated from mainstream society.” Communication is nearly impossible. He says, “We are different. We’re wired to love different things than other people are.” I know what he means. We don’t feel at home in this society. Maybe we’re pioneers, scouting a new and safer path.
Mark Fisher is one of the different ones, an advocate for rewilding. He works with the Wildland Research Institute in northern England, a devastated nation where people sometimes strongly oppose even the reintroduction of trees (let alone vicious man-eating beavers). On a visit to America, he was overcome with emotion when he saw wolves running wild in Yellowstone. When he stood on an overlook at White Mountain National Forest, and observed 800,000 acres of woodland, “I just cried my eyes out.” Ancestral memories returned with great beauty.
Once upon a time, MacKinnon met a mother and daughter who had lived for 30 years in a remote region of British Columbia, in grizzly bear country. The mother had had two brushes with the bears, and perceived them as “highly spiritual experiences.” Being reminded that humans were not the Master Species helped her remember who she was. “It was just like coming home.” The daughter had no notion that living near grizzlies was unusual. MacKinnon found hope in this, “We are always only a single generation away from a new sense of what is normal.”
Finally, I was fascinated to learn about our olive baboon relatives of Ghana. Like us, their diet is omnivorous. Like us, they evolved in a tropical climate, where they needed no clothes or shelter. Like us, they can inhabit rainforests, deserts, and savannahs, but prefer savannah. On average, males weigh 53 pounds (24 kg), and females weigh 32 pounds (14.5 kg). Despite their size, they have been able to survive for millions of years in a world of powerful carnivores — without tools — without becoming hopelessly stuck in the toxic tar baby of innovation and technology, with its enormous bloody costs.
Instead of chasing large herbivores with spears, baboons hunt a wide variety of small critters with their bare hands and teamwork. Hunting provides a third of their food. Unlike us, they never migrated out of Africa, into chilly climates where they could not survive without techno-crutches. Unlike us, they didn’t exterminate the predators that kept their numbers in balance. They have never had any need for fire, psych meds, or cell phones. Might there be a lesson here?
* Wilson, Richard Leland, The Pleistocene Vertebrates of Michigan, Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, Vol. LII, 1967.
MacKinnon, J. B., The Once and Future World — Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2013.