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Sandhill Crane

Nature Doesn’t Look at Our Differences, But She Does Count Our Feet

By Karen I. Shragg 

Featured Image: Sandhill Crane at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota (c) Karen Shragg 

Editors’ Note: The Rewilding Institute acknowledges that population and immigration issues are contentious, but we maintain that human numbers – in terms of both population and consumption – must be compassionately and fairly stabilized and reduced if we are to effectively confront the extinction and climate crises. On this site we present a variety of perspectives to encourage constructive discussion of these complex issues so that our goal of restoring wild nature can be achieved within a framework of respect for human rights, dignity, and justice, including ecological justice which embraces the right to life of other-than-human beings and communities on this Earth. Please see our Population Position statement and other coverage around human population.

If I hear one more time that we must change our relationship with the natural world in order to stop our road to extinction, I am going to scream. Our beloved Beatles told us that “all we need is love,” when love is just a missing ingredient to a much longer recipe. We certainly need to operate with more love toward each other and our planet, but there is more than an attitude change and an embrace of trees that needs to be addressed. Something is standing in our way. Something both huge and hugely ignored. Website after well-intended website tells us to all get connected to nature, sing Kumbaya, and all will be better in the world. Nature is a soother, a healer, and a place to come to get grounded, oh yeah and please bring your sustainably harvested yoga mat. Though on the surface this is good advice, it is not and cannot be a complete response to the roaring engine that is becoming our planet’s 6th extinction.

Getting back to nature can mean anything from donning a backpack and heading out into the wilderness, to finding a hiking trail in a local park. The rewards of such endeavors are provably positive, but we cannot escape into the woods and ignore why all of nature is under threat. It is due to our overwhelming presence. Access to nature and the solitude it promises become less and less available to us in this overbuilt and overpopulated country of ours. It’s hard to know what will dismantle the fairytale that spews stories of our inexhaustible resources in the good ole US of A.

Dwindling opportunities to do what is newly referred to as, “forest bathing,” is not due to a lack of interest as much as it is to the way in which our ever-expanding post-industrial society has bulldozed so much of our natural world. Telling people to get out into nature assumes there is nature to ‘get out into’ or that it won’t be full of others trying to do the same once we arrive.

Universally absent from this otherwise noble effort to reconnect us to nature is the fact that US overpopulation has made the ability to find solitude increasingly difficult. While it is clear that we continue to suffer from “nature deficit disorder” as defined in Richard Louv’s book The Last Child in the Woods, nature is hurting more. The natural world needs to be intact in order to operate according to her evolutionary prescription. While being instructed to get out into her beauty we need to pause and examine why our natural world is fragmenting and declining.

To have access to the comfort of a forest, prairie, or marsh is as important as it is rare. I should know. For 28 years I did all I could to help create nature experiences for urban kids and families. Our nature center was so close to an international airport that we had to often wait to interpret the bees, trees, birds, and mammals until the jets passed over. I managed 150 acres sandwiched in between a freeway and a major county road, and yet we did our best to create experiences for our visitors that both increased their knowledge and stewardship toward the natural world. It is a beloved oasis in the midst of an ever-growing city, but the pressure to keep out the noise, invasive species, and litter was, and I am sure continues to be, a never-ending challenge.

I am born, raised, and live in Minnesota. There are 267,000 acres preserved within the lovely 66 state parks in our midwestern state known for our 10,000 lakes. With our current population of 5,640,000, that means that there are only 21 acres per Minnesotan in state parkland. In the last decade, Minnesota grew by 376,412 residents. Our parkland cannot and will not grow to accommodate the potential demand those additional people represent. Not only is the land already spoken for, but the state park system remains grossly underfunded by millions of dollars as it is a poor competitor for funds otherwise demanded for education, transportation, and other human services.

The ‘nature pie’ of all of our parks is getting sliced ever thinner as our population grows. There are 83 million acres of National Park land that the last administration worked hard to destroy with policies that allowed more access to their mineral riches. Those national parks were once in the hands of much better stewards, as the First Nation People never felt compelled to build large visitor centers or pave access roads in them in order to convey their value. Be that as it may, in 1872 there were just under 39 million Americans listed in the US census. Today, in 2021 there are just over 330 million of us. That means that for purposes of illustration, we now have only a quarter of an acre per person in preserved national park land. These statistics may not be a very practical example of how our population growth has undermined our access to nature, but they are ratios that illustrate how we are eating away at nature, its wildlife, and our access to its beauty.  It’s great to tell people to get out into nature, but this pandemic has let us know how quickly our parks can be overwhelmed with visitors. The detrimental effects of even well-behaved visitors in such high numbers meant overcrowded experiences for those who just wanted to commune and get away from CNN for a while. It also meant more trash and not so well-behaved visitors.

Humans are encroaching everywhere. No mountainside or ocean view seems to be off-limits to population-driven development. Suburbs are sprawling over precious farmland and high rises are becoming the norm. Land near our parks of all types is in high demand. Increased noise, traffic, and commercial development soon follows, further diminishing the park’s value to longtime residents and wildlife. In order to be great stewards of the land, in order to accomplish the praise-worthy efforts of NGO’s like the Rewilding Institute, we need to have a more forgiving ratio between humans and the natural world. We can only do that by paying attention to where growth comes from and realizing the detrimental effects of our continued growth in a country with more than double the population nature can afford.

Nature doesn’t care whether we grow by births or immigration. Nature doesn’t care where anyone comes from, what language they speak or whether they are skilled or unskilled workers. Nature only cares about total numbers of this bipedal hominid which has overwhelmed its position as top predator on the food chain of life. Those numbers, 330,000,000 and counting, spell out overpopulation inspired-OVERSHOOT in America in capital letters. The challenge is that if we really wish to awaken an enlightened re-embrace of the natural world, we can start by singing Kumbaya but must not end there. We need to continue care about policies and support funding for our precious park lands but we cannot stop there either. We have to care about limiting how many are going to be demanding to use them.

If we were growing mostly by total fertility rate per woman in the US then that is where most of our efforts should be. We could, and still should, become better at funding education, woman’s health, and policies that encourage small families. Alas, it is not where most of our growth is coming from. According to a recent research study conducted by scientist Dr. Leon Kolankiewicz (“Population Growth and the Diminishing Natural State of Arizona“), the biggest reason for that state’s population growth was federal immigration policies forcing the loss of 1.1 million acres. Yes, as unpopular as that will seem to today’s myopic public discourse, it remains undeniably true.

According to Pew Research Center, “The arrival of new immigrants and the births of their children and grandchildren account for 55% of the U.S. population increase from 193 million in 1965 to 324 million today. The new Pew Research Center projections also show that the nation is projected to grow to 441 million in 2065 and that 88% of the increase is linked to future immigrants and their descendants.” Those numbers should give us great pause without allowing any hatred in our hearts. Remember that nature doesn’t recognize our differences, but she does count our feet.

We are indeed growing mostly by immigration in the US, and while many activists have written about how the US is already exhausting its many natural and human resources, I wish to add nature’s voice to the mix.

Ironically, Democrats and Republicans act in opposing ways when it comes to protecting park land. Democrats are pretty good at park land preservation policies and consistently get higher ratings than Republicans from groups like the League of Conservation Voters. Republicans get very poor ratings on their policies toward our national park lands. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, in 2017, under the Trump Administration, the Department of the Interior was told to review and repeal the standards that protected oil and gas drilling inside parks like the Everglades, Grand Teton, and Mesa Verde.

On the other hand, when it comes to controlling the increase in US population which comes from immigration, Democrats get failing grades. Democrats need to get all of their good conservation grades from protective regulations against mining, because when their constituents hear about border restrictions they are reminded of the xenophobic rhetoric of Republican administrations. It is political quicksand for Democrats to even come to the table to discuss the many benefits of going back to the legal immigration allowed back when my grandparents came here from Russia in the 1920s. Most of my relatives came to our shores just after the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, which set an immigrant quota at 3 percent of the number of immigrants in the 1910 census (about 358,000.) While these laws were more about controlling ethnicities and not preserving our parks, we can and need to change our motives for revisiting and creating new morally improved immigration laws.

We now seem trapped in a no-win scenario where on the one hand we want to keep America a country built on immigrants and to honor those who want to be united with their families. On the other hand, a flood of new immigrants to already overcrowded cities will immediately increase both their carbon footprint as well as the number of feet who will be wanting someday to have access the respite offered by park land. We want to protect our parks from drilling but not from the number of visitors? In 2020, the National Park Service saw 90 million less visitors due to the pandemic, but they still welcomed a whopping 237 million people.

So if we continue to grow in numbers as many in power seem to see as the only politically correct thing to do, the new trend of nature bathing will have to be as virtual as our ubiquitous zoom calls, because we are running out of nature to bathe in just when we’ve rediscovered its value.

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Michael - April 23, 2021

Well, there is some valor in Dr. Shragg’s essay. Certainly outside of Rewilding org. it would be universally attacked as racial.
Also born in Minnesota, but when the last wolves south of Canada still howled their social presence south of Canada, i felt the human pressure by 1964.
Far earlier, even before the quiet 106 year old man who used to sit feeding mammals and birds was himself born – in 1850, another individual traveled from Oceti Sakowin down Missouri and using rivers and horses (originally escaped with longhorns, a xeric-adapted descendant of western Eurasian Aurochs. Stop me here. Sometimes i know too much),

a representative named Red Cloud in this language, made the observation “as we traveled down the great river, i saw many villages larger in numbers of people than my whole nation.”

For some years, i also traveled with a Wolf, who had escaped and chosen me in some intuition of fredom. We grew to know a number of bears up the rivers and forests i message from now. Each of those bears kept to their own territories, small but fertilely reproducing across time the other life that shared with each bear, visiting others sporadically across summer.

We have found places where mountain saddles showed evidence of repeat visits ,up wet green snowmeadows and forests to the dip between rough scree and crag. The scat indicated that that resident had followed his/her nose and/or memory, curious, at home, anticipatingly, up to the last tree’s shade, looking across the next valley to other lines of stone teth, dark in the northern distance. No passage for bear or wolf, the north side of that saddle is sheer cliff down 50 meters or more.

I still imagine that all the summer scats tell all that that bear went up into that scree saddle above all food, to look , to pause on the long day and gaze out at vistas, feling the possibilities endless, of the new, the next.

We live as bears do, in relatively limited traverses of time. Right now i could not countenance going back to Duluth or Thunder Bay, or the outpost of Ely, where caged wolves are now. The freeways and megalopolis to the south of St. Cloud to Prescott and Rochester, where once hardwood forest met buffalo prairie met River-meeting (this is what Wisconsin means), these were too much, even when the Wolf was a child just this side of the century’s turn.

That evanescence, of lives and change: remember i spoke of a man i knew born in 1850, of wolves i heard a hundred years later, calling, calling in the forests and swampy land below my own first steps in the country where the lion-like scratches in granite worn to humps above waters i dove and swam – the Shield Country, where Caribou and Moose trotted easily over fallen tree, and following wolf tired from having to leap.

Caribou are gone, like birch leaves in November. Wolves, over toward Gogebic (the hanging lake in Ojibwe, for its position above the Gitchi Gumi, the Great Water), cut down in the midst of life, love, the denning season by men (and sometimes women) with guns.
For wolves eagerly love and share with children more than we. The Wolf i knew so intimately even loved small dogs as pups, as neotenically tiny as humans have chosen them.

For that is the message here – the human not only looks at things in small ways, but shapes for small, momentary purposes. We claim greatness of brain, even as the evolved job of brains is to sense, and then to condense illimitable worlds into heuristics, smalll essences from which to interpret the next huge accumulation of sensory information.

Wolves are wiser, i have discovered, more oriented to the accumulation of novel information, concerned with life only, rather than holding old, erroneous heuristics. This makes them more wary, more attuned to acute senses, knowing from sound and thinly dispersed molecules on the wind.

They expect familiarity, as do we, but watch, see more intensely, play again, and again.

When you observe wolves, you see that their every act, their every expectation is born in play. What you see in testing of prey, in obligate recognition of life as to be consumed through play, nebulous through keen, cuspate and strategic (for brilliantly strategic they can be, the essence of applied, multivariate heuristics. That originally tragically captive-born, i ran with over and over again along Pacific shore, he chasing shoals of sandpipers until they schooled like fish and i slower but anticipating wind and wing, surounded them toward him. Of couurse we never caught them, nor teasing diving ravens who played their useful games of “how near can my reflexes bring me to legged-cohorts, dangerous friends dining?” The wolf learned from this to drive deer through opaque bush directly at me. Sometimes i was within hoofstrike and antler swimg. There was NO mistaking his learned understanding of strategy) creation of web, is awareness, exuberance, motion.

Avoidance of death is built into life, hormonally, neurologically. Corollary to this is awareness of densities, and in we animals, inherent recognition of motion, aggregation, dispersal, and when, to each.

This is what you are feeling.

I dip into advocacy, yesterday again composing my common lobbying of legislators, administrators, agencies, to reimagine ALL public lands as imprgnable refuges, places to return ONLY fet, rejecting the 40 year onslaught of Offroad Vehicles.
I often repeat that guns have only existed for 800 years, and we have thrived in our exact present form forThree Hundred to Four and 1/2 Hundred times that without that excessively efficient killing tool.

Because my advocacy has always failed in forest and water and wolf and whale and wildlife scoping meetings, i can only turn my advocacy to you.

Public lands management must be ONLY for preservation and restoration. Deer and elk run the boundarylands between the territories of wolves. We, too, must run our lives only at the evanescent edges of vast natural systems home to larger beings. This is how we originally formed our own species, attentive, transient before the larger elder beings.

Our fleetness was due to imagination, which has been used in error to make us sedentary. Every child is motion, attentively aware mind to signals including inadvertent signals by intimates of relationship, of approach, existences, what to avoid.

In describing children, i seem to myself to be describing the wolf. For this is how their flashing, adroit, vivacious minds work.

Turn public lands to preservation, to restoration. Not just the tiny islands of designated Wilderness, but Featured, to paraphrase, in the unbodied air, across abysses of time.

Chernobyl melted in a moment, and visent, wild horses, the cloudlike wolf live well, in that retroceded place.
I have walked, surfed, skied momentarily over places once mined, logged to bone, even indian-mounded and inundated placed where humans plied meeting and trade for thousands of years.
Environmental DNA of ALL beings, their constant sheddings and even breaths, persists, loudly for a time to nose of wolf and eyes of mine. But they are taken and changed by the alchemy of time.

Be such assistant, alchemist. Say No More vehicle, gun, road, fence. At least in every common place.

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jerseycityjoan - June 24, 2021

I see Dr. Shragg calls herself an “overpopulation activist.” I have never seen that term used before. I wish there were millions of overpopulation activists in America. That is what we need to get change. Right now the number of people, organizations and businesses pressing for ever more people and customers is overwhelming. I think there are many people who don’t agree with bringing lots more new people every year but they stay silent. They feel it is wrong to talk about decreasing FUTURE immigration but that isn’t true. We have every right to set our own future immigration numbers and we should.

Thank you Dr. Shragg for writing this. Keep on speaking up. I hope you inspire many more people to become overpopulation activists. Just by convincing people the US is already overpopulation is doing a great service.

Americans are completely oblivious to the crowded and underresourced America they are dooming their own descendants to live in by their inaction and poor decisions today.

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