Imagine, if you can, the mountain goats of the Pacific Northwest. They look like messed-up dogs or disappointing unicorns; they eat lichen in the wild and alfalfa in captivity. It doesn’t help that they’re called goats.
The threat of an aggressive mountain goat is undermined by thinking you know what a mountain goat is. You probably don’t know that they win fights with wolves, or that they’re so feisty that no one has ever domesticated them for their fur.
The signs heralding the aggressive mountain goats were undoubtedly written out by sincere Earthy folks lacking self-awareness of what the signs looked like. And when a hiker sat down for a picnic with his wife and an aggressive goat finally showed up as announced, I doubt they could have imagined the result.
The hikers left, but the goat followed. The male hiker sent his wife ahead and the goat gored him. She returned to see the goat standing over her husband, but it wouldn’t move. She spent an hour throwing stones at a mountain goat as her husband bled to death.
Now the family is suing the park for $10 million in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Walden Pond is Made of Concrete
Americans are indoorsy. At least, I am. Or was.
In America I was born bored with nature. Thoreau could only successfully popularize transcendentalism for so long before he and nature became reduced to an industry of tree-based sloganeering. “In wilderness is the preservation of kitsch.”
Even Walden Pond is man-made these days. In an effort to preserve it, it’s been reinforced with concrete at the base. When you’re swimming you can hear traffic noise and see it, too, through a thin line of trees surrounding the pond.
It’s a spectacular disconnect between the point and the practice, a sanitized and probably chlorinated version of the roughness that Thoreau immortalized.
American conversation about nature seems to have swapped transcendentalism for asceticism. We go outside because we shouldn’t be so dependent on technology and should spend some time away. “Seeing the great outdoors” has been replaced by the hipper “going to unplug for a while” as the throwaway line for campers whose goal isn’t to embrace the tangled wilderness, but to untangle themselves from their cable boxes and surround sound systems.
Certainly, what happens in the meadow at dusk; catching some lightning bugs or jumping from a rope swing into a pond rank among the purest joys you can have in the few split seconds you’ve got to live.
But even this is secondary. If you ask me, the most important thing about going out into the wild is that you might get attacked by a goat.
Nature Wants to Kill You
Our bodies are instinctively good at two things: Sex and survival. People know what to do when they get together without their clothes on. It’s holistic. Every part of your brain and body has a part in it.
Sensuality writes its own instruction manual. Your brain is processing everything it can in a frenzy of stimulation, taking responses from the outside and acting on impulses from the inside. If you can’t open yourself up to the environment and make these signals work together, you won’t be great at either.
Climbing a steep hill with loose rocks is sexy. If you believe in evolution, as I do, then you know how long it took to design your body. Rocks carved out your ankles and calves. The sky let in a million years of light to make your eyes. You were designed to be alert and awake here, even when the ground is slippery and you are being stalked by a bobcat.
Especially when the ground is slippery and you are being stalked by a bobcat. Because the important thing about nature – the thing that humbles us – is that it can win.
Your legs are the final draft of the longest research and development phase in history, but at the end of the day – and at the end of the millennium – you’re still just a prototype.
The Stillness of Trees, the Gnashing of Teeth
Shinto is all about nature worship – shrines are a kind of miniature nature preserve. A full 78 percent of the country is uninhabitable, consisting of tree-coated mountains and volcanoes.
I know my relationship with nature has changed. I can peg it to a specific moment, where I wandered around my apartment for the first time and stumbled upon a shrine hidden in what I thought was a forest. I started spotting the red gates in mountains and forests; the bamboo rope tied to trees designated as beautiful or old. The reverence for nature, and the constant designation of beauty outside, helped me start to appreciate things like the sounds of cicadas (in moderation) and the sound of wind through towering bamboo trees.
Japan is surrounded by something beautiful that can kill everyone. That will cultivate a particular air of awe and humility toward nature, and in turn, toward life and other people.
Japanese culture starts to show that. A 2009 study found that the more time we spend outdoors, the more Japanese we become: It found that “We become less self-focused and more other-focused,” and that after spending time in nature, “Our value priorities shift from personal gain to a broader focus on community and connection with others.” The opposite was also found to be true: More time indoors makes you more individualistic.
I don’t know if Japan is spending more time in outdoor activities than Americans, but I know the cities cultivate a greener perspective – from small shrines to the constant imposition of far-off mountains where skyscrapers would usually be back home.
On Suing A Goat
Even as an American, suing the park system for an act of nature strikes me as a little crazy, like arresting trees or declaring a corporation a person. The American legal system doesn’t seem capable of envisioning spaces where the law can’t intervene.
Somebody will be accountable for the actions of that wild goat. It won’t matter that the goat is an animal and not a negligent employee of the National Park Service. Someone has to pay, and the goat’s broke.
But the hubris of the legal system trying to regulate acts of nature is ludicrous from my perspective over here, where it doesn’t seem anyone can be sued over earthquakes, volcanoes or deadly monkey attacks.
Nature doesn’t have an appeals process. You can’t question the fairness, or argue with them. They’re the Rules. You don’t have to think about them because there’s no point. Nature either kills you, or you survive it. You can’t use legislation to stop a landslide.
“In a true wilderness, if a person is not qualified to satisfy all the requirements of existence, then he is bound to perish. As long as we prize individuality and competence it is imperative to provide the opportunity for complete self-sufficiency. This is inconceivable under the effete superstructure of urbanity; it demands the harsh environment of untrammeled expanses.” – Bob Marshall, “The Problem of the Wilderness,” 1930