American mastodon

Springtime and I am following the snowline, up through the glacier-carved valleys of the North Cascades, watching rays of sun reach into fractures on the north faces of hills that have been in shadow all winter.  The deer, too, are working their way up.  We intersperse our footsteps on animal trails that have been snow-blanketed for months, and the forest holds signs of human-less interlude, fallen trees and burst-bank streams that have yet to be ordered by the return of axe and saw and shoe.

I feel like I might see something.  It might be something living, the creatures that have come and grown and dwelled in the months of winter where space is not ordered to human space, like the wolves that returned to this area some years ago only to be hated and hunted and who may find solace in winter.  Or it might be something dead, something long dead, a remnant of a time before when nature was something else, like a fossil, or a shard, a memory.

This feeling makes me alert.  It is an alertness that rarely happens here, in a landscape with few large animals and fewer large predators, where I really need not pay attention, where I can walk confident with a sense of dominion.  But this is a dangerous thing, the most dangerous thing, because something in me is dying, my senses are dying, my animal self is dying, and with it my mind, and my heart, and all the minds and hearts of this place.  It is different here than walking the animal landscapes of Southern and East Africa where I grew up, where when I walk I am often in company of creatures larger, smarter, and more powerful than I, where I must rely on instinct and knowledge and the convergence between the two.

No, it is different here.  And let’s face it:  this nature is tamed, it has had its head cut off, and it is poisoning us by making us believe we no longer belong to animal selves.

But it hasn’t always been this way.  There are wolves, yes, and bears, and other species that are returning to places from which they were removed over the past few hundred years.  But we must think further back, to around thirteen thousands years, to the North American camels and cheetahs, to the horses and lions, to the American mastodons and the other large animals that were critical in shaping the landscapes of this continent.  Our view of nature is incomplete, and without it, without these creatures, we are not only missing critical ecological presences, but also critical parts of ourselves.

I admit I smile when I read that some scientists advocate bringing large animals from other parts of the world to act as proxies for that which has been lost here.  It would be full of challenges, and may not be the right thing to do, but this is exactly the conversation we need to have, about the type of animals we want to be and about the type of nature we want to live within.

And, as I walk these valleys, up to the edge of the snow, and see a circular indentation in the half-covered ground, I feel that for a moment, just a moment, I am trailing a mastodon up the hillside, and I am full of wonder, and fear, and excitement, and I am alive.  I am myself.

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