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Liberal secular humanism… our current belief system… has a single, honourable aim: to advance human welfare. …But there is a gap at its core: the failure to acknowledge that humans are not necessarily good. For the Greeks, the founders of our culture, the idea was central to their morality. …If man tried to get too high, as he often did, the gods would destroy him.

–Michael McCarthy

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The man who sat on the ground in his tipi meditating on life and its meaning, accepting the kinship of all creatures and acknowledging unity with the universe of things was infusing into his being the true essence of civilization. And when man left off this form of development, his humanization was retarded in growth.

–Chief Luther Standing Bear

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the most blinding dreams

five days across the absaroka-beartooth

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One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens

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One of our uniquely human qualities is our need to place ourselves in stories. Most animals probably don’t, except through what we call instinct. Our instinct is for stories. We hope that in the course of our tale, some desire will be fulfilled or some point proven beyond a doubt… In some sense, our self-told stories may be remedies for the more complex ones we live… I read the work of a neurologist whose theory is that dreams are the relentless efforts of our minds to impose order on the random sparks of neurons during sleep… Often, we seem to get more joy from recognizing a pattern in things than from the things themselves.

Do I love these mountains and our cold climbs, or do I love The Mountain and The Quest? Who cares about these things anymore? But a phrase of William Everson’s has stuck with me: irrelevant to the needs and uses of an established urban hegemony, and therefore out of harmony as it is… To be in step with a majority may not be the highest good. The majority itself be profoundly out of step with something greater… Why does a fox go on a quest? It has the freedom of a body and a story in its genes.

–C.L. Rawlins

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Slough Creek forms a low pass with the Boulder River, and the two of them together make an incredibly obvious halving point for the 944,000 acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness; for dividing two mountain ranges, it’s the hyphen in Absaroka-Beartooth. How this ancient travel corridor escaped a modern road is one of those inexplicable accidents of history, almost as incredible as the Wilderness Act itself. In his report Forest Conditions in the Absaroka Division of the Yellowstone Forest Reserve, 1904, John Leiberg called Upper Slough “well stocked with forest, carrying the greatest quantity of timber of any of the townships” in the Reserve. More importantly, it was accessible to machines. A wagon path was already blazed to the Silvertip Ranch on the Park Boundary, thirteen miles out from the Park road, and three miles beyond that, to the homestead of Joseph “Frenchy” Duret. When the area was scoped for logging and development in the 1970s, wilderness advocates initially ruled out Slough Creek and its Pass, believing its fate foregone– instead, they focused on the rocky and remoter tracts of the current Wilderness. But some sort of ambition eventually persuaded them to go for the entire thing, and my life, at least, and the lives of many animals, to say a lot more, is richer for it. Slough Creek is one of my favorite places in the world. Its importance goes far beyond its mere size. For offering dozens of miles of riparian meadow, its infinitely more than its equivalent acreage of rock and ice to the hundred plus bison we saw wintering there, the dippers in the creek, the foxes and coyotes. We spent two nights in the quietude of Frenchy’s meadow this weekend. In 1922, Frenchy, a notorious poacher, was killed by a grizzly bear that he’d already trapped and shot (“Pieces of grizzly fur, strands of hair, torn bits of flesh, the blood-soaked ground and chewed rifle stock all bore mute testimony to the struggle that ensued,” reads one account). As far as I’m concerned, it was an act of divine retribution– his widow estimated he’d already killed 200 (surely an overestimate, telling nonetheless). Frenchy was a cancer in a bastion of biodiversity. Since his battle, his intrusive claim has gone fallow under a conservation easement. This weekend, among his rusting hay equipment and the long snaking valleys of a land that makes you look twice in surprise there isn’t a road, we saw ten moose, a pack of thirteen wolves, so much death and so much life, and we fancied we were as far from other people as is possible in the lower 48. Which is to say, the mountains were autonomous gods, the snow squalls all-encompassing, and the silence vital.

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When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.

–Wordsworth

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Wolves in Hellroaring

Humans are not part of the grey wolf’s natural diet, and with only local exceptions, we never have been in North America. Perhaps there is no good reason why not: the carnivores are proficient at hunting much larger animals that have much more elaborate natural defenses. And perhaps we know that there is no good reason, therefore we act as though the opposite were true, that wolves are out to get us. Before their reintroduction to Yellowstone, the Governor of Montana promised his constituents that a Montana child would be killed by a wolf within the year. It is accurate to say the wolves are out to get domesticated animals from which we’ve selectively bred out most of the natural defenses and claim to own and count as money in the bank. When wolves resubmit these fat and mostly defenseless creatures to the rigors of natural selection we treat it as the most unnatural thing in the world and we go on the warpath. Whenever wolves kill out of necessity, we kill back out of angst, vengeance, insecurity, sport, and righteousness.

I was thinking about this relationship when we crossed a trio of hunting wolves in the Absaroka-Beartooth last week. We’d been hearing their howls for days and nights, and then one day, fourteen miles from the closest road, there were three coming right towards us. We first saw them a long way away and gradually watched them get closer. It seemed impossible they’d walk right to us, but eventually we had to face the fact they were doing just that. A slight wind kept our scent away. They were thirty feet downhill when they finally saw us and whirled away.

Wolves had been on my mind for days. I’d been studying their tracks and scat and memorizing their songs. I noticed that they were eating poorly: one defecated brown slime and stalks of grass. This is the season of starvation, of darkness, of merciless cold. They were spending long days tromping through deep snow looking for anything. And here we showed up, carrying no weapons, moving perhaps a quarter of their speed, plenty well fed. Totally out of our element (as far as species go). Yet some rule says that they were the ones that had to run away.

It was disturbing for me to watch them run. Of course, it would have been terrifying, it would have certain death, for them to see us as prey. But watching them run away, I considered how successfully we have removed ourselves from the circle of life. We make our own rules, and we declared ourselves the exemptions, and now we are right. We poison our dead before we lock them underground, and we take far, far more than we need. The wolves can’t know the smallest fraction of our offenses against their planet– they only know that we are terribly dangerous, in a way that even the grizzly is not. And they couldn’t be more right. Sometimes, when humans are around, gore erupts from wolf bodies, heads explode, there are sharp deafening cracks in the sky. Things die. The Yellowstone wolf’s creation story is that one day they broke through man’s chain-link fence.

If you’ve ever jumped a herd of three hundred elk and watched them thunder away, noses high, eyes rolled back, you’ve felt the same thing. When we wander through the wilderness, we create an intangible bubble of disruption that mortifies the residents. We embody what is evil in this world. Feeling guilty about the three wolves, I consoled myself that at least they could use our track after we left, it would make up for the energy they wasted running away. But in the following days, time and time again, I saw wolf tracks approach to within a few feet of our own, then turn around. A “healthy fear” we call it, in appreciation, because we know that it is healthy to never trust our species. In Hellroaring, where we were the only people, I wondered how this contract, that we have written, reads to the wolf packs Doug firs and lichens. What all had been signed away, what had been destroyed to secure this level of protection for our kind from a natural world of beautifully integrated parts. The wolves, fading into the timber, felt like my conscience: they know that humans have gone profoundly wrong. They know that we stole the fire from the gods, and that now we are bored again.

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“…I saw wolf tracks approach to within a few feet of our own, then turn around.”