Friday, May 4, 2012

Wilding the Mind

I am very fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay region of northern California. When not traveling, I head out several times a week and hike up into the hilly Marin Headlands, an extensive protected area that few would hesitate to call “nature.” The evergreen shrubs and patchy grasslands afford spectacular coastal vistas and erupt into a kaleidoscope of wildflowers come springtime. The plentiful animal spottings include red-tailed hawks, coyote, alligator lizards, quail, mule deer, rough-skinned newts, gray fox, monarch butterflies, ravens, and even the rare gray whale spout. Occasionally I’m startled by the last-second exit of a slithering garter snake or a bounding rabbit. Bobcats, in contrast, not infrequently sit a few feet off the trail, observing me in that classic disinterested feline manner as I stroll past.
Here, the greatest threats to human life and limb are tics and poison oak, or perhaps a sprained ankle. I’m told that mountain lions still visit the headlands once in a blue moon, but in six years I have yet to glimpse one. (Oh how I would love to see a mountain lion.) Encounters with other humans, although more common than deer sightings, are sufficiently infrequent that I feel I have escaped the anthropocentric world, at least for awhile. In short, my bipedal excursions into the hills come close to epitomizing the idyllic image of a nature outing—a gorgeous setting that replenishes body, mind, and spirit.

Yet, were I to have hiked in this same place 150 years ago—a span of only two human lifetimes—the experience would have been vastly different. It’s for good reason that California’s state animal is the grizzly bear. For thousands of years, local indigenous peoples lived (and occasionally died) under the daily threat of grizzlies. Bears were still a dominant force when Europeans arrived. In 1602, the Spanish maritime explorer SebastiĆ”n VizcaĆ­no elected not to land at certain points along the California coast because of the sheer numbers of these giant carnivores. As European settlements expanded in the ensuing centuries, the golden bears stood fast, killing livestock and wreaking havoc with the settlers. Somewhat ironically, given their name, gold was the bears’ ultimate undoing. Within 75 years of the discovery of this precious metal in California—a single human lifetime—the state’s grizzlies were wiped out, the final one in 1922. The last known human Californian to die in a grizzly attack was lumber mill owner William Waddell, in 1875. A creek in Big Basin Redwoods State Park still bears his name.

Often as I hike the trails near my home, I imagine how I would feel if there were a real chance of running into a grizzly—or wolves, which also lived here. Would I react differently to those rustling bushes? Would I pay greater attention to my surroundings? Would my sense of calm and relaxation be marred by that ever-present possibility of becoming an animal’s next meal? I’m quite certain that the answer would be yes for all of the above. Having spent a significant amount of time searching for fossils in the wilds of sub-Saharan Africa, sometimes in places where big carnivores like lions, leopards, and hyenas still roam, I can attest to the spectrum of emotions experienced when one is a potential link in the food chain. Living in cities devoid of big carnivores, we forget that people throughout almost all of human history have dealt with animal threats.

When our kind first arrived in the northern California area around 13,000 years ago—only 175 human lifetimes—they discovered a landscape more closely akin to the modern Serengeti than to present-day San Francisco. This was the tail end of the Pleistocene, the waning stages of the most recent Ice Age. The region was home to a bewildering array of impressive creatures: mammoths and mastodons, giant ground sloths and camels, broad-horned bison and condors, saber-toothed cats and dire wolves, American lions and short-faced bears. Of this mega-mammal menagerie, Arctodus, the short-faced bear, may have been the greatest terror. Weighing about 2,000 pounds and perhaps 13 feet tall when standing on its hind legs, this massive carnivore would have dwarfed a grizzly. And unlike modern bears, Arctodus was long-legged, built for speed. Imagine rounding the corner on a trail to find yourself face to face with such a creature!

California is not special in this regard. Wherever you live, you can be certain that an abundance of huge animals roamed in the not too distant past—a duration measured in centuries rather than millennia. Rarely do we consider the fact that we inhabit a biological anomaly, an impoverished shadow-realm in which big predators are few, prowling the fringes of our world. For all but a few short geologic intervals during the past 250 million years (following mass extinction events), oversized carnivores have been ever-present in the bulk of Earth’s ecosystems, both on land and in the oceans.

What happened to the wondrous Ice Age beasts in North America and elsewhere? We killed most of them. Yes, debate still ensues over the role of other factors, particularly climate change, but compelling evidence points squarely at us. Humanity originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. In a major exodus that began about 60,000 years ago, we quickly spanned the globe, killing off most of the charismatic megafauna on every newfound landmass, whether island or continent. More recently, armed with boats and increasingly efficient hunting technologies, populations of whales and other sea-going giants have been depleted more than 90%. I don’t mean to imply that humans have never lived in harmony with their native ecosystems. They certainly have. But usually those ecosystems have first been depleted of their big-bodied inhabitants.

Nature in its full glory is messy and dangerous, equally worthy of joy and fear--and sometimes disgust. Parasites, maggots, and coyotes tearing apart week-old fawns are as much a part of the natural world as towering redwoods and soaring eagles. We humans came of age enmeshed in environments at once awe-inspiring and danger-filled. In the sanitized West, we have progressively lost both kinds of experiences, replacing them with a utilitarian substitute that views nature as the ultimate big box store full of commodities.

Today, a growing movement seeks to reinstate that ancient sense of nature as divine, spiritual, or sublime—a sacred ground of being to commune with. But in our earnestness to romanticize nature, we forget the fear factor that is equally a part of our wild heritage. What have we lost by rising to the top of the food chain and vanquishing the bulk of our competitors? What are we missing by living apart from most wild creatures? Given that virtually every ecosystem around the globe has been impacted by human activities, and generally not for the better, what kind of nature is still out there, and where can we find it? What kinds of experiences do we need to form a meaningful bond with nature?

I will explore answers to these questions in future posts. For now, I invite you to head outside and imagine a world in which you share the web of life with a bounty of other large creatures, some of them toothy and meat-loving. These days I regularly engender such thoughts as I wander through the headlands. I find that such machinations are slowly shifting my perspective, helping me see myself as embedded within nature rather than outside and above it.

Equally if not more important are periodic visits to wild places; places where humans are not in control, where nature is raw, untamed, maybe even dangerous. Nighttime walks are especially effective at awakening the senses and opening new windows of awareness. Such experiences will foster not only a sense of awe and wonder, but humility—a sense of something much deeper and more meaningful than our puny human-centered obsessions. Ultimately, the human-nature connection, and perhaps even the path to ecological sustainability, could depend on this periodic wilding of the mind.

Ok, time for another hike . . .

Image Credits (From top to bottom)
Images 1-3 come from the author
Image 4:

Note: The above post was inspired in part by an excellent essay called “False Idyll,” written by J. B. MacKinnon and published in the May/June issue of Orion Magazine.


  1. Scott: Great post. I'm inspired and look forward to your new stuff. Don

  2. Thanks very much Don. I appreciate your kind remarks. Much more to come.

  3. Scott, have you read David Quammen's "Monster of God," about humans and large predators?

  4. I have read some of other Quammen's books. He is an excellent writer. But I have not read Monster of God. Will have to check it out. Thanks!

  5. Wow, what an inspiring post. I never thought it possible to enjoy hiking more than I presently do, but every hike after reading this will definitely be greater. I'm fortunate enough to live in a city attempting to preserve and restore as much as possible. We have many escapes in Austin, TX. Even hiking near the highway, you can barely hear the vehicles roaring down the road. Yet, a LOT of people enjoy these trails so most are overrun and the wildlife is limited to songbirds, squirrels, and the smallest creatures. Our coyotes and deer have all been pushed to the towns outside the city. I'm off to find "False Idyll" and "Monster of God" now.

    Just a side note- my 5 year old daughter loves being outside to explore and find things for her collection. When she grows up she wants to be a scientist. This week she also started a small collection for her 2-year old sister. :) It's all because of you and the Pteranodon family. I really hope you speak in Texas sometime.

  6. Thanks very much for your comments Rebecca, and for your kind remarks. Both are much appreciated. Austin is a wonderful place with much to see and do, both natural and cultural. I wish you and your daughter all the best enjoying both. Please tell her that Dr. Scott sends on a GIANT hello!