Natural selection folks — Do you do it?
Unlike the fall of 2021 the year 2020 gave us a damp fall and farmers were standing out in their late season grain fields anxiously testing crop moisture and ground conditions; ranchers were moving herds of butter-fat cattle off pastures still lush from a wet summer. Geese, ducks, grouse, deer, voles, deer, elk and moose had a great year cleaning up waste grain and alfalfa stubble. These agricultural scenes were human-driven but close to the earth and very pastoral. Very natural. I also look to my co-workers doing forest management and garden construction and envy their daily work in nature as being elemental and visceral. It raises the question though, is agriculture natural? How far from nature are managed forests and gardens?. . . and what is natural anyway?
Is natural the pure absence of the quirky heavy-handed influence of humans? Is it something that reflects an unbroken transfer of sun energy, water and soil producing plant and animal communities in an orderly way? Is nature something we humans can even get into without screwing it up? Can our outdoor activities carry on and still keep the environment natural? I think so and some of it depends on what we expect to come of our actions.
The simplest working definition I can find of “natural” is “Existing in, or caused by nature”. Hmm . . . that is a big tent! A second easy (but wrong) way of defining nature is to say everything that is not human-caused is natural. As outdoors enthusiasts know, such a separation is artificial as we pick wild saskatoons, build fly rods from bamboo strips, fill nature’s predator role and cycle nutrients to and from our favorite wildland haunts. Yet, we sometimes feel city-bound and apart from nature.
My grandfather could look out of his country home’s window and see his milk cow, the hay pasture, a wood lot for firewood, and a garden for household vegetables. He lived close to the land and by today’s standards, he would be a back-to-the-land hipster grandpa. When he was born in 1891 in Louisiana, about 80% of Canadians lived in rural settings. Today, 80% of us live in urban environments and nature’s bounty is trucked to us from afar. Unlike Grandpa, if we have the desire, we have to make the effort to reconnect with nature. Reconnection means we escape into wild settings to exercise the primitive senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch more directly. We all carry a mental toolbox of rarely used skills such as wayfinding, spatial problem-solving, scenting, interaction with other species, pattern recognition in nature and adrenaline-rich responses to wildlife. It is uniquely gratifying to reward our bodies with exertion and exercise our ancient ancestral instincts.
Interacting with nature urges our minds to ponder the differences in “This clearly is . . . in contrast to the more hypothetical “What if . . .” which triggers imagination of a range of possibilities. What else prompts our imaginations? Survival, food and mate-selection primarily, and those are natural, primitive drives of instinct too.
My former graduate student Derek has convinced me that very likely, tracking, hunting, gathering and fishing conjured up the earliest use of the scientific method of testing hypotheses — hunches really. Imagining, surmising then testing ideas to gain reliable survival knowledge provided a huge competitive advantage to some and death to others. Even today when in the field, on a river, or moving through new country, we make small predictions based on “if-then” situations and then we test them.
Maybe you will recognize these other if-then outdoor statements.
- IF aspen leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear, THEN morel mushrooms are up- Let’s search!
-IF the river’s horizon disappears on the left -THEN a rapid or waterfall is likely there.
-IF a large fall frontal system is coming — THEN geese should migrate in. Let’s get the decoys!
-IF the spring ice is melting — THEN the walleye should be biting — Let’s go fishing!
-IF October 1 has a hard frost — THEN the Alberta moose rut will be active — Let’s go hunting!
- IF all the willows are girdled — THEN snowshoe hares are likely abundant here. Get the .22!
And one for my Labrador retriever Roxy:
-IF pheasant hunting, THEN look in the cattails.
Nature cultivates our hopes and dreams too. Think of the anticipation of Easter, Christmas, Ramadan, Chanukah or opening day. Outdoor lovers might wish for a bouncing whitetail, a lush berry patch, trout rising at an urban riverside, or even a beautiful sunrise from a high-rise building.
As shown in peer-reviewed scientific studies of recovering hospital patients, as little as a view of nature can improve health, pain management and healing rate. We can find the Natural if we are open to it and don’t forget that hopeful anticipation is one of nature’s delicious pleasures. There are so few things in our world that give us such a positive sense of hopefulness as paying attention to the outdoors and ideally, going out into it. Who would not want to improve their health, exercise their minds in creative ways, be thrilled by the unexpected and engage in hopeful optimism and maybe eat fresh morels or fried trout? Far from being separated from nature, we humans can embrace the natural and become part of it with a little effort. Those who do will live longer, healthier, happier and bolster their family lineage. That is natural selection.