Mountain lions and eagles - the place of humans in nature

The backlash against wildland enthusiasm has begun in Britain, with faceless accusers amongst conservation professionals condemning what they maintain is a zealotry that seeks exclusion of people from our countryside. Such a simplistic view of wildland is but a powerful lever in nurturing anxiety and a protectionism against change. I can’t hope to easily influence those who are content in their limited understanding and have taken against. But I will reach out to the untainted in heart who have humility in the presence of wild nature and who wish to live gently alongside it.

Mountain lions found me there, and set me on an eagle’s wing
(Voodoo Chile, Jimi Hendrix 1968)

Just for a moment, experience the enthralling imagery of that line from a song by Jimi Hendrix. I like to think it springs from the strong sense of pride that Hendrix had in his Native American ancestry. Hendrix grew up in the Seattle area of Washington State where earlier, in the 1890’s, the photographer and ethnologist Edward S Curtis began an investigation of the Native Americans living on the Seattle waterfront. Curtis devoted the next 30 years to photographing and documenting over eighty tribes west of the Mississippi, from the Mexican border to northern Alaska. He wrote down their stories, capturing the strong allegorical association native people had with the wild animals around them.

Perhaps Hendrix had read one of the stories of the Chinookan, a NW coastal nation. Five brothers – Eagle, Jay, Hawk, Kite and Beaver – decide to take a journey downriver, encountering many challenges and tests with other animals along the way. At one point, Eagle wrestles with Mountain Lion, carrying her high in the sky, “going higher and higher until they were out of sight” (Curtis, 1930).

Native American culture has a strong emotional pull for me. I picture it flourishing in amongst landscapes where these wild animals also flourish, not yet subject to the habitat destruction and local extinctions that followed the introduction of European farming. I walk the modern day wilderness of North America, imagining the native people being sustained by it and in some measure in awe of it. I want to time travel and see these wilderness landscapes graced by their presence again. Thus I once shared the Ute Trail across the Rocky Mountains in Colorado with elk and marmot, but it could easily have been with the nomadic Ute tribe who crossed the mountain range on this trail. I am the sentimentalist there, leaving behind the carping and contradictions of the naysayer who would deny me these moments of flight and pleasure.

There is evidence that the discovery of future park areas in North America and the setting up of the early national parks was at the expense of the removal of their native American populations, such as the Awahneechee from Yosemite, Blackfeet from Glacier, and the Shosone, Bannock, and Mountain Crow from Yellowstone. But the story is not clear cut as the Awahneechee returned to the Yosemite Valley and had a long if troubled relationship with park officials; the Blackfeet were a paid tourist attraction in Glacier but also fought through the courts to continue to use its natural resources; and the Shosone, Bannock, and Mountain Crow were considered to have become more dependent on the natural resources of Yellowstone because the increased Euro-American settlement on land outside the park had brought with it an unsustainable predation of bison and other natural resources (Fisher, 2000).

I am aware that sentiment for Native Americans is seen as romanticism for an Indian wilderness. George Catlin, a self-taught artist, travelled extensively in the Great Plains of the West during the 1830's, devoting his life to painting and writing about Native Americans and their natural landscape. His travels led him to fear that the westward expansion of Euro-Americans was threatening Native American civilisation, but also the beauty of the wilderness and wildlife of the west: "Many are the rudenesses and wilds in nature's works, which are destined to fall before the deadly axe and desolating hands of cultivating man" (Catlin,1844).

Catlin wrote many Letters during his travels, which were published in the New York papers from 1832 onwards. In one Letter from that year, written as he journeyed the Dakotas, Catlin made a call for a nation's park, where both wild nature and the Native American way of life could be preserved (Letter-no. 31. Mouth of Teton River, Upper Missouri). Here is what he had to say:
"It is a melancholy contemplation too, when one (who has travelled these realms, and can duly appreciate them) imagines them as they might in "future" be seen, (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a "magnificent park", where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A "nation's Park", containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!" (Catlin, 1844)

Catlin’s idea can be regarded as the epitome of romanticism for the Native American way of life, but the emergence of the ideology of Manifest Destiny (the divine rightness of Euro-American territorial expansion) and the subsequent Indian wars on the Plains, took much of that sentiment away. Besides, conflict and tourism do not sit well - widespread publicity resulted from an encounter in 1877 between tourists in Yellowstone and bands of Nez Perce fleeing the U.S. Army. Today, while we may query the sentiment of native peoples as an object of tourism, we should grieve at that lost opportunity to have supported the preservation in some good measure of the Native American way of life as it was then – humans in nature - that ultimately withered in the face of Euro-American aggression and expansion.

Modern day wilderness in America continues to attract controversy because the wording of the Wilderness Act appears to give no basis for accommodating an autochthonous or first nation way of life, but then it is also criticized by the out and out resourcists who rail at the bar on exploiting its natural wealth. (There are exceptions in the National Wilderness Preservation System - designation of the Kootznoowoo Wilderness in Alaska has included a Native American village, inhabited by some 800 Tlingits, allowing a continuation of a humans-in-nature use and lifestyle).

To attack this modern construct of wilderness is I think to plunge a dagger into the heart of a wild nature that world-wide has been under siege for so long from European farming (Crosby & Worster, 2004). It denies the right of wild nature to flourish without the significant interference of what is now a freak apex species (humans). Even in the selfish terms of that freak species, wilderness is an insurance against mismanagement or the unexpected consequences of our resourcist approach. With wilderness we can thus ‘‘keep all the parts’’ as Aldo Leopold says in Round River, and it leaves open options for future generations to make their own choices on resource conservation and use.

The modern wilderness is also not irreconcilable with a humans-in-nature land use. A study of dominant-use zoning in coastal British Columbia – the Great Bear Rainforest - suggests that conservation territories need not place social justice and biocentric ethics at odds. A concerted remapping/zoning of protected areas, proposed protected areas and first-nation lead areas in amongst logging and other industrial use areas provides clarity of purpose and use. Working through regional government, the remapping of the territory has been by negotiated compromise in which many interests are balanced. This is large-scale zoning that maintains an equilibrium between economic, ecological and social priorities by dividing the landscape into zones with primary, proscribed, and secondary but compatible human uses. As the author of the study says (Clapp, 2004):
"Political ecologists have criticized parks, wilderness and protected areas for abridging the rights and resources of local people. A critical review of the debate over conservation territories, however, suggests an alternative conception of wilderness, as landscapes hospitable to wildlife and to native ecosystems more broadly, rather than off-limits to humankind. This paper argues that the recognition and protection of wilderness are fully compatible with a model of humans-in-nature. It adapts the framework of remapping to examine whether conservation territories can reconcile social justice and a broader respect for the biosphere"


If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise
(The Teddy Bear’s Picnic, Jimmy Kennedy 1932)

You shouldn’t go down to British woodland today and expect to see brown bear, nor any elk, wolves, auroch, lynx, beaver or any truly wild boar – all eliminated as we outgrew them as a source of food, reduced their habitat range, or when they became inconvenient to our productive use of land. Our Manifest Destiny was a territorial expansion, but we dispossessed ourselves of wild nature and its habitats to fashion a new landscape that held wild nature at bay. Thus our key past natural habitat is immensely fragmented, the coverage of our landscape with ancient woodland at less than 2% being a far cry from the pre-agricultural state of 60-90%. You will also have to travel back in time 3-4000 years to observe an autochthonous population with a land use that comes anywhere close to being ecologically comparable with a humans-in-nature land use.

The surprise is that current orthodoxy requires us to venerate the taming of our land and admire the practitioners (see Campbell-Johnston, 2006) who over the millennia have refined this to the absurd point where examples of its various outcomes receive a statutory protection that is denied most of our ancient woodland. Farmland is not wildland. We must move on from this adulation of the cultural history of our landscapes.

The case for protected core areas of wildland, where human productive use is removed, and where successful re-introductions of lost species can take place, has reached a level of understanding where it should now be part of mainstream public debate (Taylor, 2005). Land interests should not feel threatened by this since proportionately, the core areas and associated corridors may only represent 4-6% of our land area (Fisher, 2003). The interesting but possibly harder task is to begin to work out a new and modified humans-in-nature approach to land use that complements and buffers these core areas of wildland.

There are proposals that set us on the way, such as a report to the Land Use Policy Group on New Wildwoods in Britain. The report evaluates the potential of new native woodlands and forests to contribute to both integrated rural development and wildlife. The new wooded landscapes include open areas, and would accommodate a range of possible management styles; with low intervention management in core areas, grading to relatively more intensive management and extractive use in more peripheral areas (Worrell et al, 2002). Likewise the concept of Forest Habitat Networks recently incorporated into forestry strategies in Scotland, Wales and England. Large Core Forest Areas are to be connected by well-wooded belts concentrated mainly along rivers and streams (see for instance Humphrey et al, 2005). The aim of at least 30% tree cover in these belts means that the landscape begins to function as if it were a single forest unit, but allowing these networks to be developed alongside other land uses. Continuing with woodland, David Blair in Argyll walks the talk when he advocates Forest Village settlements, which will provide a way forward for people who want access to the land, to live in a forest community and derive a living based on agro-forestry (Blair, 2005). In all this, mapping of dominant land use will provide clarity of purpose - and zoning for different types of land use, a land design method familiar to Permaculture, would be the catalyst for its development.

This future-natural state for British landscapes will always have land that is dominated by humans. We now see that there should also be land that will be shared with wild nature through a spectrum or continuum of human activity, in a new approach to humans-in-nature land use. The purpose of wilding for core areas is to achieve a third category, by returning some land to wild nature for its own use, with human presence and use being restricted to our observation and learning. It represents a future-natural state of self-willed land. The core areas will be the bio-geographical reserves of wild nature that will “keep all the parts” and give us back some of the moral authority that we currently lack as a freak apex species.

Mark Fisher, 27 February 2006

Blair, D (2005) Forest Villages: a proposal for sustainable forestry,
Campbell-Johnston, R (2006) Raise a glass (and sound the flute) to the creators of our pastoral dream, The Times, 19 January 2006,,,20911-1995627,00.html
Catlin, G (1844) Letters and Notes on the Manners Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians, Vol 1 261-264 (Two volumes of Letters first published 1844 - a later reprint Dover Publications, 1973)
Clapp, RA (2004) Wilderness ethics and political ecology: remapping the Great Bear Rainforest, Political Geography 23 839–862
Crosby, AW & Worster, D (2004) Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, 2nd Edition, Cambridge Uni. Press
Curtis, ES (1930) White Seal, Chinookan Tribes Part 16, The North American Indian, Set #254 Vol 8,
Fisher, C (2002) Indians and the American National Park, Humanities and Social Science H-Net Reviews,
Fisher, M (2003) Self-willed land – the rewilding of open spaces in the UK,
Humphrey, J., Watts, K., McCracken, D., Shepherd, N., Sing, L., Poulsom, L., Ray, D. (2005) A review of approaches to developing Lowland Habitat Networks in Scotland. Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 104
Taylor, P (2005) Beyond Conservation - A wildland strategy, Earthscan
Worrell, R., Pryor, S. N., Scott, A., Peterken, G.F., Taylor, Knightbridge, K., R. and Brown, N. (2002) New Wildwoods in Britain: The potential for developing new landscape-scale native woodlands. LUPG report, June 2002