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The Past and the Present

You might say that I’m living a life many of my friends would call simple and rustic.  My cabin is small, I’m surrounded by rugged mountains, I hike and live around grizzlies and wolves.  The dangers I have to stay aware of are not car break-ins or being mugged on a dark street, but being stuck in a sudden snowstorm on a trail, or spraining an ankle in an area where no one ever comes bye, not just for days but for months or years.  Some might say ‘She’s living raw, close to the land’.

But frankly, even way out here in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the wildest place in the lower 48, I feel inadequate, modern.  Sure I could probably survive for three or four days in a pinch out in the back country.  I take provisions and precautions for that.  I carry a satellite phone.  I bring bear spray.  I even know some wild foods that could tide me over.   But my upbringing and my life experiences have never prepared me for living like peoples here did hundreds of years ago.  That is cultural knowledge that was passed down generation to generation.  The Native Americans who overwintered for 5000 years at nearby Dead Indian Campground  passed on their life skills as well as their intimate relationship with the Land–lifestyles that have been lost forever.

Those skills are not learned by a single individual in a single lifetime.  Just as much as evolution is physical, those skills were a cultural evolution, breathed and lived by a community.  Larry Todd described to me that by even the very early 1800’s, the life skills and the community of the Native Americans at Dead Indian had already begun to dissolve.  Around here, that was about the time Lewis and Clark came to town.  Their expedition is still the best description of the land and the way things were ‘pre-white’ man.  The land may have not changed much, but the cultures were already disintegrating due to disease and other factors.

300 year old wikiup standing till 25 years ago when destroyed by cattle

You know how your grandparents or parents talk about the past, their past, in a longing way.  That is how I feel, but in a way that goes much farther back to an America that was ‘discovered’ long ago.  Long ago, in the 1800’s, an idea was floating around to give Native Americans the land west of the Missouri.  That, of course, was never Thomas Jefferson’s vision.

I must admit, I am weighted down with a longing for a past no longer present.  I envision the days when bison roamed freely here, when the beaver and the mink were so plentiful that people were able to trap them in the hundreds. When there were more animals than people. When animals whose mere presence in the landscape today is so controversial, such as wolves and bison, were sacred to the peoples.

In each new landscape I consider “What must this have looked like hundreds of years ago, before the white men made their mark here.  What were the native trails like?”  I walk what appear to be these pristine mountains and listen hard for ancient echoes of songs, murmurings of people long dead who knew the ways of living with the earth much better than I will ever know in my lifetime.  Their songs long gone, I wonder how we can learn the secrets it took so long for them to discover and pass on.

I am obsessed with the past and how that past might be brought into this present time. My friends tell me it will never be again and to move on.

I conjure up dreams of how to fit ‘wildness’ into the puzzle of modern existence.  Do we set aside large tracts of unmanaged lands with uncollared wildlife, leave them uncharted and unmapped, to enter at your own risk?  Or is our hope in the advocates of green renewable city living, where most of the population will live, work, and grow their own food, leaving the large acreage of rural unfettered areas?  Unfortunately, the politics of wilderness seems to always involve an uphill battle, with the needs of wildlife superseded by human needs and greed.


A mere 'blip' of the Bison there used to be

Sensitivity.  It is a attribute we must all strive to cultivate as human beings.  What we can do is walk lightly, live in wonder, become increasingly aware that all life is conscious, alive, and part of our connected existence.  If each one of us were to make that our task, then the earth might become renewed again, full of wild existence, of which we are a part.

3 Responses

  1. Wow, really great post. I really enjoy learning and practicing ‘primitive’ living skills that people have used forever, but like you said am always aware that that’s not entirely how it works. I personally feel that industrial civilization is somewhat incompatible with wildness. I see this a lot here in CO, so many people. Every year there is less and less wildness even though there is still more than other places. I mean, it’s always there under everything else, but there is so much pressure on the land and it just makes me so incredibly sad. Like you I always think of the past and people living well on the earth. I look around and see what we have made the world and hope that our way of life doesn’t last forever, that there is still something left, and there is still some hope for people and all the others living in the world. Anyway, thanks for your post. 🙂


  2. Wonderful post… 🙂

    We must say, with the jobs and lifestyle we lead…we feel more comfortable in the wilderness than in the big city for sure. Is it odd that I’d like to carry bear spray with me on the subway when we are visiting New York, for example?

    “Their songs long gone, I wonder how we can learn the secrets it took so long for them to discover and pass on.” That is an incredible statement and sounds like poetry to our ears… we often ponder the same things when our and about and see remnant dark marks sprayed across stone near the mouth of a cave, etc.

    As always, your blog is a pleasure to read and having worked with moose in the Teton Wilderness, it is nice to see a few familiar sites and (even smells) when we check in on “The Human Footprint”


  3. We are all “native inhabitants” of Mother Earth, despite skin color, genetics, and the flavor of tracks we put on the ground. What is or isn’t wild? The essence of such can be found in and out of wilderness. The concept of “Wilderness” was foreign to first nation peoples in North Ameriica. Then second nation people arrived and drew lines in the sand, and thus was born the concept of “boundaries”

    The entire planet is engaged in disputes, at many levels, over their respective sides of that “line” between “this and that,” and is probably just the way nature works. After all, every species, through territories, and spacial needs, etc. must deal with the same thing in the ever struggle for survival.

    Yes, being more sensitive to our selves and others, (interconnectedness of all things) is a good solution to our dance around the many boundaries binding us to our home in the cosmos.


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