by Jim Lampros
For all the time being stolen from us these days, I still find myself with plenty of time to wonder.
Once upon a time I obsessed myself with the semantics of my environment; Native vs. wild vs. invasive – words with simple definitions but complex meanings. I came to see the world before me as a poorly contrived concoction. The more I saw, the more I longed for what once had been – Nature left to its own devices for millennia. It seemed impossible to imagine. I could only wonder.
I drive and walk and fly and roll on paths and corridors unimaginable to generations before. Bridges and towers, standing tall in the heavy footprint of man, mark the waypoints of my physical and mental landscape. Now and then I remove myself to woods and waters, but even what we call “getting back to nature” surely would feel foreign in the context of native history. Trees and plants and fish and birds brought here as comforts of home for those far from it. Sadly, I could not tell you which plants and animals are native and which are not. Knowing might help me imagine, but it wouldn’t keep me from wondering.
I learned just the other day that many common earthworms are non-native to our forests. Invasive, nutrient-sucking aliens denuding entire wooded landscapes. I wonder, what came before the worms? What fish would we have angled for in the absence of our preferred bait? Others have asked similar questions. In his work The Once and Future Great Lakes Country, John L. Riley adds some context to the world we now see before us:
“What happens when you remove most (and in some cases all) of the dominant fauna – the passenger pigeon, turkey, Canada goose, trumpeter swan, spruce grouse, prairie chicken, bear, elk, moose, bison, lynx, cougar, raptors, snakes, whitefish, Atlantic salmon, lake trout, and ciscoes – from the greatest temperate freshwater landscape in the world over less than two centuries? And then simultaneously reduce to life-support levels the numbers of most other native vertebrates? What happens when you remove so many species in such numbers? The result is what we have around us today.”
Every answer unearths more questions.
I wonder deeply about the historical abundance described in Riley’s work. Walking into the woods, would I have been overwhelmed by life? What would my beloved rivers have looked like before they were dredged and channelized and diverted and dammed? What trees would’ve sheltered their water? What fish would’ve spawned in their currents? What predators would’ve wandered their banks? Fossil records and museums provide answers to these questions, but my curiosity is hardly satisfied. I long to witness this lost world and, perhaps foolishly I mourn for its loss.
I wonder if my college philosophy professor was right, that the earth doesn’t care about any of this, places no judgement on what should or could or would’ve been. That it will reclaim itself, for better or worse, in spite of our efforts. I am hardly consoled. I cannot stop the wondering.
In The Once and Future Great Lakes Country Riley assures us that, even in the advent of this reclamation a new chapter will be born:
“An unavoidable corollary of Natural Selection is that nature never repeats itself. Indeed, Nature cannot repeat itself. Some may find this unsettling but, given the near total change this place has witnessed, and will again, equally as many should find in it comfort, and a new respect and humility.”
I wonder about this. Is it possible, given the current state of the world, for one to truly know wild?
I wonder, if by calculated correction or irreverent indifference, we might know again.
This essay is part of a series by the authors of Floodplains on the topic of the biological and cultural implications of Great Lakes Steelhead.