Musings on Habitat

Trip Start Jun 25, 2008
Trip End Aug 02, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Montana
Monday, July 21, 2008

As I begin this entry (which was supposed to be a different one until serendipity intervened), sitting in an open park a block from our rented house, two beautiful mule deer bucks wander past, maybe 30 yards away and framed by the highway just 30 more beyond. . . . they begin to browse. In an example of how my thinking on vegetarianism and living locally has changed over the years, my first thought is whether, had I a rifle, I could get a clean shot on one. Harsh, but if I want to be a venison-eater, that's reality. Anyway, I have no gun and wouldn't shoot toward the highway in a public park if I did - so I am content to watch their fuzzy antlers and soft eyes as they graze and groom one another. Who knew bucks got along so well? I always thought they were pretty solitary, or used those antlers to intimidate each other. I guess Missoula has plenty of habitat for them, and its humans too.

I've moved on from Daniel Quinn's thought-provoking but glibly general Beyond Civilization to reading Jared Diamond's Collapse, which blows some of Quinn's ideas out of the water by giving reams of research on what really happened to the earlier civilizations that Quinn claims its people "just walked away from, because they realized the tribal life worked better." (I am paraphrasing, by the way, since I've already returned that book to the library.) Well, no, Daniel. Actually the evidence is that everything was going gangbusters until the society reached a peak of power and opulence, then crashed suddenly, with evidence of mass disease, starvation, warfare and even cannabalism. The people didn't just melt back into the forest. They endured horrible deaths and near-deaths. The few left no doubt did flee for the wilderness (if they remembered any skills for living there) or some other society with enough extra resources that they could be kind and take them in.

Lest you think I am making some pronouncement about the future of our own civilization - well, I can say that I've suspected such an end for awhile now. On the other hand, I don't want it any more than you do. I hear that later in the book Diamond profiles cultures that were able to survive and eventually thrive in marginal ecological conditions (often human-inflicted, at least in part). I'm looking forward to learning from that part.

The peacefulness of the two beautiful bucks across the park, though - and the peaceful attitudes of so many of Missoula's residents - is almost assuredly a function of the abundant natural resources around here. We like to think that humans can be kinder and gentler if we just inspire them, or mediate, or something. But the fact is that every animal social group, from birds to chimps to deer to us, is capable of a wide range of behaviors ranging from openly hostile to deeply nurturing. I haven't seen any research on this, but I'd bet a bunch that there's a strong correlation between which behaviors are common and the amount of resources available to the group. As food or something else critical gets scarce, competition kicks in, and with it a whole range of encounters that we kind, gentle folks would interpret as not-too-desirable. But we too are creatures of biology. The more of us there are in one place, and the more fragile the place's resources (or at least, the more fragile they appear to us - we are not, as Diamond points out, necessarily good judges of this), the tougher life gets.

Here in Missoula, even the poorest get most of their needs met most of the time, and they are not violent, except occasionally with one another on the courthouse lawn where they bed down. (I'm told many vagrants come to Missoula on purpose, enjoying the summers here.) Maybe this, more than anything else, is what makes life good here - though as Diamond points out in his first chapter (focused on the valley just south of here, the Bitterroot, and its often-hidden environmental and economic woes), things may be more fragile than they seem.

And me? Well, right now I'm feeling about as peaceful as those two deer. There's no question that coming to a place we love, with abundant (apparently at least) resources and abundant fun, has made life less stressful for our family. Joe and I spend a lot less time scurrying around or getting short-tempered than we do at home, where there are deadlines and schedules and even in summer a million house projects we could put our attention to whenever the kids give us a moment. Here we can lounge around all morning if we want, or visit some attraction; make a sandwich for lunch, or grab something delicious downtown - we are, to any outside observer, free.

On the other hand, traveling - even staying in one place for awhile, as we are - is expensive in many ways. We visited friends in Billings over the weekend (more on that coming), and the kids were, as they say, happy as pigs in you-know-what to have so many toys to play with there. In this house they get bored, scream, make unreasonable demands. Plus, if we are simply tallying Calories or their modern stand-in, dollars, we're coming out way behind. Never mind even the BTUs we spent to get here and back - how about the money? And now that we're here, we're still spending lots more than we would at home. We're missing our community supported agriculture share ($640 for a whole summer and fall's worth of veggies) and have managed to rack up over $1000 in grocery bills. Dining out, which we are more inspired to do than at home, has added another $300. We're still paying bills back home, plus paying twice as much in rent than our housesitters turn over to us. (I know, we're very lucky they pay anything!) Renting a car for a few days tops $300, plus gas, The list goes on. It hurts less since my teacher's salary is in 26 increments - every 2 weeks, a paycheck pops itself into our checking account without me having lifted a finger. But just imagine the number of hours of work Joe and I had to put in to pay for this trip.

Hard as it is to admit, the ecological and economical thing is to stay in our own habitat - and leave this park to its resident deer.
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