If we were gonna do it, we were gonna do it right. One doesn’t take 4,000 miles, several mountain ranges, and 9 states in a 10 year old Honda Civic lightly. There had to be compelling reasons for my sister, my husband and me to drag my elderly father and 10-year old niece and nephew across the country to Yellowstone National Park. Yes, a trip of a lifetime with everyone together. Many Kodak (now iphone) moments. But it’s so far. So long. And what about that carbon footprint?
So I read David Sobel’s piece in the July/August issue of Orion magazine carefully. I wanted to go to Yellowstone because, well, because I always want to go to Yellowstone and it had been at least five years since my previous visit. But also because I wanted to introduce the kids to wildness, and although they live in a rural corner of Connecticut with a nontrivial amount of wildlife, Yellowstone is, as they say, a whole other level. I wanted it to be meaningful which, according to Sobel, means they have to touch.
Touch? Touching nature is verboten. At least sometimes. Not to mention dangerous. That said, one of the best moments on the entire trip was our first encounter with a bison herd upon entering the park. We pulled up next to a small cluster chomping grass along the side of the road and quietly rolled down the windows. We heard the munch munch munch just inches from our door and looked into their big brown eyes. “Keep your hands inside the car and be quiet,” I ordered the kids, feeling fairly risqué for being this close and wondering if my sister and father in her pickup behind us thought I was nuts. Bison hurt more people in the park than bears. They are big and fast and people get lulled into complacency since they are, after all, herbivores and well, we want to get close.
But in the developed world of the 21st century most people’s experiences with nature aren’t dangerous to them, rather, they’re dangerous to the other creatures. And so we don’t touch. In a world with more than 7 billion people, in an age scientists are now calling the anthropocene because humans are a dominating influence across the entire planet, we can’t touch because, well what if everyone touched? At Yellowstone, they remind visitors that if you cause an animal to change its behavior, you’re too close. I get that. I hate feeling like I’ve caused an animal stress by my presence or worse, terrified it by handling it. They’ve got enough to deal with what with our roads, our pesticides, and our changing climate (to name a few).
Yet in his piece “Look, Don’t Touch” Sobel reminds us how as children, we learned to enjoy and appreciate nature by doing: picking flowers, catching frogs, building forts, climbing trees. He criticizes sanitized environmental education programs for not letting kids explore the natural world on their own and pursue their innate excitement about it. “Each of these activities,” he argues “is an organic, natural way for them to develop environmental values and behaviors. Instead, the ‘look but don’t touch’ approach cuts kids off from nature, teaching them that nature is boring and fraught with danger.” Such a cautious approach to the outdoors has implications according to Sobel. “Could it be,” he wonders, “that our fear of litigation and our puritanical concerns for protecting each and every blade of grass are hampering the development of the very stewardship values and behaviors that we environmental educators all say we’re trying to foster?” Sobel thinks so.
I did all those things as a kid – on my own — and loved them. I also went fishing with my dad a few times but soon realized that, although I loved seeing the pretty fish in my hands, I just couldn’t deal with that nasty hook in the mouth and the futile flapping of gills desperately gasping for breath. I always wanted to put my catch back in the water as quickly as possible. And not everything that excited me was interactive. I also took every opportunity to watch nature documentaries on television (back when they were a special treat and not on cable 24-7) including those featuring what might be considered questionable “hands-on” practices now.
As a film selector and Board member of the American Conservation Film Festival, I cringe when I see things like that in films now, but have to concede they worked for me then. I’m not comfortable hooking fish and pulling them out of their home, but I know that for many fishing is a deep passion that connects them with the natural world. And so our trip to Yellowstone was a mix: lots of wildlife viewing, a bit of wildlife photography, and a fair bit of fishing for some. In fact, fishing was a big reason for inviting my father on this trip, giving him an opportunity to finally fish in Yellowstone and introduce his grandson to fly fishing. No one touched the geysers, but we smelled the sulfur and heard the steam in addition to watching them burble and blow. Opportunities for individual exploration were limited, although my husband and I did manage a backcountry hike in the Lamar Valley (steering clear of the occasional bison on the trail ahead of us). Overall, we kept the natural history lectures to a minimum and emphasized instead the joy of seeing what we were seeing.
Was it all worth it? Are you kidding? It’s Yellowstone. For an awe-inspiring outdoor experience, you can’t touch that.