Prayer for Wild Places

2016 Blog July 2

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”                                                                                Aldo Leopold


Spring means hiking in the Northern Range, where snow disappears earlier. Spring means the arrival of Louis Spencer, volunteer for Yellowstone Association, who supports my Naturalist Guide and Guides’ Guide classes. Louis’ arrival means group weekend hikes.

This year, I’ve been scouting routes for two hiking seminars scheduled for June and July. One is an easier off-trail seminar that hikes up to 5 miles a day. The other consists of 8-12 mile days. This year, the longer seminar is called Dayhiking Yellowstone’s Ancient Routes, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. I’ve been organizing scouting trips in preparation for the seminars.


In the process, I’ve gotten interested in the Howard Eaton Trail, much of which has been abandoned by the Park Service. Howard Eaton owned ranches in North Dakota and Wyoming and became a dude rancher/outfitter. He built a trail that paralleled the Grand Loop, and would take Dudes (and later, Dudines) on  two week horse-packing trips through the Park. Apparently they were high-end trips with tents and cots. Nights would include singing and story-telling around the campfire.

Much of the trail has been closed for bear management, and other parts were burned over in 1988  now cluttered with fallen trees and thick dog hair stands of lodgepole pines. Those sections are not passable. There is one section in the Northern Range, however, that has piqued my interest. We’ve been heading out on what feels like scavenger hunts—searching for depressions in the ground which are evidence of old trail use. I’ve been pouring over old maps, trying to piece the route together… It has been fun to discover new routes and to play around with thinking about how  a horse packer would travel through this terrain.

With the arrival of June (and now July), my scouting is finished. options for the classes are solidified in my mind, and now I can look forward to sharing Yellowstone’s secrets with others. My goal, as always, is to develop a love for Yellowstone in my participants. If you love a place, you are more apt to take care of it—to fight for it, to make your voice heard, to give support… And, with population booming, natural areas need all the help they can get. The threats are on all sides, from delisting and hunting grizzly bears, hunting wolves outside the Park, drilling, mining, building roads that break up traditional migration routes, fracking with the water pollution it entails, even breaking up ranches to build 5-20 acre McMansions.  We need these wild places.

Wallace Stegner wrote: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in, for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures a part of the geography of hope.”  We need these places to keep alive our hope in our species, our hope that this world will continue to support us all, wildlife and humans. Without the wild country, we are doomed.


Years ago, there was enough room for all—people could live in towns, have ranches, wipe out all predators that might threaten their livelihood, yet there was still room for the wolf, the bear, the coyote, the mountain lion. Today, we have run out of space. We humans now must learn to share and that is a tough lesson to teach and to learn. We need to share with those predators that at one time were considered the bad guys—once we thought we did good by killing off every last one of them. Today we know better. We need an intact ecosystem for the health of the planet, for our own health. But it is hard for humans to change their thinking… many are still mired in the old-school ideas that see predators as competitors that must be wiped out in order for us to win. In winning that way, we lose. We lose intact ecosystems, we lose the spirit of the land, we lose knowing that we are not the only important being on the planet. We may end losing our very lives as the health of the natural world deteriorates.
Aldo Leopold wrote: “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”

But it’s more than mere survival. Over years of being in this Yellowstone ecosystem—one of the very few intact ecosystems left with its full complement of large predators—I’ve come to realize that there is a spiritual wholeness to this land that is missing elsewhere. A small area of Michigan’s huge White Pine trees unlogged and virgin are beautiful and being there feels almost holy, but something is missing. The Sierra of California are breathtaking but hiking through them I feel an emptiness. The soul of the land are the animals that belong there—no matter where I travel, I kiss the ground upon returning to my wild wild Yellowstone with its wolves, coyotes, fox, grizzly and black bears, mountain lions, bobcats and lynx. With its bison, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, mountain goats and bighorn sheep.

These blog posts are prayers for all of us to maintain grounded sanity in the importance of wild places. Just knowing they exist feeds our hearts and souls.


“Wilderness itself is the basis of all our civilization. I wonder if we have enough reverence for life to concede to wilderness the right to live on?”

“I hope that the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by. Or so poor that she cannot afford to keep them.”

– Margaret (Mardy) Murie


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