You all remember reading a year or so back about that incident
down in the southern part of the county where a bear, for
the first time in anyone‚s living memory killed a five-month
old infant, maybe 20 miles as the crow flies from here.
A bizarre, isolated incident, of course, but also an unimaginable
horror. We‚ll never really know why it happened.
Lots of us had plausible ideas back then but were all just
speculating, trying to make sense of something so wildly improbable.
Our area is, if not the bear capital of New York State, something
pretty close to it. Most hunting seasons
more bears are killed in next-door Shandaken than anywhere
else in the state. At any given time we might have 40 or more
bears here in Olive, maybe twice that number. Nobody knows
or is going to say if they do, and we‚ve asked.
If bears could vote, they'd be a significant voting block
in town. Now that would be a caucus. Might even be a party
we'd like to join if they'd have us.
Unlike most towns, ours is a place where nearly everyone has
their own experiences with bears. They're not something
we watch on TV, they come out at night and drag our garbage
around, and in the morning we clean up after them like they
were kids. Okay, so they sometimes annoy us. Yet even
here, nothing stops traffic like a bear in an apple tree.
Watching them, watching the graceful, almost liquid quality
of their movements, we're always transfixed, always amazed
by how much they move like cats, always surprised how black
that shade of black really is. It doesn't matter
how many times you've seen it before. If you stop seeing
it something's missing, and it‚s not with the bear.
The other thing that's hard not to see is how much they remind
us of us.
But they're not us. Although they may know the garbage
pick-up schedule better than you do, they're wild animals.
Projecting our romanticism onto them is as disrespectful to
their nature as it is likely to be dangerous. We have
to respect the bears for what they are and we have to fear
them for what they are. Our fear will make us
pay attention, and keep a safe and respectful distance.
Paying attention usually does that.
But it's fear that also makes us want to eliminate whatever
we perceive as a threat. That's true whether it‚s
bears or Bin Ladin or people who may not think like us.
Yeah, we can probably eliminate bears if that's what our civilization
wants. Fortunately, over 80 percent of Americans agree
that wild creatures have a right to exist in their own time
and place. We might get lucky and eliminate Bin Ladin
one day, anything's possible. But as for making whatever
or whomever we perceive as threatening go away, it's not going
to happen. And even if we thought we could make it happen,
we have no idea what the result might be. It‚s
just the way complex dynamical systems like ecologies and
cultures work. The more you try to control things,
the less you're likely to know how things will turn out.
Besides, as naturalist Aldo Leopold once said, the first rule
of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the pieces.
Civilization isn't about making the world safe and sterile
and free of big furry predators and things that scare us.
It's about passing along what we‚ve learned and finding
ways to deal with one another. Maybe we'll find a way
to marry our technological sophistication with a Paleolithic
awareness of our closeness to the earth and our connectedness
with all living things. Maybe we'll screw everything
up and take the rest of the planets' species with us. But
if we with all our foibles are civilization, then the bear
is the wild. It‚s not a metaphor for what
we think the wild or wilderness is, it‚s the embodiment
of it. In religious language, the bear is the incarnation
of the wild. Intuitively we know that, and respect it
for being what it is. Wildness can't be
captured on film or canvas or with words; in fact it can't
be captured at all. That‚s what makes it wild,
the fact that it's nature operating under its own rules, free
of the application of human wisdom and control.
Less than one half of one percent of the United States east
of Denver, Colorado is administered under some kind of Wilderness
designation. It's not much, but a decent little chunk
of it is here in our neighborhood. This is our treasure
to enjoy every day, and to take care of for ourselves and
our children and grandchildren. Most of us appreciate
that we live in a place where you can drink the water from
any stream. But don't try doing it too many other places.
Most people realize it‚s the quality of the physical,
the visual, and the aesthetic environment that defines our
town, along with the cultural and spiritual climate we're
creating ourselves. All of those factors draw from its wildness,
and from how central that connection with nature is to each
of us and to our community.
As for the bears, most die young and not of natural causes.
If you want to protect both them and yourself, put the birdfeeder
away - till the last leaves have dropped, and find a place
for the garbage they can't get into. If you want to protect
the wildness of the Olive woods, pay close attention to those
who think we have far more wild places than we should,
or need. Sharing a world without bears is far scarier than
sharing a world with them.