Chapter 14: The Circle
It’s a universal truth that much of what we see around us follows a circle. Considered the father of modern observational astronomy, Galileo had it right: our planet does not hover motionless at the center of the universe, it orbits the sun. Chris Columbus didn’t fall off the edge of the Earth when he set sail from Spain seeking a new trade route to the East Indies. Whether it be moon phases, tidal patterns, or the annual changing of the seasons, recurrence is the norm. Examples are endless. No clearer is this principle than in nature’s rhythm of renewal and continuance — the water and nitrogen cycles, the ten-year cycle of snowshoe hare abundance, and life’s circle of birth, death, decomposition, and rebirth.
Native American cultures, and for that matter, aboriginal peoples around the globe had a keen understanding of the circle of life and its importance to their own. Seasons for gathering fruits and tubers, setting nets for migrating fish, the use of fire to regularly rejuvenate plant life and facilitate their hunting of game, these and many other recurring activities bound the people to the land, gave rise to their customs, and fashioned their lifestyles.
This raises a second truth about the natural world: the interconnectedness of all things. The trophic linkages that provide community stability among herbivores, predators, scavengers, and detritivores are complex relationships shaped by natural selection. Without our help in the slightest, these processes endure like a metronome. Naturalist John Muir phrased it this way, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, one finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
In our technocratic world, modern Homo sapiens may dwell less on these things than our ancestors who lived closer to the land. Manipulation of nature for our convenience is a hallmark of our domination of the “untamed” natural world. This idea of untamed nature struck native people as peculiar. Oglala Sioux Chief Luther Standing Bear noted, “Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame.”
Contemporary society’s efforts to control things, or to direct natural processes toward desired ends, often spawn unintended consequences. I gained some experience with that during my career as the National Elk Refuge biologist, managing the public’s wildlife and coordinating the winter feeding of thousands of elk. Historically, wildlife management favored species that people held dear over less worthy species. Only decades ago, that meant eradicating predators (the bad animals, such as coyotes and cougars and wolves and wolverines) in order for the good animals, like deer and game birds, to prosper. Over time we’ve changed our thinking about this, and ever so slowly our behavior.
Indeed, when we think we know better, we’re often humbled to find that our anthropocentric tinkering serves only to disrupt nature’s fine-tuning. The authority of these truths — the circularity and interconnectedness of nature — is distilled in the following example where my own intervention boomeranged.
Bruce Smith retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004 after a thirty year career as a wildlife manager and scientist. He was named Wyoming’s Conservationist of the Year in 1997 and received the John and Frank Craighead Wildlife Conservation Award in 2005. Besides his scientific publications, he writes for magazines and has published five books, including Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the American Mountain Goat (2014) which won two National Outdoor Book Awards. From his home in Bozeman, Montana, he works and writes to promote conservation of wildlife and wildlands.