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Know the West

Understanding humans’ place in the ecosystem

Where wildness reigns, humans give up their dominant roles.


On a rainy February day in 1985, Valerie Plumwood, an environmental philosopher and feminist, took a solo canoe excursion through Australia’s Kakadu National Park. Near the end of her day on the water, still far from civilization, she was attacked by a crocodile. As she tried to jump out of the canoe and scramble up the nearest tree, the crocodile seized her by her legs, held her in its jaws, and began a series of death rolls — what Plumwood later described as “a centrifuge of boiling blackness.”

When the crocodile took a momentary break, Plumwood scrambled up a muddy bank and escaped. She bound her wounds with torn pieces of clothing and staggered out of the bush. When she was finally found, she begged her rescuers not to carry out their plan to find and kill the crocodile. “I was the intruder,” she later wrote, “and no good purpose could be served by random revenge.”

Plumwood became a leading environmental thinker who railed against the dangers of the “human supremacist culture” of Western civilization and its dualistic approach to nature, one that puts humans somehow above and beyond nature. During the crocodile attack, she wrote, “I glimpsed the world for the first time ‘from the outside,’ as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.”

Large predators, she said, “present a test of our acceptance of our ecological identity … as part of the food chain, eater as well as eaten.” They also teach us lessons “lost to the technological culture that now dominates the Earth.”

In this issue’s cover story, writer Chris Solomon helps us review those lessons in depth. Fortunately, he does this not by being attacked by predators, but by spending time with them. Solomon goes to Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, where visitors walk — carefully and with great respect — near throngs of wild brown bears, who have come to accept humans as part of the landscape. At the sanctuary, humans are subordinate, resuming a role we must have played long ago. Such places are increasingly rare, but the lessons they hold are invaluable. They allow us to question the human relationship to the non-human world, and to acknowledge the precariousness of all things.

Editor-in-chief Brian Calvert
Brooke Warren/High Country News

As Plumwood wrote after her attack, we have failed to realize “how misguided we are to view ourselves as masters of a tamed and malleable nature.” More simply, we have failed to understand the “vulnerability of mankind.” Like any trip into the wilds of the world, Solomon’s journey to McNeil is a gentle reminder of something Plumwood nearly gave her life to learn, that nothing in this universe is guaranteed, not even the survival of our species.