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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Wild at Heart

America's Turbulent Relationship with Nature, from Exploitation to Redemption

Alice Outwater

St. Martin's Press



Our land is wild, a spread of high desert covered with sagebrush and old junipers cut by a swale that carries water during storms or snowmelt. The neighbor’s irrigated fields and cattle lie half a mile away down a gentle slope, with two irrigation ditches and a barbed-wire fence between us. There’s a den of coyotes that lives in the stand of ancient juniper trees on the slope above the ditches.

In the dry, high desert, a juniper can occupy its place on Earth for as long as 800 to 1,000 years, and each one is a singular presence. In pagan days, every tree, stream, and hill was believed to have a soul, along with some animals, plants, rocks, mountains, and rivers. Even ephemera like thunder, wind, and shadows could have their own spirit. British ethnologist Robert Ranulph Marett wrote that trees were generally regarded as maternal deities or forest spirits, and when a tree’s life was taken for human use, woodcutters would beg forgiveness before they felled it. The souls of trees didn’t disappear in antiquity; in Thai forests today, Buddhist monks tie pieces of cloth around trees in the jungle to remind rogue woodcutters that the trees’ spirits are under the monks’ protection. Wilderness has long been seen as a community of beings.

Judeo-Christianity, in contrast to pagan and Asian religions, established a dualism between humans and nature where humans have souls and the rest of the world does not. God created nature but was not part of it, and created humans in his image. The Old and New Testaments put people at the pinnacle of creation with dominion over nature, which was made for human use. Before biblical times, the spirits in natural objects had protected nature from humans. According to the Bible, humans held an effective monopoly on souls. Old inhibitions against profiteering from nature collapsed.

In the New World, natives lived in the wilderness and settlers lived apart from it. An English settler in the early 1600s described wilderness as “a dark and dismal place where all manner of wild beasts dash about uncooked.” Wilderness was a Godless place full of things that could be eaten or sold. By that definition, my land’s uncut trees and unmolested deer herd make it wilderness enough.

Being remote, I wanted a dog for company and safety. Dogs live on the boundary between humans and wildness; they are a bridge between nature and human culture. As the only large domesticated predator, dogs maintain a keen interest in other animals (a particularly useful trait in bear country) and are happy to lend you their ears and eyes, pointing out creatures you may have missed. But a dog’s ability to slip into nature and back can be deadly with a coyote den nearby.

Coyotes are notoriously tough on dogs. Small dogs are like hors d’oeuvres, while dining on larger dogs takes some planning: a single member of the pack will lure a big dog back to their den, where they eat him as a group project. Coyotes are the most vocal local mammal, and they howl on a moonlit night in layers of sound that build and then recede. When pups whelp in the juniper grove every spring, their high-pitched baby voices join the lower voices of their parents in a nightly chorus, called group yip-howls, of ar-ar-ar-aroooooo. Coyotes have an imposing profile, but are less than fifty pounds of canid dressed up in a long-haired coat. I chose a dog the size of a small pony with the hope that God’s dogs would leave it alone.

Titus arrived as a fifteen-pound puppy, and weighed 125 pounds by his first birthday. There is nothing natural about a Greater Swiss Mountain dog: the breed was created by humans to pull loads and manage cattle. Titus was a farm dog scaled large and muscular who grew so fast that he’d flip ass over teakettle at a dead run because he wasn’t entirely certain where his feet were. Titus collected antlers that he used as chew toys, and chased rabbits through the sagebrush; he’d occasionally catch and eat one. A coyote is part of nature while Titus, with his handsome tricolored coat and enormous appetite, embodied human mastery over nature.

One day on our morning walk, the young bulls next door were grazing right next to the barbed-wire fence. I thought Titus would enjoy meeting them. The dog had known deer since he was a puppy—one of his jobs was to move deer off the landscaped area—but deer move so fast that there’s not much interaction. As soon as Titus ducked under the fence to join the young bulls in their pasture, he understood that he was a drover dog. Herding dogs gather cattle together and hold them still, so it is easier to catch a rogue dog. Drover dogs drive cattle in front of them, and Titus had no end point. He drove the young bulls for forty-five minutes, with great joy. He did it well, too: he never touched them, and never stopped. He had mad skills. But they weren’t our bulls, so his behavior was completely unacceptable.

Around here, dogs who chase livestock are shot because it is a law of nature that dogs are made to protect cattle, not harass them. This cultural definition of a natural law is as implacable as the law of gravity in rural Colorado, where everyone has a gun and the jury already ruled. There is literally no room in these wide-open spaces for dogs who run stock.

As soon as Titus saw the bulls, my husband, Bob, jogged back to the house to get the car. I climbed the fence and chased the dog as he moved the cattle into the corner, moved them into the cattails by the ditch, moved them back and forth across the field. The rancher whose house overlooks the field arrived with a leash. Bob arrived with the car. The owner of the cattle and his friend came out with their dogs, so in the end there were five people and two dogs trying to divert Titus from the yearling bulls. When I finally caught him, he had so much adrenaline that he leaped at the end of the leash like a 125-pound fish.

My dog had found his nature, his essence, and his central fact of existence.

A neighbor, who uses dogs to manage her sheep, heard that Titus had misbehaved, and called me that evening. She gently explained to me that my dog’s training regime was insufficient, and she would be willing to supervise his education. She delivered three boxes of books, CDs, games, tools, harnesses, leashes, and training aids the next day, and Titus’s schooling began in earnest.

Titus had been pulling a seventy-five-pound cart for months (full-grown males can pull more than a ton) and had mastered the normal range of commands, but this was like doggy college. I started wearing a treat bag stuffed with liverwurst, cheddar, and salami for three lessons a day: we worked on command fluency so he’d respond in all situations and locations; molding behavior, where I’d lure him to do things and then connect a word with it; long line, where we’d practice walking a mile with his eyes on me (instead of the bunnies); and cavaletti, using low bars to teach him how to jump like a horse, to refine his body placement. I was guided through the latest dog-training techniques. Three weeks into our new regime, we were out on a walk when Titus looked down the hill and realized that the fields where he had chased cattle were adjacent to our land. He was off in a beeline, at top speed. He looked like a small horse on a critical, lifesaving mission.

It took fifteen minutes to catch him that Thursday afternoon, with Bob and a neighbor helping. Friday morning, we were coming back from a walk when he saw that cattle were grazing right down the hill from our house. He leaped over the two irrigation ditches like a steeplechase champ and ducked under the barbed-wire fence to drive them. Two hours later, he was down there again.

And that was the end of Titus.

Once he became aware of his true nature, he had to be leashed. Instead of free run of a hundred acres, he was stuck within ten feet of me. He gazed through the windows at cattle grazing half a mile away and plotted his escape. You could see it in his muscled flanks and big brown eyes: he was going to be shot before the week was out.

Titus left Colorado three days after he discovered freelance herding. He started a new life as a stud dog in Oklahoma, and is training for the show ring. He’ll be caged or leashed for the rest of his life. Titus grew up with a lot of exercise, and was very handsome. There aren’t many dogs in the United States that get to have sex, and Titus has taken to it with gusto. The breeder says that he’s yodeling with happiness. I missed my dog, and was sorry he’d lost his freedom until a friend pointed out that he’d probably consider his new job a promotion.

* * *

Our dominion over nature was taken as the natural order until the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which presented the uneasy reality that people could not hold themselves to be separate from nature. It took more than a century for people to fully embrace the concept that we are not a lot like animals; we actually are animals.

Wilderness was considered a dark and forbidding place full of wild tribes, the opposite of Eden, until the 1700s, when urban populations increased and people’s perceptions of nature changed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that humans in nature are uncorrupted, and that civilization brings vice. Instead of Satan’s home, wilderness was seen as an uninhabited temple of nature where God could be encountered directly. Nature and the ecstatic sublime were primary subjects of painters J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Cole, authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and poet William Wordsworth. Valuing nature became part of western culture.

Environmental historian William Cronon noted that the final Indian Wars were fought as the government started setting aside national parks and wilderness. Native Americans were removed from their land and confined to reservations, creating the uninhabited wilderness that the government then protected. And wilderness has been defined as uninhabited from that time to this. Humans are not unnatural and North America was inhabited long before Europeans arrived, but wilderness was codified in the Wilderness Act of 1964 as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” For land to be wilderness, humans must be separate from it.

Copyright © 2019 by Alice Outwater.