High in the Cascades, humanity’s impact

Published 10:23 am Friday, July 13, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

The sun threads its gentle way through sweatshirt and jeans, warming the skin beneath. I’m halfway to sleep, waiting for the supper bell to ring and resting from a hike to a lake high up in the mountains. It’s early in the year, and a cold wind blows down the valley from snow-covered peaks.

A ground squirrel skitters across the patio, circles my chair. I’m aware of its surveillance, but I’m also not fully aware. The sunshine, after all, is wondrously relaxing.

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The squirrel scoots under my chair, and little prickles on my leg tell me it’s climbing up. I just don’t care. Then I feel whiskers on my ear. Opening my eyes, I stare into the black orbs of the squirrel; it’s perched right by my cheek, front paws resting on my shoulder.

We look at each other, my eyes widening, focusing. It tilts its head, as if to ask: What are you? It chirps. I move my arm. It scampers down and away.

At Holden Village, high up in the Cascade Mountains, humans share a valley with squirrels, mule deer, marmots and even bears. Disturbed by human noise and activity from their routines of gathering food and caring for their young, their eyes, their postures often ask the same question: What are you doing here?

This is an appropriate question.

What are we to each other, the wild creatures of nature and humanity? As we leave our footprints across the landscape, are we humans part of the natural world? Above it? Beneath it?

In a place like Holden Village, a ferry trip and a bus ride away from the Internet, mobile phones and the other technological trappings of civilization, the impact of nature on people is clear. But what about our influence on nature? It is so big, and, individually, we are so small.

Yet even here in this wild valley, humans influence the lives of wild creatures. Holden Village originally served the miners who dug copper out of the heart of a mountain. There are still remnants of the vegetable and flower gardens planted by miners and their families. More dangerously, the tailings and open shafts left behind when the mine closed spread contamination, damaging insect and aquatic life in the creek that runs through the valley floor. Metals that shouldn’t be there — aluminum, cesium, copper — are in that creek. Cesium is especially deadly, to both insects and fish, even in minute quantities.

There are other, more subtle traces of humanity in water flowing through this place, flowing through any place on our planet, whether it’s Copper Creek at Holden or the Shell Rock River in Freeborn County. All of that H2O, so necessary for life, is more radioactive now that it was back in 1940, before humans started testing nuclear weapons on the islands of the Pacific.

As I pass through this valley, or even “use the facilities” while hiking out on the trail, how much residue from the medications I take each day gets left behind? As my sweat drips on the path or mixes with the water of the high mountain lake I paddle my feet in, what gets left behind?

Humans cannot move through the world without leaving traces. Even things that look tiny or insignificant to us — like the quantity of cesium in a mountain stream — change the world. Our footprints have changed this planet, and continue to do so; it’s why some scientists call this the Anthropocene Era — the age of humanity. We need to pay attention to our relationship with the natural world, and consider the consequences of the choices we make.

Another squirrel story: I’m walking between two buildings at the old mining village. A paper bag catches my attention because it’s moving. When I reach down and grab it, I see a squirrel, its paws pulling on the bag, nibbling on the remains of a sandwich.

When I grasp the bag, the squirrel looks up at me but does not lose its hold on the bag. I tug, gently, because I don’t know for sure what the squirrel plans on doing. It tugs back, furiously chirps at me. Again I pull at the bag, more forcefully. It looks at me, a long, penetrating look. Again I have the feeling a question is being asked: What are you doing here? Then the squirrel is gone.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.