Mountain Lakes Park, NY last month
Last weekend I was out camping in mid-state New York with my spouse. We walked along the ancient trails that had once been traveled by indigenous people, and then colonialists from Europe who began “buying” the land here in the early 1600s. Even to my unpracticed eye for Northeastern woodlands, the woods seemed barren, stripped of biodiversity, perhaps in part because our migrant birds were now heading south. But where was everyone else? “Where were the squirrels?” I asked my spouse. We saw plenty of people walking their dogs, off leash for the most part, and certainly against park rules. I am all for dogs enjoying themselves and doing what dogs do, but I know many are hunters and can harm wildlife. Were they the cause, I mused, as we hiked? Or was it the general loss of biodiversity that is putting all life on earth at risk? The devastating loss of bird life in North America due to human causes? The climate crisis? Such speculation does little to support the normally soothing experience of a walk in the woods.
Our campsite in between hiking, showing spouse Meredith Garmon
When I got home, I reviewed some of the literature, specifically the impact of people and dogs in nature. People walking along trails do displace wildlife, but people with dogs do even more so:
“A single hiker walking down a trail causes wildlife displacement of 150 feet. But a hiker with a dog on leash results in a wildlife displacement of 280 feet in one direction. When the panoramic radius on both sides of the trail is combined to create total diameter, it means a zone of 560 feet. It’s one thing if the displacement causes an animal to flee and it is able to return to its preferred habitat after the person and dog are gone, but the disruption can become chronic, if not permanent, when the trail receives a stream of near-constant or heavy use."
So even when we are taking care of ourselves and our dogs, we are causing harm. There seems to be no escaping this hard reality that humans are driving the 6th great extinction.
Recent dire reports about the “end of nature” seemed to have resulted in a plethora of organizations and programs aimed at the transformation of humanity that is necessary to offset our negative impact. This transformation must occur not just in behavioral and policy changes, but must also in our inner life. We may not be able to do the hard things to curtail human consumption if we don’t cease from seeing ourselves as separate from other beings and as having more privilege and rights than other species.
(Photo by Andrew - https://www.flickr.com/photos/nez/1181091743)
But what will motivate that inner transformation? Experiencing and imagining catastrophic loss is a motivator, but it might not be enough. At least it isn’t for me on most days, as I mourn the depletion of abundance and vibrancy in the nonhuman world. We need to know how to decenter ourselves in the web of life, while also more firmly knitting our connections to all others.
"Berkman recommended moving away from general statements of avoiding suffering to focusing on the needs of individuals and suggested we all should become ‘theological ethologists’ (Berkman 2017). So, in short, it is not enough to think in terms of conservation, we need to create happiness. What are the indices of happiness for wild-living animals?"
Berkman describes theological ethology as, “the discipline that seeks to understand each species in light of its own authentic natural [and supernatural] good…understood as flourishing according to its nature.” Ethology is defined as the practice and studying of animal behavior. I myself don’t find the use of the word “supernatural” necessary in understanding this work that we need to do, because there is no "super" or hierarchy. All things divine and sacred are in nature, and are nature.
Regardless of your theological leanings, One Earth Conservation published a nonsectarian and largely scientific and spiritual guide book, “Nurturing Discussions and Practices: Nurturing Yourself, Relationships, and Nature,” that is basically a manual on “ethology theology.” Oriented on language and practices that emphasizes the feelings and needs that crosses species lines, this book leads the practitioner to a rewiring of the brain, over time, and perhaps even suddenly. We see humans as animals, thriving in nature, and not apart from it. Through ethology we grow our multispecies intelligence. We end up seeing the interconnections of beauty and tragedy connecting us to everything by learning about the behavior and motivations of ourselves and other species. We accept the animality of our humanity, and vow to change our behavior. By doing so we feel more welcomed on this planet, and more welcoming.
However you take up the work of loving yourself as your neighbor, of all species, do it now, urgently, so we can choose to not end a flourishing and vibrant nature, but to end our sense of separation from it.
As we walk more peacefully along our life’s paths, the wildlife will return.