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Bonobo by M. PettisFrom the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Yorker came an insightful article on Bonobos--of the great apes, probably the least studied and understood, at least by humans, as though we have some inherent obligation and capability to understand everything. Typical of New Yorker articles it focuses not only the species, in this case, but the swirling tension among those studying Bonobos. The most telling story within the story comes from Gottfried Hohmann, the primary scientist and researcher meticulously doing field research in an isolated region of the Congo River. The author of the article, Ian Parker closes with this:

At Lui Kotal, there were no rocks in the sandy earth, and the smallest pebble on a riverbed had the allure of precious metal. It is not a place for fossil hunters; the biological past is revealed only in the present. “What makes humans and nonhuman primates different?” Hohmann said. “To nail this down, you have to know how these nonhuman primates behave. We have to measure what we can see today. We can use this as a reference for the time that has passed. There will be no other way to do this. And this is what puts urgency into it: because there is no doubt that, in a hundred years, there won’t be great apes in the wild. It would be blind to look away from that. In a hundred years, the forest will be gone. We have to do it now. This forest is the very, very last stronghold. This is all we have.”

The urgency is not that we understand, but that in 100 years Bonobos will be understood not by themselves, but only by us in textbooks.

The conclusion is one we hear in some context or another almost everyday. Whether it be the forests harboring the great apes, the tangled forests of tigers, the ice flows of polar bears, the last wild corners with grizz, forests for any one of a number of owls, or Ivory billed woodpecker (gone, found, gone?) “So it goes,” as Vonnegut pondered.

Who really believes that in 100 years our collective spirit, for lack of another word, will get it straight? That there will be more wildness, more places for tigers, grizz, great apes or any place for polar bears?

True, it may not always be distinctly clear as to what straight is or how we get there. Maybe we just can’t slow the human project. Maybe all other life with us on this single home is bound to be objects with people, the grand subject, everything else to answer in some fashion to our will... to be studied, catalogued, categorized, mapped, GISed, Googled, condemned or saved.

Ironically, next year, 10 years later, 90 years after that, there will be more acres designated as wilderness, even here in Utah, maybe even in spite of ourselves! But will there be more wildness? Will there be more places and critters subject to their own lives and not objects or ours? The dilemma is obvious and disturbing.

Yet we still flounder with the Forest Service being not only a purveyor of timber harvesting when we all know the value of intact wild forests, but of domestic grazing in wild landscapes, knowing the long term consequences and loss of ecological integrity, and now probably the best cheerleader of off highway vehicles and snowmobiles running rampant in those same wild places. Or with state wildlife agencies incapable of seeing ecosystems through the haze of big game recreational management, non-native fisheries and license revenues. Or a Fish and Wildlife Service with antipathy toward the Endangered Species Act! And nobody willing to work with anybody for fear of being a collaborator, a sell out, co-opted… all the while yammering about democracy...while the same Forest Service, as only one example, busily and, in full view of all, ratchets its public planning processes tighter and tighter, restricting more and more public involvement and acceptability.

We hear daily, why should we continue on? What are we changing? How can we get the Forest Service to listen? We are tempted, often, and do argue that recreation, our kind, is the answer and that it is also good for our economies without realizing that argument sounds just like that of the timber guy, the rancher guy, the motor guy and, in fact, is the same argument putting us at the center and periphery at the same time.

Thus the dilemma.

Vaclav Havel called for “genuine politics… serving the community, and those who will come after us.” Clearly the community must be enlarged, the center expanded, the periphery pushed out. Havel called this genuine politics a “higher responsibility... because everything is being the memory of being.”

The memory of being of great apes, mountain lion, wolf, tiger, wildness...

By Dick Carter

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