Who is it for?

[Caption: Yellowstone wolf, howling. Photo credit: Greater Yellowstone Coalition.]

Last night we were awakened by something barking outside the cabin. Barking for a long time. I think it was a fox — Himself isn’t so sure. He thinks it could have been a coyote. It sounded to me like a fox that had treed something — one of the bobcats maybe? We spent one Christmas Day years ago watching a bobcat who had curled up under that tree. It napped on and off all day, supremely unbothered by my bird dogs (who we kept in the house). We see them on the game cams, and there’s been a suspicious lack of bunnies lately. Usually means a bobcat has come through. The reason I think it was a fox is not only because we’ve seen some, but there’s a den I found walking Hank-dog one morning that’s down that direction, and I’m pretty sure it’s a fox den. Smelled like it. 

I’m lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the cabin Himself built it years ago. It’s on the border of the wilderness area and while he rents it most of the year to vacationers, because the road can blow in with snow, he takes it off the market for winter. Most mornings, we drink coffee in bed, looking out the big window at the mountain and wait to see what the animals are doing.

We see a lot of animals from that window in the morning. In years past, we’ve awakened to the Dome refuge elk herd in the yard. Sometimes it was a core group of about twenty, other times we’ve had as many as a couple of hundred elk come through on a morning. You’d be pouring the coffee and right there, on the other side of the kitchen window, would be a cow elk trying to eat the buds off the ash tree. 

We haven’t had any elk this year. We’ve hardly had any deer. 

And we’ve been wondering why. 

I’ve been trying very hard not to think that the entire population has collapsed. It’s that kind of a year after all. Climate change is one cause of the pandemic, and if the entire world can be shut down, what’s to say that the Yellowstone elk herds couldn’t just collapse? 

Himself said he’d seen the herd when he’d been hiking. They were still there, they just weren’t in our valley. 

I think a lot about Claire Vaye Watkins essay from a few years back, On Pandering.  In it, she asks the question: who is it for? In the case of the essay, she’s talking about the internalized misogyny that causes so many of us women to dismiss our own experience in favor of writing for men, in favor of writing for the the “little white man deep inside of all of us.”

In this instance, I’m not necessarily thinking about who is the story for, but the idea of who are the animals for? When I say we watch animals in the morning, it sounds so passive. As though we’re sitting there waiting to be entertained by the animals, as if it’s a Disney film (although Himself does have longstanding relationships with specific families of hummingbirds and falcons. The hummingbirds have been known to fly at his face when they arrive, then fly up to where the feeder should be if he hasn’t put it up yet. As though they’re saying “Hey! It’s been a long flight! We’re hungry!”). Rather, we tend to watch animals as though we’re solving a puzzle. Where are the elk today? The deer? Have we seen anything else, anything interesting? 

One morning we’re looking out the window drinking coffee, and we see two of our resident coyotes go past. Which isn’t unusual, but they were slinking. Along the ditch, from sagebrush to sagebrush like little boys playing army man. A few minutes later, Himself was scanning the mountain through the telescope in the bedroom. “Wolves,” he said. Sure enough, it was a pair of wolves, probably a couple of miles away as the crow flies, up on a ridge. One was curled up against the subzero temperatures and snow that had come in over night. The other was sitting, and looking out over the valley, and every so often she’d howl. We went outside. You could hear her. 

I’ve heard wolves a few times over the years and it is never ordinary. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

Below them, Alvin our rancher neighbor was rolling out a bale of hay for his cattle, who were getting pretty close to calving. 

So now we know why the elk haven’t been hanging around. 

I’ve had students write me papers about how there are too many wolves, about how the state should “control” them so there are more trophy elk, trophy deer. I’ve had students write me papers about how the point of the endangered species act is to bring species back so that they can be hunted. As trophies. For these students, as for so very many people, probably for most people, the point of animals is how they meet our needs. 

Anthopocentrism of this sort is probably as old as the glorious, hidden cave paintings at Lascaux. It’s as old as the Bible.

Who is the world for? Is it for us? 

Or have we made a category error for millennia? Is the world not for itself? Do the wolves exist for the wolves just like the bunnies exist for bunnies and we exist for ourselves? 

I’m not any kind of sanctioned Buddhist, but I have spent enough time on a pillow meditating on the idea that the distinctions we make between forms, between mountain and human, between wolf and rabbit, are delusions. It’s all phenomena, as my teacher Gary Snyder used to say. It’s all just phenomena.

I bought Himself a set of game cameras a couple of years back for his birthday, and they’ve given us a tiny porthole into what is going on around here when we’re not there, or are asleep, or for instance, have let us watch what’s going on down in the gully behind the cabin. We’ve seen everything from bears to mountain lions to bobcats to coyotes and foxes and some very festive skunks. The birds like to fly right into the lens of the one that’s in a birdhouse-like box, and the deer and elk have occasionally knocked down the camera in the gully. 

What I find fascinating is not so much that we’re not the highest thing on the food chain, but that they all are just out there, going about their lives, keeping out of one another’s way, and occasionally showing up on our camera because the road that goes through our place is as useful for them as it is for us. 

The old idea that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” that predators are some sort of bloodthirsty killing machines, is, from what I’ve seen in nearly fifteen years on this little bench, not particularly true. I’ve watched Alvin’s cattle calve in that field right below us, the one where I’ve also routinely seen the very large and healthy coyotes crossing, or hunting mice and voles. A few years back, when we’d been seeing the mountain lion on the cameras, I asked my friend who ranches sheep just at the bottom of the valley if she’d had any trouble with it. She hadn’t, but was pretty sure it had snagged a deer she shot late one afternoon during the season. The deer went down into the creekbed, and she went looking for it. She knew it was a good shot, but couldn’t find the deer. She’d seen that big mountain lion crossing the road earlier, and “just had a feeling.” So she left the deer, hoping the lion would take it as tribute, and leave her sheep alone. 

They know we’re here, the animals. Himself has circled back on a hike, or while hunting antlers, and had both mountain lions and wolves walk directly in his boot tracks. They’re letting him know they see him, but he’s never had them menace him. 

The question of who is the world for seems to be the central question we’re wrestling with in all our human societies. Is the world just for a bunch of white men, who are outraged that they might have to compete for privileges they were previously just handed? Are the resources of the world for us humans alone? What are we willing to sacrifice so that those wolves can continue to live up on that ridgeline? And who gets to decide these things?