NATURE EXPERIENCED AS SUBJECTS
By Howard Clifford
Personal experience impacts my convictions at a deeper level than anything else. I am indebted to my academic training – critical to meet the challenges confronted in social work. However academia didn’t prepare me for the feelings flooding over me when Jean smilingly handed me our first born. Similarly I value nature research but when I experience nature as a subject I am taken to a different level. Emotionally powerful – uniquely individualized.
This proved true for Jane Goodall and also for wolf biologist, Doug Smith. He previously worked with David Meech, whose description of the social structure of the wolf pack was considered definitive. What they didn’t know was wolves behave differently in their natural settings than they do in captivity. They now state: “thinking of a wolf as alpha is no more appropriate than calling a human parent or a deer an alpha.” I think Smith’s conclusion, following decades of studying individual wolves, is the way forward to a richer understanding of wildlife. He states wolves have “fantasticindividuality”. “You can no longer say wolves do this or wolves do that. They differ in personality as much as humans do.”
Having lived 40 years at cliffLAND, I believe Smith’s experience rings true. CliffLAND is a wild area – large enough for most non-migratory wildlife to spend all or most of their lives as my co-inhabitants, as well as many of their descendants. I have many stories involving individuals of different species that convince me of their “fantastic individuality”. They read our intent and that of other species. Some are curious and make contact – some in ways that were special – beyond my comprehension. Many are very adaptable responding uniquely to changing situations. I developed deep affection for them.
I no longer believe wildlife are innately fearful of humans. Darwin observed this lack of fear on the Galapagos Islands. At cliffLAND a short-tailed weasel took residence in our home – eventually showing no alarm at our presence. Pepi and I visited a Beaver pond. Initially they slapped their tail in warning but within a few visits no longer did. They eyed us and swam ever closer – eventually taking offerings of aspen saplings from my lap and my hands. Pepi occasionally gave me the look of “isn’t this something.” I understood how Grey Owl, experiencing their unique personalities, could no longer trap them. They were becoming my friends too.
It shouldn’t be a surprise we learn more about the richness and complexities of other species when we come to know them individually. The closest most of us get to experiencing this is through our pets.
John Muir argued adamantly against taking Stickeen on a wilderness excursion because dogs had no place in such wild areas. When Muir snuck off before daybreak to explore a glacier he was annoyed to find him at his heels. I have wondered why Stickeen chose Muir. How could he have read his soul so well? So fortunate for us he did so. They came face to face with death, convincing Muir that Stickeen understood this and also rejoiced as much as he when they escaped death’s grasp. This transcendental experience forever changed his perspective: “I have ever since been looking in deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.”
I understand. My journey at cliffLAND was enriched because Pepi shared many years with me in my journey. We bushwacked to every part of the property and he had an uncanny ability to lead me back when I was turned around. He pointed out things I would have missed – a recently born porcupine with quills still soft and flexible – the first recorded cliffLAND sighting of a Blanding’s turtle. I never knew him to harass or harm wildlife. Chickadees were comfortable with him at my side while they took seeds from my hand, ruffled grouse paid him no heed, squirrels waited for him to come out so they could play. Children and adults loved him. Being a social worker I was amazed by his ability to read our mental state. Following my dramatization of John Muir to a youth group, a staff described an unusual experience. She had watched with alarm as a girl, who recently tried to take her own life, pulled out a knife. Pepi made his way to the girl – she smiled and put him on her lap – put the knife away.
Nearing the end of his life we were sitting together on top of Blueberry. I was reflecting on the beauty of the place and wondered how many experiences had we shared. I looked at him. He seemed as deep in thought and as enraptured by the beauty around us as I was. We locked eyes – a moment without a word of exchange – I knew something special took place. I can never know to what extent his feelings or thoughts were mirroring mine. I know there was something deeper being exchanged that was more profound than I believed possible. Like John Muir I was to look at my fellow creatures differently from that moment on.
I am convinced he loved cliffLAND. I believe he needed nature outings as much as I do. I think his name deserves to be on the Circle of Gratitude as much as any other name. I have no doubt that nature at cliffLAND was blessed by his presence. As Doug Smith said about wolves I say about dogs. “You can’t say dogs do this or dogs do that. Pepi taught me differently. I think this is true for all species.
As each of us move in the direction of communing with nature as individual subjects, our lives become richer. We become more passionate – we can’t help but do what we can to protect these sacred places. We are becoming ambassadors for the Wild Kingdom.