Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Trace I Left Behind

This summer I spent several weeks in and around Lake Clark National Park doing research on trout, salmon, and char. 

Sometimes I get quizzical looks when I say that I, a philosophy and classics professor, am researching fish.  Let me explain.

I teach environmental philosophy and a range of classes in what I call "environmental humanities."  These include courses in environmental ethics, nature writing, philosophy of nature, and even a course on environmental law and policy for first-year undergraduates, as an introduction to being a university student. 

I also teach courses in field ecology, including a monthlong course in tropical ecology in Guatemala and Belize.  I teach in Greece over my spring break, and this year we will be looking at the expansion of fish farms in the Mediterranean and how fishing has changed there over the last six thousand years.

Closer to home, I teach and practice what Norwegians call friluftsliv, or life in the free air.  Whenever possible, I teach outdoors.  Most years, I take my ancient philosophy students camping in the Badlands National Park to watch the Orionid meteor shower while we lie on sleeping bags under the stars.

In all of this, my aim is to make sure that nature is not an abstraction to my students, nor to me.  I want to know the places the fish live, the grasslands the bison roam, the forests where the jaguar and the ocelot hunt, the tundra rivers where the Dolly Varden chase the salmon under the watchful gaze of the bears.

In other words, my aim is to stay in contact with wildness, and to do so in a way that allows me to take something valuable home: intimate knowledge.  I am not a scientist, so I don't bring samples back to a laboratory.  I do bring home photographs, and I do spend a lot of time making observations of the places I work, so that I can bring home notebooks full of writing to share with my students. And of course, I write books and articles to share with others.

This summer, I was sorely tempted to bring something else home from Lake Clark: a tiny fossil.  I had chartered a float plane to take me to a fairly remote lake, and there my fellow researchers and I walked the shore to the mouth of a stream full of spawning salmon and rainbow trout.

Salmon preparing to spawn

As I often do, I sat down on the gravel and started to turn over rocks to see what invertebrates were living there.  The salmon are bright red and eye-catching, but the bugs and spiders tell an important part of the story of a place, as Kurt Fausch has written about in his recent book, For The Love Of Rivers. Who was it - J.B.S. Haldane, perhaps? - who quipped that God has "an inordinate fondness for beetles." The world is full of wonderful, tiny lives that are easy to overlook.

I don't try to bring beetles home, but one insect tempted me this summer.  Really, it was just a trace of an insect, just the trace of its wings, in fact.  I can't even tell you what insect it was.  All I can tell you is that somewhere near that river, probably millions of years ago, something like a dragonfly died in the mud, and the river graced its delicate wings with the cerement of silt.  That silt took the form of the wings, those wings left a fingerprint - a wingprint - on the earth.  And this summer, I found that print, that delicate, wonderful trace.

Fossilized trace of an insect's wing

While my son and my friend and our pilot walked, I sat with that stone in my hand and thought about pocketing it.  Here I was in the wilderness, and no one would know.  It's one tiny stone in the largest state in the union; who would miss it?

Ah, but it is one tiny stone that does not belong to me.  It is one tiny stone in a vast wilderness that belongs to all of us, and to all who will come after us.  It is one tiny piece of rock with an incomplete fossil of a little odonata. The river there has held it and cared for it since time immemorial.

Now I am back in South Dakota, but a tiny trace of my heart remains along the strand of that stream in Alaska. It lies there, wrapped around that delicate trace of insect wing, and I will never find it again in that vast wilderness.

But perhaps someone else will.  Until then, perhaps it is best not to let Midas' longings turn our hearts to stone too soon.  Let's walk the shores together, I will continue to say to my students.  And let's bring something intangible home in our memories.  And let's do the hard work of leaving behind the beautiful, delicate traces that wildness has safeguarded for so many, many years.