I come to the end of my career with so many things changing so fast that I’m compelled to tell you that you better go now to Africa or you’ll never see the things I saw!
Of course, what does that matter? Everything changes. Some periods in the past – like those that my home town of Galena Illinois tries to recreate in building restorations and historical fests – might actually be preserved to a valuable state for eternity. But not the wild, folks. The wild cannot be brought back. Once gone, it’s gone forever.
What I thought was the wild when I was a young kid in his twenties roaming the Serengeti might equally have felt the end of an era by someone like Teddy Roosevelt or Carl Aiken or Osa Johnson. And similarly what those folks remembered as they looked back on their careers might have provoked them to wonder if it were the end of the era of the great explorers like Stanley and Livingstone.
One of the first cautions every old person should saddle himself with is to avoid exaggeration of his life, and often the best way to do this is to remember when young the old who were then passing.
But I’ve read a lot by Stanley and Livingstone, Roosevelt, Aiken and Johnson, and much of what they opine as the wild is the same for me, notwithstanding partial centuries later. No, I think humankind is at a pivotal moment. The wild is ending. Particularly Africa’s wild.
And it’s ending by the second!
Just this year work on two massive dams (in Ethiopia and Tanzania) will destroy five times more natural habitat than was altered on the Yangtze. It’s impossible and immoral to prevent the growing African populations from usurping the wilds for such basic needs as food and electricity.
In the last year I’ve chronicled the red hartebeest gone from eastern Tarangire; the Botete wetlands powdered to drought in Botswana; sable and roan so scarce everywhere as to be near extinct; the common wild dog all but totally decimated by poison.
And now we learn that that icon of all African wildness, the lion, has lost nearly half its population in a decade!
The deep scars of the Great Rift Valley are no longer the featured basaltic rivulets of ancient forces but last season’s overgrazing and the ensuing torrential rains. Hurricanes (typhoons) never existed in sub-Saharan Africa before five years ago: last year we had two!
A great pitfall stands in our way: our experience of Ups and Downs. Elephant were near extinct; there are now too many of them. Global forests were being stripped away at unbelievable rates in the 1980s; we reversed that for a while. You know about the return of the Bald Eagle, the wolf.
Those memories are dangerous, now. You’d think they could show us a hopeful route for today’s ills, but they can’t. The world’s ills today are more systemic. They’re all linked to one another. Sure, if someone concocts a little device to turn CO2 into O2 and someone else discovers a spider web that strains salt out of seawater, the celebrations can begin! But that seems unlikely. Adaptation not reversal is in the cards.
So I expect the wild will soon be gone. The wild is in huge measure composed of the unknown. Experiencing it is feeling surprise. There is no certain preparation for grappling with it, and that’s its unique importance to humankind. It’s one of the few things we must deal with for which we can’t prepare: No algorithm can anticipate how you’re going to react when a giant elephant walks towards you. I’ve watched men and women and children throughout the years all react totally differently.
Their varied reactions are their humanness trying to calibrate the unknown. That’s way beyond AI. That’s an important difference between man and beast. So we must preserve these emotions of encountering the wild, if only to preserve our motivations for the next round of wild exploration: Space.
If the human race progresses without the emotion of wildness it will decay faster than an over watered zinnia. Mankind will rationalize stagnation, cede to overwhelming pessimism that naturally follows a presumption of understanding everything.
Once you have a sense of wonderment, wildness in your mind, you’ll better understand the enormous difference between man and everything else alive.
The pivot is happening, now. And unfortunately it seems to me that once the door is closed on the wilds I love there’s going to be a rather long period before a new door opens to outer space.
So move your bun off that cruise ship! Ditch the Star Wars convention for a real crater! Take your cane into the Amazon! Blow your fortune on finding the ends of the earth! Join those of us capturing the last bits of wild that are left until they can successfully guide our children into new unknown lands far away, preserving the very point of humankind.