There was a sad report out of Whiteside County in Illinois this week. A female mountain lion was killed by a Wildlife officer from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. You can read the whole story here.
My first reaction was sadness for the poor cougar who was probably scared and hungry. Sadness was quickly followed by outrage that in the year 2013, this is still how people react in these situations. On the one hand, we have the IDNR hiring sharp shooters to “cull” the deer herd because it is too large due to the fact that there are no longer any predators to naturally cull the weak deer. And then the same agency insists on killing a wild predator that might naturally cull some weak deer from the local herds.
There are many more questions than answers, and it isn’t useful to play “what if” or “why not” games as in: “Why not tranquilze the animal and relocate it?” Or, “What if the lion had attacked a human being?” The sad fact is that the answer to either question is moot – the lion was killed despite the fact that it wasn’t threatening anyone, and it wasn’t tranquilized.
At TLC’s Annual Brunch earlier this year, storyteller Jim Pfitzer gave a moving portrayal of Aldo Leopold, famed conservationist who authored A Sand County Almanac – a collection of essays about the natural world and mankind’s relationship to it. One of the essays is titled “Thinking Like a Mountain,” and upon reading the story of the mountain lion’s senseless death, I thought it was a good time to share this essay as a reminder for those who still seek to control wild things.
The biotic community – of which we are a part – if far more complex than people can understand – even wildlife biologists, ecologists and other scientists. The system is too complex, and it is in a constant state of flux due to changing weather conditions, the emergence of new diseases and pests, natural population spikes and troughs for individual species, etc, etc. The best we can hope for is to make decisions that respect the integrity of the natural system – the whole system, not just the parts with which we are most comfortable.
Thinking Like a Mountain
A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.
Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.
My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.
I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.
We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949.