by Sherry Marr
In the roar and cacophony of our cities and byways, it is easy to forget there are other beings — wild souls — in the beyond-human realm, living their parallel lives in the natural world, as best they can, near or far from our noisy existence. In miles of forest, in northern ice and tundra, at the South Pole, in wetlands, prairie grasslands, in the tropics and in the ocean, the song of the earth sings out, steady, thrumming – thrilling – alive, unheard, until we enter the forest’s peace, or pace along the shore to the song of the sea. In places as far as they can manage from humanity’s ever-encroaching roar, all the wild souls are living their unseen lives. Wolves pad elusively along forest trails, bears pluck fat blackberries in the meadow, deer stand on their hind legs reaching for low-hanging apples.
I am reading about these countless beings, whose lives matter as much to them as ours do to us, in Wild Souls ~ Freedom and Flourishing In the Non-Human World, by Emma Marris. It always amazes me, fills me with wonder, that in the midst of the devastation we have caused on this increasingly finite planet, life does continue to grow and flourish in spite of us.
In the early years of my career, I found myself questioning…Was there any true wilderness left?… I concluded that conservation must focus on protecting the ability of ecosystems to adapt and change in a changing world, rather than trying to stop or reverse all change.
…As a conservationist, the premise that we had no ethical obligation to the animals seemed hard to maintain…What about animals whose lives are shaped by us unintentionally by climate change, land development, and species we have moved around?…Could humans possibly have ethical obligations to all the untold millions of animals on Earth, to every sparrow and ground squirrel and city rat and white-tailed deer?
For me, the answer to that question is easy. Yes, we do. As the fox in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery said so perfectly, “You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
Our ethical obligations to wild animals, she continues, are often presented as being straightforward: we should simply leave them alone and protect their habitat. The thing is, there is no more ‘out there’. The whole earth is like a larger version of [endangered] Kaua’i, with its flora and fauna from all over the planet, legacies of human management going back hundreds of years, and rare animals barely hanging on to existence at the fringes, in ecosystems that are warmer and weirder than they once were. Humans have dramatically changed the entire world.
We’ve touched many animal species so deeply with our wholesale reshaping of planet Earth that we have likely altered their evolutionary trajectories…If we could better understand our ethical obligations to our non-human kin, it could significantly improve the way we make decisions in conservation and wildlife management and in urban planning, veterinary science, pest control or agriculture.
We can never know precisely what it is like to inhabit the consciousness of an animal of another species…but studies show non-human animals are smart, emotional and even kind. Their inner lives are rich…If they can suffer, if they can remember, if they can love, if they can choose, then surely we cannot justify treating them like mere things. No one seriously doubts any more that our fellow mammals are sentient.
I am unsure why it has taken the scientific community so long to “discover” what we who love animals have always known, through simple observation of animals we have loved, who have loved us. It is as frustrating to me as the delayed recognition of the escalating climate crisis has been, while hurricanes, floods and fires of biblical proportions are erupting wildly all around us. Ten years from now, someone will put out a report about it, no doubt, as the planet sizzles. (Now, now, try not to be bitter, I remind myself pointlessly.)
Climate change is altering the ranges, annual cycles, and behavior of untold numbers of species. Relationships between new and native species are knitting together novel ecosystems around the world. Animals are moving towards the poles and upward in elevation as the climate warms. Not all animals move, though. Researchers seem to be uncovering more ability to adapt in place than expected, which is encouraging.
As for the ‘wild’ animals in our cities and suburbs, they have thoroughly adapted to our world. Animals that communicate by sound, including birds, frogs and toads, have shifted the pitch of their calls to be heard above the noise of cities and traffic. Crows in Sendai, Japan, wait for traffic lights to turn red, put walnuts in front of the tires of idling cars, then pick the meat out of the nuts once the cars have cracked their shells. Rats, pigeons, house sparrows and other commensal organisms have so fully adapted to human beings that they now depend on humanity.
There is much we can do to assist them: planting nature gardens to attract wildlife, growing plants that feed bees and hummingbirds, putting out water in hot months (and frozen ones), leaving fallen leaves on the ground in fall to aid butterflies and garden insects, not mowing the wild grasses, dandelions and wildflowers along the roadway. And of course, putting out seed and suet for winter birds.
Our concepts of “nature” and “wilderness” sadly limit the solutions that we can imagine. Perhaps because of the bluntly extractive tendencies of their ancestors, it remains difficult for people with primarily European ancestry to wrap their minds around the idea of a positive, mutually beneficial relationship with other species. Thus they can see only two conceptual options: destruction of nature by humans or separation of humans from nature. To save nature, we must exile ourselves from it – like latter-day Adams and Eves leaving the garden after despoiling it.
As a collective, we humans have clearly taken more than our fair share of space, water and other resources. But we don’t fix that by exiling ourselves from the rest of Earth’s species and building a wall between us. We fix that through repairing the systems by which we make our living, by learning – or re-learning – better, positive relationships with the species with which we share Earth.
To love the “wild” is to love the non-human in all its many millions of forms, to love the ways that plants and animals live, the choices they make, the beautiful patterns they weave…To love “nature” is to love landscapes that remind us of our place as just one of the millions of species on the planet.
Marris travelled to Australia to explore a movement called Compassionate Conservation, dating back to a 2010 symposium hosted by the Born Free Foundation, the legacy of Elsa, the lion whose story is told in Born Free. She writes,
So far, the core work of compassionate conservationists has been to critique traditional conservation for being as domineering and human-centric as the rapacious exploitation it seeks to supplant. From [their] perspective, resource extraction and traditional conservation seek to control the non-human world to suit human values – no matter what the cost. This critique has included identifying alternative narratives, win-win approaches where species are saved but humans don’t do any killing.
Israeli ecologist Arian Wallach, working in Australia, believes killing in the name of conservation is never acceptable… “I encountered what I now call the dark side of conservation,” Wallach said. “I thought conservation was pure good.”
The dilemma seems to be that there are totally opposing outlooks among ecologists. One group believes in assisting the survival of native animals, and eliminating (by culling or poisoning) non-native species. The other, as above, doesn’t believe in killing at all, and feels various species can adapt to living together, and will work things out themselves. I agree with the latter view, as that is the way nature worked before humans began meddling with it.
Wallach asks: “What if there might be a third way. What if we could change animals to save them?”
And they lost me again. A group called Arid Recovery has a 30,000 acre reserve in southern Australia where they are trying to train native animals to run from predators, with the goal of preventing extinction. They hope that non-native predators will leave enough of the native species to survive. They expect this process will take a hundred years – and this is just one experiment in one relatively small compound. It still sounds like humans managing creatures, to me. And we don’t have a hundred years to curb extinctions. Nature’s current imbalance has been caused by humans – we are the ones who need to learn how to live in balance.
It seems to me the obvious help we can give the wild ones is to preserve, protect and restore what habitat they have left, and stop destroying it all. Marris asks, “Is this kind of manipulation of a wild animal acceptable when extinction looms?”
Some feel strongly that action and intervention is needed, and say if it works, animals in the future will no longer be conservation-reliant. We live in hope.
She sums up her observations and discoveries in a chapter titled “How to Be a Good Human to the Non-Human World”:
We need to do a better job sharing with non-human animals…Ultimately, we already know how to take up less space. What is lacking is the will. We can learn a lot from how Indigenous human societies on islands managed their environment before the global economy tied these places into mainland supply chains.
We must also tackle climate change…any person worried about living an ethical life should figure out an effective and sustainable way to fight for climate justice. Make room for other species and fight for climate justice. Doing those two things will do so much good in the world. And they will help not just people and other animals but trillions of other living things as well.
Make room for others; stop climate change; fight for justice; be compassionate; be humble; admit you don’t know everything. Make homes for snakes. Sit quietly in the light of the last hour before dusk, the shadows of the junipers long and the colors bent blue. Listen to the swallows call as they swoop above you snatching midges from the air, and know we are not alone on Earth.
And I would add to that: Voice your concerns about the climate crisis and the extinction of species – loudly – to all your elected officials, at every level, who should be much more alarmed than they seem to be about the accelerating climate breakdown and who are still stuck in the corporate mindset where oil is their favourite cash cow.
For your challenge: Let’s speak to the wild souls, let them know we hear their cries. You might wish to speak in their voice. Whatever arises from this prompt, I anticipate reading with pleasure. My heart is always with the critters.
For inspiration, I include a few poems from the book of poems titled Kind, by Gretchen Primack:
THE ABSENCE OF UNNECESSARY HURTING
This is the press of the earth. One star hanging
there, honking like a goose. The lake
a smudge of black juice, the hill a draped
pancake. Frogs singing, sharp
Night! Clean air, clear water, five
baby mink in a pile, snoring.
Overwhelm can be dug from sludge
below dock, on either side fruits slung
over branches, glued to their seeds.
Here in the slurry live the things
I consider, here in the hills. What do people
think of? What do they think of me
in my carings?
Ripples lunch on each other, heavenly
body lights flicker, too cool for moths.
I don’t want to hurt things.
The fine brown eye of an animal,
the broad slick leaf of a wing.
I’d like to be gentle here.
I want to be worthy of you, lovely
ground, bury my face in your tired
I was also a child.
And also had one.
And another a year after.
And could not touch
Had I been born
into a kind world,
my life would have been
mine, not a stranger’s,
as long as my body wanted life.
Had I been born
to a kind world,
child, this milk would have been
yours. No one would have filled
your lungs with loss.
Put your head where your kind
is born to be
but is never allowed: at my flank.
The great spill of me. Smell me
from your bent neck. Child.
POEM BEGINNING WITH A LINE
FROM CAM AWKWARD-RICH
I wake up & it breaks my heart.
Two rods of light by the blinds to trap
in my fists & keen for.
All these horses & fish & goats trap my broken
heart. Like you, I was born. Like horses and others I keen
for. Not the soul, which never was.
All these songs wind my heart like a cat’s
cradle. Each one mourns & howls
for every animal alive and hardly so.
Each one holds someone born for love
I wake up & find the light, the keening mares & lambs
& notes pinched along these hurt strings.
Like you, I tell everyone with a heart,
I was born.
Like you, the bloodless say,
I kill anyway.
I wake up, see, & it breaks my heart.
— © Gretchen Primack