I stepped onto the front porch to the bugling of an elk early one morning this week. As the eerie fluting carried over the gray, frozen hayfield, something fired briefly in my brain — perhaps some ancient instinct dulled by the years I’ve spent inside buildings, staring at computers, or behind the wheel of a car, watching the world rush by like a movie.
Why was the elk calling? What message was it sending out to its kind, and to me and the other creatures inhabiting the sagebrush hills?
I have no answers, but the questions are all the more real to me in light of recent events. I can’t rid myself of the image of thousands of people blithely working and playing along the Asian coast on Dec. 26, utterly unaware that a massive 500-mile-per-hour wave was about to destroy their world. Nor can I shake the thought of those Southern California residents who died in their houses last month when a two-week-long, 12-inch deluge unleashed a deadly river of mud on their neighborhood.
The Californians who perished had ample warning that danger was near. Within a lifetime, those hills have slid many times following winter storms. The people devastated by the tsunami, on the other hand, didn’t have any warning, technological or otherwise. And yet many animals somehow sidestepped the disaster.
Asian wildlife officials found relatively small numbers of dead whales, porpoises and deer along the shores, indicating that many moved away before the tsunami hit. A dozen elephants giving tourists rides along Thailand’s western coast began trumpeting hours before the tsunami, just about the time the earthquake fractured the ocean floor, according to the Washington Post. An hour before the waves hit, they grew agitated again, and some broke free of their chains and headed to higher ground.
Do animals have a sixth sense that humans lack? "I don’t know if I’d call this a sixth sense so much as a better sense," Ken Grant, project coordinator at the Humane Society International in Bali, Indonesia, told the Post. "Most animals know that when the ground starts to shake something is wrong."
Some people do, too. Indian environmentalist Ajoy Bagchi told National Public Radio that the small hunting and gathering societies that have lived for thousands of years on islands off the coast of India survived the epic wave quite well. Bagchi speculates that their well-tuned ability to read the natural world warned them to move into the protective inland forests. So perhaps we humans have not lost our native abilities to read the environment. We’ve just allowed them to atrophy through non-use.
Can we regain our sensitivity? Yes, but as the writer of this issue’s cover essay suggests, the road is long and winding, with plenty of scary shadows darting out from the shoulders.
A first step, though, is to literally pull off the road, get out of our cars, and examine the once-living creatures we have flattened under our tires. Only by empathizing with our fellow beings — and acknowledging not only their beautiful attunement to the natural world, but the ugly discord they have with ours — will we reawaken our wild humanity.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.