Scotland. New Zealand. Montana.
The last in that list is home, where I am now, writing for the first time since May. On that spring day when I posted The Beautiful Familiar, I was recently returned from nine weeks in New Zealand, still digesting the insights of that sojourn. Then, my energy turned to preparation for the next journey: I was off again for two and half months to Scotland, the country that feels like a second home.
Spending time in those three countries has made me think long and hard about the human relationship to the natural world, and the role of humans in an ecosystem. Consider:
People have lived in Scotland almost since the glaciers receded, and have had settled agricultural/pastoral communities since prehistoric Neolithic times. Livestock are part of the system, and some nature reserves have returned traditional livestock species to the land where grazing creates a vegetation mosaic, a mix of habitat that supports greater biodiversity. Scotland is a cultural landscape, where people and place evolved together.
People have also lived in the American West for thousands of years, but in the region of my homelands the indigenous people were nomadic. The American Indian tribes moved throughout the year, leaving a mark but a light one. This too is a system that evolved with humans but in a different way than Scotland.
The islands we now call New Zealand evolved without humans – without any mammals at all but three species of bats. New Zealand was a true wilderness in the sense that it was never inhabited by humans until Polynesians arrived some 700 years ago, the original colonizers who developed into the Māori. The impact of humans – both Māori and European – on a biota without any ecological understanding (yes, I use that word purposely) of humans or the non-native species they brought was horrendous, the extinction of animals, plants, and whole habitats a sad loss.
Three countries, three unlike histories of human inhabitation, three different landscapes. The days of subsistence living in Scotland and nomadicism in the American West are long gone. But think… If humans were able to shift their way of living to coincide with the long-term relationship between people and place — a relationship (or non-relationship in the case of New Zealand) that perhaps created a sustainable system — what a different world it would be.
People often say ‘humans are natural too, humans are animals, we belong too.’ Well yes, we do belong in some places living in certain ways. But polar bears don’t belong in the Sahara desert and rattlesnakes don’t belong in the arctic. As our human population grows and expands, whether we are natural or not becomes an irrelevant question. What is relevant is how we choose to inhabit the places where we live, and what we choose to do with those lands that are not human inhabitations, always with an eye to the survival of the non-human creatures of this planet. Otherwise, we might as well admit we are just an invasive, often non-native species. After all, noxious weeds are natural too.