Human/Nature

 

by John Tyler Connoley

March 16, 2004

 

The bible-school and mission station where I lived as a child sat fifty miles from anything that my current friends might call civilization. To get there, we would drive a pickup truck down a dirt road pitted with trenches that became impassable in the rainy season. Electric lines and television signals didn't travel out to our house, and the only radio was shortwave. My family lived "out in the bush" in Africa, and yet our world was strewn with the evidence of humanity -- from the mango grove planted next to our house to the bicycle I pedaled down our grated driveway.

 

Today I live in a modern American town. I drive my car on paved roads to a Wal-mart where I buy my vegetables prepackaged. I spend most of my days at a Macintosh computer that feeds on a constant flow of electricity from the power grid. At thirty-three, I live worlds away from the bush where I grew up. And yet, even in my modern surroundings, I remain a part of the natural world. Inside my poly-cotton shirts and pants, and the shoes that I now wear even indoors, my body is still mostly water. My internal organs still require minerals and vitamins to function properly. My lungs still breathe air.

 

In a modern town, it's easy to assume a division between the natural and the human. It's even possible to believe in the myth of natural habitats, free from human influence. However, living out in the bush in Africa, it never occurred to my family to mark the line where humanity began and nature ended. Certainly we mowed our lawn, and knew better than to walk in the long grass beyond the yard, where snakes could easily hide. But we also knew not to kill the lizards that roamed the walls of our house, because they ate the mosquitoes that carried malaria.

 

In America, we want our nature nicely packaged. Lizards are fine at the zoo, but they don't belong in the house. Likewise, mangos belong in the produce aisle, flowers belong in the window box, and raccoons do not belong in the dumpster. As our sphere of influence has expanded, we humans have banished the other animals and plants to small areas of the world, and called it "habitat protection." We've even gone so far as to label certain species wild (incompatible with humanity) and others domestic (worth our attention). But spend some time around a village campfire, and you will find the distinctions not so clear.

 

In Zambia, every village has its menagerie of dogs. The omnivorous canines live on the scraps of food and trash discarded by the humans. They are as much a part of village life as the mothers who sweep the yard or the sons who herd the cattle, but they are hardly domestic in the way our metropolitan dogs are. They are not so much members of the family as co-inhabitants of the village. Like the raccoons that raid American trash bins, they have learned to live alongside humans, surviving on what we don't want.

 

When this sort of omnivore wanders into our towns, we call it "urban wildlife" to distinguish it from the domesticated animals and humans who belong. These nuisance animals -- seagulls, pigeons, rats, raccoons, and feral cats -- make a mess of our well-ordered habitat. In Silver City the nuisance is even a threat, with Javelina pigs wandering into town, killing dogs and frightening citizens.

 

Of course, we wander into wild spaces as well. Every year or so we hear about some city dweller visiting a national park who didn't realize that large cats eat other mammals -- or who didn't realize that mammals include humans. You can be certain that no villager sitting by the fire and listening to the night sounds would make such a deadly mistake. Nor would she assume that the presence of her cooking fire and sleeping hut make the woods around her any less wild.

 

If the earth is to survive another millennium of human influence, we must reclaim our place within the natural sphere. We must drop the facade that separates the human world from the nonhuman world, and begin to think simply in terms of the world. Only by retrieving this wisdom, discarded in our rush toward modernization, will we be able to answer some of the tough questions posed by the twenty-first century.

 

If humans are rightly thought of as part of nature, then the issues surrounding oil drilling in places like the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) change dramatically. We can forget the notion that a human artifact like an oil well would somehow despoil the pristine landscape of ANWR. We can also discard the idea that our needs and the needs of the wildlife in ANWR are mutually exclusive. Instead of thinking in terms of either/or -- either humans or nature -- we begin thinking in terms of both/and. How do we meet our needs and the needs of our nonhuman neighbors in ANWR? If we find we cannot meet both, then we must compromise. What we cannot do is simply choose one over the other.

 

The both/and principle also applies when analyzing the need for wildlife spaces in and around cities. For example, in India and Southeast Asia, the human population long ago outpaced (and displaced) the tiger population. Now, conservationists have begun advocating on behalf of the tigers, planting trees and building greenways so the tigers and their animal prey can once again move freely in this part of the world. Inevitably, a rise in the tiger population in such close proximity to humans has led to some maulings and killings. However, we should not let such incidents keep us from attempting to live on good terms with these nonhuman neighbors. As with ANWR, we must learn to compromise. In this case, that might mean slowing the rate of repopulation, while reeducating the townspeople on how to live with tigers. But again, what we must not do is choose tiger over human, or vice versa, as if the two were mutually exclusive.

 

These are only two examples of the myriad human/nature questions that face us in the twenty-first century. Will we make the right decisions? I remain hopeful for the future of the world -- if we will only look to the past. If we can begin to look through the glass doors and over the cubicle walls, and if we will listen to our village elders.

 

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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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