“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts are gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.”
Never did a phony speech ring so true. By now we all know (don’t we?) that these words–and that whole web of life riff–come from a fake speech attributed to Suquamish chief Seattle. Its falsified provenance has been exposed many times over, but its staying power persists on posters, T-shirts, bumper stickers, garden plaques (I have one, a gift), in a children’s book–and in hearts. We want to believe that a seer, wise and eloquent (which Seattle was for a fact), speaks to us so poignantly about the strong bond between all species: our irrevocable connection, our shared fate. That a mid-19th-century visionary addressed us directly in the early 1970s–just when our environmental movement was taking off (imagine that!)–and continues speaking ever more urgently in these rapidly-warming, species-depleting 21st-century days.
This is perfect, I say to myself in more cynical moments–and those are many. The species plundering the Earth is the same one (although in far lesser number) affixing prophetic but fictional words of warning to the bumpers of our fossil-fuel burning vehicles even as the plundering accelerates. We feel helpless, realizing it will be a cold day in hell before humans–at least those in charge–believe we are merely strands in the web of life and not its master.
Our dominion has translated into mountaintop removal, coal ash poisoning, tar sands apocalypse, deforestation, depleted oceans, factory farming of sentient fellow animals and all its attendant horrors, and global warming scenarios any one of which could be our undoing. Water scarcity, mutating pathogens, food supply failures, extinctions whose ramifications we don’t yet understand–the list is long and frightening and best not dwelt upon, for whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are connected. The clueless meddling that led to the near-extirpation of burrowing owls in Oregon is just one small example that brilliantly exposes our pathetic human machinations when attempting to manipulate nature, whose complexity is beyond our grasp:
Whatever happens to the beasts soon happens to man. “The depot lands” referred to above are the Umatilla Chemical Depot, an army installation that had stored tons of chemical warfare agents since 1962–and before that, supplies and munitions for World War II. Just a reminder that the species able to destroy all others is also willing to destroy its own.
The Earth does not belong to us. No prophet from Chief Seattle’s time could have foreseen the powerful influences that have created this life out of balance–koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi word and a 1982 film by the same name)—and the suffering of our fellow beings, though the wanton slaughter of tens of thousands of American bison was surely a harbinger. Ancient migration routes are blocked by fences, cities, roads, and dams. Habitat is appropriated for livestock grazing, fuel production, and subdivisions–its native dwellers subsequently killed as nuisances. Invasive species–often intentionally introduced for trivial human benefit–further displace them. Nuclear accidents create radioactive dead zones. Corporations genetically engineer and patent life. And when Mammon conflicts with Mother Earth, corporate lobbyists ensure that lawmakers choose money over mom. We see ourselves apart from nature–not a part of nature–our species’ strand of the web forged largely from links of entitlement, hubris, and greed.
What is man without the beasts?Red wolves and mountain gorillas. Alpine butterflies. Rhinos, elephants, sharks, and tigers. These and more–our Animal Kingdom cohorts in life on Earth–are in grave peril. Scientists are calling it The Sixth Mass Extinction and estimate that 30,000 species go extinct each year. Unlike other mass extinctions, humans are the primary cause this go-round. Seabirds and frogs. Polar bears and pikas.
PikaWorks – click image
These issues are so huge that for sanity’s sake we tend to look on as disinterested observers. Still, they are also hugely personal. If you’ve wandered the high elevation Rocky Mountains as I have, you’ve smiled in appreciative recognition at the shrill warning bark of the pika. Sit down in a boulder field adjacent to a meadow and you’ll soon see the small lagomorphs–rabbit relatives–busily collecting forbs and grasses (video) to build “haystacks” for winter survival. Pikas’ body temperature, at 104 degrees, is near the lethal limit for mammals and they can easily overheat. A warming world is a real threat to these little beings, who serve as a prey species for many predators in the intricate web of life.
And then there’s this reality: At this very moment, billions of sentient animals are suffering both mentally and physically in factory farms, fur farms, zoos, research labs, Asian bear bile farms, in cattle carriers, on fishing trawlers, in traps and snares, in circuses, rodeos, puppy mills, and slaughterhouses; killed for food, fashion, fun, convenience; poached for horns and tusks; starved, beaten, and worked to death simply for not being human…lives squandered in the myriad ways that we’ve claimed dominion for ourselves without compassion and justice for them.
The fictitious but hauntingly real words of a manufactured prophet in a speech never delivered seem more likely to be proven true today than they did 40 years ago. We will devour the Earth and leave behind only a desert.
Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.
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