American — and proud of it
In Amsterdam, people eyed me with pity, suspicion or loathing as soon as I opened my mouth and spoke American English, my only fluent language. At train stations, people sneered, "Bush, Bush," as I walked by, intending to shame me. It’s a harrowing time to be a U.S. citizen afoot in the world, but there I was, headed for a Dutch retreat center to help facilitate a program based in nature.
When my colleagues and I explored the retreat center’s surrounding "nature," I noticed that the trees, though sizable, grew in orchard-straight rows. We wandered off the wide trails periodically and found, in every direction, another well-traveled path no more than 100 yards away.
The vegetation seemed familiar, similar to that of the Pacific Northwest where I grew up, and my imagination supplied the missing elements: massive rotting stumps, fallen timber nursing ferns and saplings, the tracks and whisper of animals in the shadows. But there was nothing rotting except last year’s leaves. No blowdown crisscrossed the ground. In every direction there were buildings within a half-hour walk.
Getting lost was impossible. True solitude was impossible. As one who has lived in the American West for a lifetime, I was unprepared for the abrupt, heart-piercing realization that this was the state of the wild in Holland, if not in most of Europe.
There were no stands of primeval forest; there were no creatures larger than deer, none fiercer than fox. Nothing of the original wild remained. Nothing.
I couldn’t fathom how the Netherlanders could bear the magnitude of this loss. But then, how could they adequately discern it? Bears and wolves existed in the terrain of fairy tales, not in recent history. All witnesses to the original wild died many generations ago. What firsthand stories of formidable forests, populated by captivating creatures, could a grandparent tell a grandchild? Not even the wild ancestral memory remained, vanished so long ago that its absence seems normal, not tragic.
And there, amid that placid, planted forest, in a country where people righteously, and perhaps rightfully, scorned the United States, I felt a rush of unexpected gratitude for the land of my origin — tremendous, shivering gratitude to be utterly formed and informed by the still-wild terrain of the North American continent.
Despite the best efforts of industry, the momentum to preserve — even restore — wild American habitat has not been defeated. Where I live, in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, reintroduced gray wolves are multiplying; grizzlies are expanding their range. Trumpeter swans were resuscitated from the verge of extinction. Bison in Grand Teton National Park now number in the hundreds instead of the few dozen of two decades ago. Which is not to say that all these creatures, and more, are no longer imperiled.
But unlike Netherlanders, millions of Americans take pride or refuge in wild, or nearly wild, public land; millions have an affinity with wild creatures that remain a living presence in the American landscape. We have the weighty privilege of bearing witness to a wildness whose very existence defies rapacious odds and ravenous human history.
More than 125 years ago, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park; 40 years ago, the Wilderness Act was signed into law — two of many extraordinary moments in the history of the human relationship with the wild. The damage human beings have inflicted on natural systems is, of course, incalculable, and even science-based "management" has produced disasters.
But the stunning fact that Americans have preserved habitat at all is evidence of an emerging ecological vision. If the United States has a gift for the world, it’s not our gift for the absurd consumer confidence index, not pre-emptive invasion, not even a limping democracy. It is a dream of collaboration with Earth, rooted in tundra, tangled forests, hissing geysers, stone deserts. It is a vision as radically wild now as it was in 1862, when Thoreau famously wrote: "In wildness is the preservation of the world."
Outside the United States, "American" has become synonymous with "Bush." But even as Europeans scorned my citizenship, I could not disown my native land. On the North American continent, enough wildness remains to guide our fledgling discovery of how human purpose can be coherent with natural systems — a vision no less necessary for our common future than a dream of freedom.