The Left Coast of the United States, loosely welded onto the North American continent, for the moment, consists of broad expanses of open beach, isolated permanently, more or less, by ancient eroding cliffs, interrupted with occasional, intensely occupied enclaves of human settlement. Among the crashing green waves along this rumbling shore, seals, sea lions, sea otters, cormorants, sea gulls and assorted piscatorial populations share precious play space with surfers on dagger-sharp surf boards, sailboarders, kite-boarders, boogie-boarders, buzzing “personal watercraft,” fishing boats, pleasure boats, sail boats and the occasional incautious tourist caught in the receding rip tide.
Those among the local human inhabitants who desire a respite from urban busyness hie themselves to the few remaining natural areas for what passes as a “wilderness experience” in these waning days of civilization. Crammed into sleek metallic hybrid automobiles, rumbling, high-wheeled mini-trucks, gleaming low-riders with deep bass sound systems set on stun, these nature seekers travel hundreds of miles, over thousands of miles of cement and macadam, on their butts, to commune with nature. They crowd into parking lots, don their colorful nature-industry protective clothing, complete and replete with individually labeled pockets for iPod and headphones, designer sunglasses, electronic computerized camera, cell phone, GPS receiver and wilderness guidebook. Over all, they strap on the latest oil-derived, Sierra Magazine (TM) approved backpack filled with the latest hiking industry products for gustatorial relief and liquid refreshment,.
After a day of wilderness consumption, they all head wearily back to their metal steeds, crawl through the weekend smog of permanent rush hour traffic, back to the solace of HDTV, 6.0 mbps DSL 6.0, semi-reliable cell-phones connections, lattés on demand, and retail opportunities abounding. Life is good.
Unbeknownst, or at least little appreciated by the dedicated wilderness consumer, there’s another wilderness that lives just outside the doorway of the average modest 2,000 square foot, million dollar California abode. It’s easy and inexpensive to find and experience, requiring only a pair of feet and a willingness to use them, one at a time.
On my daily commute to work and back at our local public radio station, I do something highly unusual and suspect in the United States today… I walk. Twice a day, morning and afternoon, I transport my self independently across the intervening space twixt hither and yon, about a mile and back, setting one foot before the other, tipping myself off balance on one foot in the desired direction of travel and catching myself, every time so far, on the opposite extended pedal appendage. Thus I make my way along 7th Avenue, picking up odd bits of the flotsam and jetsam of civilization tossed carelessly aside by passing motorists, depositing them in conveniently placed wheely bins left along the roadside since the last refuse pickup. The empty sidewalk reels out before me, only rarely hazarding a fellow walker.
Unencumbered by a metal and plastic cocoon, I’m free to watch and listen to the non-human world that exists interposed amid the cacophony of the regular, regulated commuter experience. Crows, mocking birds, starlings, finches, sparrows, pigeons, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons, night herons, kingfishers, sea gulls and cormorants fill the air with song and the swish of wing-feathers. Raccoons, opossums, assorted rodents and their feline predators, occupy the ground level, squirrels chatter from trees, slugs, snails and myriad species of crawling and flying insects share the darker and wetter reaches of my route.
Often, my pedestrian travels take me through the small boat harbor, home to, besides the boats and their nautical keepers, flights of sea gulls and terns, majestic, prehistoric soaring great blue herons, who land on the docks and stand on spindly legs, hands in pockets, contemplating deep mysteries of the universe from within their feathered cloaks. Harbor seals float languidly in the cold waters, their heads barely above the surface, looking back at me with wet, puppy eyes. They disappear quietly below the surface when the social moment becomes too intense. Sea lions bark noisily, day and night, and thrash their catch of the day on the water, breaking the still-living salmon into bite-size chunks. Nature red in tooth and fin.
Last week a mob of crows harassed an immature red-tailed hawk, who flew desperately among the eucalyptus branches and the tall masts in the harbor, white bars flashing on his young pumping wings, trying to shake the pursuing pack of black, irresponsible Corvid trouble-makers. The hawk finally gave up and perched on the locked gate to X2 dock, grumbling to himself, as the crows settled in the tall white masts of the sail boats and took turns dive-bombing the disgruntled young raptor. At last, pursued by two persistent harriers, the hawk flew swiftly into a deep screen of dense eucalyptus on the slope above the harbor, there to brood on his wounded pride as the crows flew off, congratulating themselves loudly with a raucous ruckus.
In the ten minutes that I stood and watched the drama unfold, not 50 feet away, no other human noted the experience. Cars drove by, their occupants safely entombed in their metal sarcophagi,, unseeing, unhearing, unaware. Boat owners polished and repaired their costly craft, intent on their work, never looking up. The natural world that surrounded them might as well not have existed for all the notice they took of it.
We hear much talk these days of “saving the wilderness,” protecting Nature, even saving the Earth, and yet, for 99 44/100% of the people on this planet, the non-human world exists only on those rare and special occasions when it can be consumed as a commodity, packaged and presented with appropriate and expensive hyperbole and marketing acumen. The signs and signals of a natural world brought to the brink of extinction are screened from human notice by the dollar signs and economic signals of an overweening human social system that places commodity and profit above life and living.
If we are to save the wilderness, if it indeed needs saving, not just leaving alone, we must first save ourselves from the illusion of separatedness from the non-human world, the fantasy of the free lunch, the unthinking expectation of continuing and unlimited economic growth. Human economic growth and development are the opposite of wilderness; the two are mutually incompatible. Wilderness, including the everyday wilderness of 7th Avenue, cannot continue to exist in a world that contains humans intent on more and better. The future, for humans at least, if there are any in it, will be a world of less and sufficient.
Michael A. Lewis