Haunted by the Wild West

We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as “wild.” Only to the white man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land “infested” with “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it “wild” for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the “Wild West” began. – Luther Standing Bear

I had the idea for this post almost a year ago after a trip to Colorado and Wyoming with my family. A few days ago I watched the documentary Jumbo Wild about a vast expanse of glacier mountain range in British Colombia slated to be turned into the region’s 19th ski resort. A new ski resort at the cost of the natural environment, the dwindling bear population, and the sacred space of a 400 generation-old First Nation. How many ski resorts does Canada need?  There’s a quote that the human race wasn’t built to last. Whenever I think of the Western world’s treatment of our environment, it’s hard to find a strong argument that would suggest we have any sort of longevity.

I’m not here to berate myself, my society and my ancestors about our disregard for the life-giving forces of nature and those who lived at peace with it for generations. Rather, I’m writing to relate my experience with the sadness that saturates those last bastions of Wildness.

Walking trails and kayaking rivers in the Midwest is a refuge and a blessing, but it’s rare to find a spot where you – the human being – don’t feel in control. Nature, the trees, the hills, the dirt, the animals, they are passive observers. Conifers bow quietly, while you pass under their bows. Maybe you close your eyes, breathe deeply, and try to imagine the Adena and why they went to the trouble to bring red clay into the woods to build these mounds. Looking out over a clearing, maybe you see the Ohio forests four times as dense, thick undergrowth covering the ground. Soon, you’ll hear a highway or a helicopter; a constant reminder that the Humans are in control, at least for now.
The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park offer a different experience. After driving through hours of scrub, perpendicular to the Oregon trail, the Tetons burst open. As if a basketball hit you square in the chest, you have to catch your breath. Bears and wolves still rule these ragged mountains; big cats could wander around the corner at any moment. Trees don’t apologize for falling, the trail will wind around them. Here, there are signs to ensure the Humans stay in their lane. Those dedicated to the preservation of these spaces remind wayward travelers with annoyance, “this is not your playground. This is your home, this is their home.” DSCN6724

Busy spots in Yellowstone maintain the semblance of human control, but wandering buffalo or a stray grizzly can derail that myth in a matter of seconds. No, the buffalo does not care if you want to take a shower, he is going to stand in the middle of the road. A stoic reminder that it’s you Human, who are intruding.

While I expected the grandeur, the awe, the cleansing air, I didn’t expect the overwhelming helplessness. I didn’t expect to feel morose; I couldn’t shake the sadness.

Standing at Buffalo Bill’s grave on the outskirts of Denver, looking over the valley with its sprawling city, I was nauseated. Made sick by guilt, shame, nostalgia, and anger, I wanted to scream. Ohio is saturated with the blood of Chippewa, Delaware, Erie, and Iroquois, just as Colorado is steeped in the devastation of Comanche, Pueblo, Arapaho and Apache Peoples. So, why did the Wild West have such a visceral impact?

DSCN6653Perhaps, I was so affected because I couldn’t ignore the history in the West. Everywhere I looked there were hints at what and who was lost. Moreover, I think it was the unapologetic wildness that saturated every moment. Mountains stare baldly, daring you to challenge them. Formidable trees sink their roots a millimeter deeper on their 278th birthday. The ecosystem forces the visitor to acknowledge the wrongs done to its Brothers and Sisters. Humans are so careless, though, so arrogant. Do these last natural spaces stand a chance against our greed?

The idea of the National Park – much like zoos – is complex and problematic in itself, but my experience out West is one for which I will be forever grateful. I didn’t come back from the Wild West and abandon my car. I still binge watch Netflix and I shop at Giant Eagle. Nevertheless, the sadness and loss I experienced by proxy while visiting the sacred spaces of the Mountains, the Rivers and the Forests in Colorado and Wyoming, haunts me.

Lest I forget, Humans have taken enough.

God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools. John Muir

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