I am not generally known for presenting tangible solutions to the problems we face. This is because for the most part these problems are symptoms of and endemic to deeper psychological and perceptual faults, which means “solving” a problem technically without addressing these underlying faults will simply cause the pathology to present itself in a different way.
That said, I think I see a straightforward solution to the problem of children needing encounters with wild animals and zoos providing parodies of these encounters, in so doing deforming children’s perception and understanding of human-nonhuman relationships, causing them to perceive themselves as separate from and superior to nonhuman animals.
This solution is predicated, of course, on the probably unrealistic assumption that parents want their children to perceive themselves as embedded in and a part of their landbase, and not as separate from or superior to it.
The solution is to simply take your child into nature. I’m not talking about getting in the car and heading up to hang with all the other tourists at Yosemite, effectively exchanging your city-based traffic jam for a “nature-based” traffic jam, although the latter will probably have more beautiful scenery outside your windows. To drive through nature is not all that different from being surrounded on four sides by movie screens as the visuals of a road rush up to greet you. Throw in the rocking of the car and toss some pine-scented freshener into the air vents and the simulation will be more or less complete: you might even think you’re there.
Hiking is not all that much better. You’re still a tourist. No matter how spectacular Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon are, they’re still spectacles unless you live there. Unless you call it your home. Unless it says its your home.
I’m talking about staying home.
When Vine Deloria told me about the grand symphony of mutual respect, we also talked about living in place. I began by quoting to him something the Osage chief Big Soldier once said, “I see and admire your manner of living. . . . In short you can do almost what you choose. You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves. Every thing about you is in chains and you are slaves yourselves. I fear that if I should exchange my pursuits for yours, I too should become a slave.”
Vine responded, “That’s the best thing any Indian ever said, and I think it applies straight across the board. I teach at the University of Colorado, and so many of the students are convinced that they are free because they act just like each other. They all do the same things. They think alike. They’re almost like a herd, or like they’ve all been cloned. They’re enslaved to a certain way of life. Once you’ve traded away spiritual insight for material comfort, it is extremely difficult to ever get back to any sense of authenticity. You see these poor kids going out hiking in the mountains, trying to commune with nature, and yet you can’t commune with nature just taking a walk. You have to actually live it. And these young people have no way of critiquing the society that is enslaving them, because the only experiences they’re really going to have are the occasional weekend hikes. They may see beautiful vistas, and they may get a sense of this other aesthetic, but they’re not going to get to the metaphysical sense of who they really are. In this sense, Appalachian whites, rural blacks, and Scandinavian farmers are all so much closer to the natural world because they live in it twenty-four hours a day. These groups may not see themselves as a single group, yet they are all connected by their oppression by industrialization, by the destruction of the land bases on which their lives depend, and by their connection to the natural world that teaches them who they are. And it’s not just an abstract connection to an abstract earth, but instead what is important is the relationship you have with a particular tree or a particular mountain.”