Random Thoughts: Us Versus Them

I was listening to a program this morning as I drove around on some errands.  It was a program about whales in general, and specifically about an upcoming film “featuring” one whale in particular: the 52-hertz whale (also called “the loneliest whale”).

Now, I’m not going to get into the story of that particular whale, no matter how fascinating the diversion between the actual science/research, and the emotive storytelling that has sprung up around him.*

*Yes, it is in fact a him — apparently, it is the male whales who sing, not all whales.  I did not really know that until the marine biologist on the program brought it up.

No, what I keyed in on as I listened — and what spurred me to ignore the business & planning stuff I should be doing in favor of typing away at this while I sip a beer in the sun — was a couple of specific observations.  Those observations I found, as both a writer and someone who has been fully immersed in the wilds, to be thought-provoking and well worth a bit of stream-of-consciousness exploration.

**Pointless Irony Alert!!**  There’s something, erm, kinda wrong about eating a bowl of poke while writing about the most impressive and amazing of sea-critters…

First off was a one-liner that I love: we humans are self-obsessed, we can’t help but anthropomorphism everything else.  The anthropomorphizing thing I’ve talked about on this blog before, but I absolutely love tying it back to our self-absorption as a species.  We are, to ourselves, quite literally the only things that matter in the universe.  Now, before you start yelling at me, please understand that I do realize just how overly broad and simplistic is that statement.  I realize all of that, and I still wrote it, so stop yelling!

Believe me, the intellectual dissonance in that line, and my own outlook on the universe, is a thought I could explore for…oh…at least a few thousand words.  The key thing to remember is that we humans, when you press us back to our most basic instincts and drives, cannot stop ourselves from resorting to, well, let’s call it tribalism for the moment.  By tribalism, I mean that instinct and drive of ours to divide the universe into us and them.  That instinct, by the way, is always there, no matter how we try to suppress it.  As soon as any group of ours grows to three or more, you can count on the fact that there is at least some element of us-versus-them.

That us and them leads directly to the second observation that I liked: we cannot — and do not — even begin to appreciate the wonders of the world, and animals in particular, until we have at least some form of personal experience with them.

Let me put some perspective around that thought.  You all know how I have spent the last several years.  I have been inside grizzly and wolf dens.  I have been eye-to-eye with a bear just feet away.  I have watched a wolf pack take down prey just yards away.  I have smelled the breath of a curious bison.  Nature and I, to put it mildly, have developed something of a romance, and that romance has given me opportunities and experiences that only a few (modern day) humans have shared.  On the other hand, I have had, in my own sense of pride and accomplishment — in my own sense of us versus them — a certain amount of contempt for those whose only experience of the same animals is through a spotting scope deployed on the side on the side of the road.

It is fair to say, however, that 90% or more of those who visit Yellowstone, and use binoculars or scopes or cameras to view the wildlife, have never before scene those animals anywhere but on a TV screen.  And very, very few can leave that park without a certain sense of attachment to — and fondness for — the animals they finally got to see in person.

In my YNP days, I led groups of visitors out into the night to listen to the howling of the wolf packs.  There is nothing more powerful, by the way, than to sit under the light of just the stars and listen to those powerful, primal calls.  To listen to that music.  It gives me — still! — the chills to think about it.  I can close my eyes and see the stars, hear the cries…

So what if none of those who sit on the side of the road and watch a mother grizzly teach her cubs to forage and hunt can describe just what a mother smells like?  Does that make their experience any less powerful?  Or any less important?  No, it does not.  Those folks have had their own magical experience.  They have watched a massive apex predator treat her young with all the motherly care, and all the urge to teach them to grow up “right”, that we would expect from a young human woman.  If they are lucky, they have seen, even, those “kids” play and horse around just as would any pair of young humans.

I can tell you, from thousands of conversations over the years, that those experiences change folks.  It is very hard to advocate for the uncontrolled hunting and slaughter of animals that you have stared at in real-world awe and admiration.*  And that is a good thing.  That is, in fact, the very heart of the reason for America’s national parks: To give folks that exposure to nature — to the wild and beautiful places, and to the wildlife — that they would never otherwise have.

*I’ll skip over the exceptions here…and they (sadly) do exist.  There are those few who live and work on the borders of Yellowstone, and even within the park itself, who still would eagerly hunt and kill every single wolf in North America.  Since they all were/are hardcore Q-Anon/Trumpistas, I get to write them off as the nutjobs they truly are.

If you truly want, you can find backcountry guides who will take you to places you should not go.  Just are there are guides on the water, and in the mountains, and on the tundra, who will work only for their own benefit, without care for the animals they exploit.  Those who will use chase-boats to herd whales or dolphins into tight areas, and trap them there, so high-paying tourists can “switch with them”.  Just are there are those who will take you to wolf den while the pups are still unable to leave.  And those who will leave out drugged bait so you can “just happen across” a somnolent polar bear.

That is, unfortunately, one of the dark-side effects of us-versus-them: Our penchant to abuse and exploit them because only us truly matter.  You see it in our society and culture; you see it in our politics; you see it in every single thing we do.  And that is the bitter part of bittersweet, the inevitable cost.  The experience of nature and wildlife can be — and very often is — life-changing to many folks, but we have to always be mindful of the cost.

When the wolves are gone, we change the world.  We not only change the ecosystem, we lose something unique and beautiful from the world.

When the whales are gone, we will lose a piece of our souls.  Listen to their songs, watch their stately movements, and remember this final thought:

For all the power and majesty of nature’s wonders; for all the size and intelligence of the whale; for all the soul-touching sounds of the wolf; for all the wily creativity of the bear; they live on our sufferance.  A whale — or a bear, or a wolf — can kill a single human with no trouble.  Just trust me on that one, I know very well and very personally.  But we humans, in our numbers, and with our technology, can wipe out their entire species without even intending to.

{Musical Note — is this song the best fit?  Probably not, but I’ve been looking for an excuse to use something from these guys for a long time now…}

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